All posts by Air, Land and Sea

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 reservation.  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 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 out 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
in the shop area where we were treated to truffle products

Papal Palace or Pont du Gard – which one to choose?

We had one of our first dilemmas on this trip when we arrived in Avignon as to which excursion we should choose?  We had our choice of The Papal Palace or Pont du Gard – both of which have the designation of World Heritage sites.

Avignon was once an important center of the Catholic Church .  It was so important that the papacy relocated here to Avignon during the 14th century.  Six papal concaves were held here and led to the election of Pope Benedict XII, Clement VI, Innocent VI, Urban V, Gregory XI, and Antipope Benedict XIII.  I am not Catholic and did not know that there was another location other than the Vatican that was home to several popes.  So much history that I could learn but my other choice was…..

Pont du Gard is an aqueduct that’s considered a  masterpiece of Roman engineering.  Having worked in the school system where I lives, we studied the ancient civilizations and of course, Roman was considered one of the foremost ancient civilization.  We taught about the aqueducts but I had never seen one.  What finally helped me decide to choose Pont du Gard was that a friend of mine is a teacher and her students were learning about different structures.  She had asked if I could send back some post cards for her students to see, ask questions about and learn about different structures.

Obviously with that request I knew our decision was made – this is what we visited:

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Come With Us to South America – Really!

We are already planning our next big trip.  We decided to take 2017 off from a big trip and are focusing on 2018 – February 14th to be specific.

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After a false start with Holland America, we have booked a cruise on the Emerald Princess, one of the ships with Princess Cruise Line.  We sail from Valparaiso (outside of Santiago) Chile to Buenos Aires, Argentina.  This cruise will sail for 2 weeks exploring the southern half of South America – a land that I have not been to and am anxious to see.  The Chilean fjords are more numerous than in all of Scandinavia, a visit to the bottom of the world when we stop in Ushuaia, another stop in the Falkland Island.  We will also stop in Montevideo, Uruguay, Puerto Montt, Puerto Arenas, Amalia Glacier, Puerto Madryn, and around Cape Horn.  The scenery will be nothing short of spectacular with mountains, glaciers, wildlife include the Emperor penguins.

Glaciers galore
Glaciers galore

What I do when we cruise is find local tour guides to take us around while we are in port.  I do this for several reasons.  First, I like smaller tours and just hate being on a 44 passenger bus always having to wait for someone who thinks that the time to be back at the bus doesn’t apply to them and I like to customize as much as possible our tour.  Finally, the price is general either the same for a smaller, more intimate experience or it is less .  Less is always good.

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The beautiful glaciers

Of course, the price depends on which stateroom category you choose and its location.  Yo would need to talk to our group travel agent, Michelle, to get the price.

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You may be asking yourself why am I bringing this up now.  It’s because Princess is having a special promotion where you get your gratuities free!  That’s right and that is a big savings.  Also depending which stateroom you choose, you may also receive a discount.  This promotion ends on November 16th.  If you are interested in being part of my group, getting special pricing and benefits, I suggest you contact our travel agent at michelle@mccabeworld.com or call her directly at 703-762-5049screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-3-35-44-pm

Touring Arles, Roman Ruins and Van Gogh’s Asylum

Arles, once a metropolis of Roman Gaul, developed into a symbol of Christianity through the colosseum, amphitheater and the Roman baths that were built there. Bull fighting is held twice a year in the same arena (colosseum) that was the scene of Roman games in the first century.  We all know that Van Gogh loved Arles and many of his famous paintings show his love of the area but did you know that Picasso also spent a lot of time in the area?  He spent a good part of his life in a political exile in France.  He was a Spaniard through and through and, loved bullfighting. The last 12 years of his life were spent in the village near Arles. He would travel with his friends to see the bullfights at this arena.  Many of his later paintings and drawings were inspired by what he saw in Arles.  These Romanesque monuments have a UNESCO World Heritage designation.  It is our goal when we travel to seek out these sites. p1060291

After we visited the quarry featuring the works of Marc Chagall we rode the bus again to some of the Roman ruins and Triumphal Arch near the asylum where Van Gogh lived for a year.   I’m still so amazed at these structures and how they were built by hand – no machinery, cranes or other modern day machines that helped build these still standing structures.  Our guide told us that the Romans loved arches and would construct them to commemorate victories.  This was also the case in St. Remy where these ruins were.

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We walked across the street to the asylum where Van Gogh lived for about a year. During the time that he was self committed he painted various scenes all around the grounds of the asylum including the “Irises”, “Starry Nights”, “The Wheat Field”, “Sunflowers in a Vase”, scenes around St. Paul’s Asylum and so many more.  What was interesting to me if that they had reproductions of Van Gogh’s paintings propped on easels at the spot where he painted the landscapes so you can see what he saw when he painted the pictures.  Remember how I spoke of the mistral winds in the Rhone Valley?  If you look at Van Gogh’s paintings you’ll see swirling brush strokes which, I was told, represent the mistral winds.  When I think of Van Gogh, I generally think of these paintings which are representative of the Provence area.  During his one year in at the asylum, he painted 151 paintings.p1040891

p1060267p1040887p1040896Hope you enjoy these pictures of Arles, the ruins and viewing the locations where Van Gogh painted some of his most famous works.

Packing for a Month’s Trip to Europe in a Carry-On

For our travels before and after our river cruise on the Rhone on AMAWaterways, we were planning on using public transportation, mainly trains as well as subways and buses.  What we found on our train trips last year through northern Italy was that the luggage racks are above your seats and Blogger Hubby was always lifting our fully packed 26″ suitcases up to the racks.  He is in his early 70’s and quite fit but I still worried about all that lighting as well as all the stairs we had to climb up and down in some of these smaller train stations.  I vowed to pack lighter.

I was determined to fit everything into a wheeled carry-on piece of luggage.  I wanted to be responsible for my own luggage.  I didn’t want to have to ask for help from strangers and I didn’t want to take only what I could handle. I need to be able to lift it onto a train up the step or two as well as if we went up to the upper deck on the train.   If I couldn’t handle it, then I was taking too much.  My friends were somewhat aghast that I would be gone for almost a month but you know what….I did it and felt so great.

I brought with me 2 pairs of printed capri pants, one pair of nylon travel capris, a pair of shorts and three pairs of long pants and a dress.  I stayed with colors that were blue, white and black.  All the tops could be worn with at least three pairs of pants.  One of the tops I brought was a tank top that I could wear by itself if it was really hot and conversely I could layer it under long sleeve tops if it were chilly.   I brought a white sweater, a long sleeve heavier white top that would be layered, a knit outer layer quarter zipped pullover, a thin nylon raincoat/windbreaker, 3 pairs of shoes, underwear/night clothes, curling iron and a bag of meds.  My packing cubes from e-bags helped keep me organized and it made it easier to pack, unpack and repack throughout our journey.  In addition to my carry-on, I also had a LL Bean medium size tote bag that I could loops over the handles of the suitcase and I wore a backpack.

img_1368 img_1369I brought my knitting with me, my iPad that held the books I was reading and as a way to get in touch with family through the free wifi on our river cruise ship and the wifi that came with the hotels that we stayed with.  With my iPhone, iPad, Blogger Hubby’s Kindle and my camera all needing charging I found it an inconvenience last year plugging items in and then unplugging them to charge other items.  I bought for myself on Amazon an Anker 60W/12A 6-Port USB Charger PowerPort so I could charge everything at the same time  Here is a picture of it:

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I did bring a small purse with me so I would have it when we would go out to dinner rather than bringing my backpack.

With a limited amount of clothing, it was never an issue of what I was going to wear.  We did make use of the laundry on the AMADagio before we left to make sure we were leaving with clean clothing.  We brought a small bottle of Woolite with us to wash out some things in our bathroom sinks but found we ran out and bought some inexpensive liquid laundry detergent to supplement.

I’ve mentioned how I brought a 22″ carry-on and you are probably wondering what Blogger Hubby brought.  He actually brought the next size up though all of his things did fit in a carry-on.  He brought the next size along so we would have room for anything we might purchase along the way.

Coordinating colors certainly helped make the packing easier, not caring if you wore the same top twice within a few days, be willing to rinse out some of your items in the sink, and not always having your shoes match your outfit gave us the freedom to move around easier as well as for me, being responsible for what I bring.  It truly felt liberating.  Try it sometime

The AMA Dagio

I got a little ahead of myself when I spoke about our tour to the Artist Experience.  I neglected to tell you about our ship, the Ama Dagio.

We had been on the newer AMA Primo the year before and for the cruise up the Rhone, we were to be on their oldest ship.  I had been told that it was in great shape, which it was, but on first glance, it left me a little wanting.  Before on the Prima, our bedroom had a small little round table with chairs by the French balcony.  Our stateroom on the Dagio did not have that or a mini refrigerator.  We had bought cheese anticipating a refrigerator.  Also, on the Sun Deck (the top deck) there was a hot tub,not the small pool that we had on the Prima.  There was also less furniture and groupings than on the Primo where there were many rattan sofas and chairs as well as loungers and chairs with canopies and screens to shade you.  The only seatings under the umbrellas on the Dagio were loungers.  We had to move some chairs so we could sit and have shade while we were playing cards.  A reoccurring problem for us on the Dagio was the very loud dining room.  On our first night we could barely hear our table mates.  The Prima had a divider down the middle with booth seating.  I think that might have absorbed some of the noise.  We found out the next night that if we sat in a rear corner near the doors where the food comes out, that the noise was much more tolerable.  That’s where we sat for most of our meals.img_1366

What made up for some of these minor problems was the crew.  I have never had a better cruise director than Rachel Couto Gomes.  Not only did we learn French in an amusing way, we learned a little French etiquette.  We all left her daily briefings with a huge smile on our faces.  She was really a part of “us” – she participated in the dancing one night, came along to some of the tours, helped with problems that were not cruise related as well as helping with cruise related questions.  I would follow her on any AMA cruise and to be honest, before I booked another cruise, I would email her to see what her schedule would be.  Every single crew member went out of their way to be helpful to all of us.

On one of our first cruise days I learned why our staterooms were as small as they were – the locks!  I could open our French balcony and touch the lock wall.  There were no ships on the Rhone that had regular balconies because of these narrow locks.  Also, for many of the times that we were cruising during the we were not allowed on the top deck due to the low bridges that we would be sailing under.  In fact, while we were on our cruise a Viking cruise line ship’s bridge was not lowered (and no one knows why yet) and it was flatten and torn off the ship with the occupants inside killed.  That made our captain’s decision to close off the Sun Deck even more meaningful to us.

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p1060418Something new on the Dagio from the previous year was when we boarded the ship, our photograph was taken, like an ocean cruiser.  Whenever we left the ship, we had our room key card scanned so they could be sure it was us getting off and us getting on.  They were increasing the security because of events that had been happening in Europe this past year.

We found the food to be delicious and there was always something that we wanted to eat.  What we especially liked was that their food was lighter than our American food.  The Fettucine Alfredo’s sauce was delicious and light – unlike the heavier versions that I have tasted.  The same with their salad dressings.  I asked the Maitre ‘d for the recipes and he complied.  I look forward to making some of these recipes.

We did have dinner one night at the Chef’s Table on 3rd deck aft.  It was a beautiful view as we sailed down the Saone on our way back from a winery to Lyon.  It was a fixed menu and it was received mixed reviews from those on the ship.  It was more like a tapas meal, small offerings and there are a few choices you can make.  The service was outstanding as they only have a few tables and stagger their reservations.  I’m not a seafood fan and felt that there was a lot of seafood.  On the other hand, Blogger Hubby loves seafood and pates and he was in seventh heaven and thoroughly enjoyed it.  I’m not sure that I would do the Chef’s Table again though some people did enjoy it. The experience was worthwhile to me. My only suggestion is to look at the menu before you book

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I did book myself a massage on the ship and although the massage was fine the room and location where it was done was not good.  The hairdresser and the masseuse share a room, a tiny room at the back of the ship.  There was no room to change into or out of clothes and barely with the chair for the hairdresser, the room was tight to open up the folding massage table.  Throughout most of the 60 minute massage I listened to the boat rattling and the sounds of a ship that was moving.  I asked if this was unusual and she replied that it wasn’t.  It did distract from the relaxing environment that I had envisioned for my hour long massage. Before I book again, I’ll take a look at the room where is done.

Our first night on the ship, we had a very special treat.  If you read my previous blogs, you will recall that this weekend was the Festival of the Harvest of the Rice.  This area of France, the Rhone Valley, is known for the mistral winds.  They are a strong, cold, northwesterly wind that blows from southern France into the Gulf of Lion (a gulf of the northern Mediterranean but can reach about 115 mph.  It is most common in the winter and spring, and strongest in the transition between the two seasons.  The Rhone Valley is particularly susceptible to these winds and in fact the winds get faster as they go through the valley on the way to the coast.  Seems like the mistral winds went through this area on Bastille Day in July and they were not able to have the fireworks for their national holiday.p1060196They “saved” the fireworks and chose to combine them with the fireworks for the Harvest of the Rice festival.  As it got dark, we all headed up to the Sun Deck (or maybe Star Deck) to grab a chair and watch the festivities.  We had the BEST seats in the entire area, at least in my opinion.  We were on one side of the river and the fireworks were shot off directly opposite of us.  It was amazing and rank up in my mind with fireworks that I have seen in both Boston and Washington DC on the 4th of July.

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We looked forward to more experiences and memories like these.

Arles, France and Marc Chagall at the Carrieres de Lumieres

We had a choice of two excursions for our morning in Arles.  They were a difficult choice and in fact, I did change my mind.  On the AMA Waterways cruises, our choice was either Les Baux and the Olive Farm or Artist Experience.

I had been advised by William, our tour guide from the day before that we did not want to miss the Artist Experience.  We drove by the site where this excursion was to take place and it was in a limestone quarry. William wouldn’t tell us anything about this, he wanted us to be surprised.p1060257

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SPOILER ALERT – I am going to talk about this excursion and if you do not want to know about it, you need to stop reading NOW.

We really did not know what to expect.  Our bus took us to les Carrières de Lumières – an exhibition of some of the work of Marc Chagall.  We walked into a large cavernous dark area – think of a gigantic , wide open cave.  At first it was a little disconcerting as I wasn’t sure if the floor was level or not.  Once my eyes got adjusted to the dark, I felt more comfortable.  All around us, on all different wall surfaces, ceiling and the floor was works of Marc Chagall in a multimedia show.  Some of it was animated, some not but it all seemed to move seamlessly from one picture to another.  It was an overwhelming sense of color and movement.  We didn’t quite know where to look as many of the “walls” had different scenes than other walls.

We were able to walk around the inside of this quarry viewing different scenes on every surface.  There were, we were told, over 100 video projectors and about 30 audio speakers playing a soundtrack specifically chosen to complement what we were seeing.

interior of the quarry before the images are projected on the surfaces
Interior of the quarry before the images are projected on the surfaces
Can you see Blogger Hubby int he picture? This gives you an idea of how large the images are
Can you see Blogger Hubby int he picture? This gives you an idea of how large the images are
This person seemed to float across the wall
This person seemed to float across the wall
the images projected on the walls and floor. It was like a carpet that we were walking on.
the images projected on the walls and floor. It was like a carpet that we were walking on.

Most of the artist’s best known masterpieces have been digitized and are screened on the quarry’s walls.  This exhibition is called “Midsummer Night’s Dream”  and it is in twelve parts and it includes Vitebsk (Chagall’s home town), Life, Poetry, Collages, The War, Stained Glass, The Opéra Garnier, Daphnis and Chloé, Mosaics, The Circus, Illustrations and The Bible showcasing his creativity and many of his sources of inspiration.  These themes are  displayed here at the Lumieres in all their vibrant colors.  A beautiful backdrop for his paintings.

If you are in this area, about 15 miles north of Arles, please stop in.  You may not see Marc Chagall’s paintings as they choose a different artist or artists each year.  Last year, there were over a half million visitors coming here to see the works of Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Raphael in the Giants of the Renaissance.  I have no idea who the artist or artists will be next year.No matter which artist they choose, it truly is an experience.  If you are on a river cruise, this will be one of your choices for an excursion and I cannot stress enough that you should choose this as your excursion.

Enjoy the rest of our photographs.

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One Day in Provence – One of our Best Tours

As I mentioned before, I turned to Trip Advisor to find a tour guide to take us around Provence rather than renting a car.  We were with another couple and decided that we would hire a guide/driver for just the four of us.

One Day in Provence had great reviews and after several emails I knew that we would be in good hands.  We were going to do this tour on a Friday, the day we were to embark on our AMAWaterways cruise up the Rhone.  I inquired if he could arrange the tour so we would end up in Arles and then drop us off at our ship.  He readily agreed.  To me, that helped offset the price of a private tour since we wouldn’t have to take 2 taxi rides as well as a train ride from Marseille to Arles.  Turned out that this was a great decision since, unknown to us, there was a huge festival that weekend in Arles and we probably wouldn’t have found a taxi.

William, our driver/tour guide, was prompt in picking us up at our hotel in a Mercedes Benz van.  As soon as we got into the van, he pulled out his map to review what we wanted to do and to make sure that we were all on the same page.  He gave us a few options and explained the pros and cons.  We decided to go to some of the smaller villages and around behind the mountains.  We did want to go to a winery since we were in the Rhone Valley with all their wonderful wines.

As we traveled along some of the backroads outside of Marseille on our way to the winery, William began telling us the history of France…how it was first settled by the Celtics, then the Greeks and the the Romans. Marseille is the oldest city in France and was an important port during the Roman Empire. He went on to tell us more about the history of the area which we found fascinating.  There are four islands off the coast of Marseille and on one of the islands, a fortress turned prison, was built. This fortress was the setting for Alexander Dumas’ story The Count of Monte Cristo.

Just before William turned off the road for the winery, he called them up to let them know we were coming.  They were closed since they were in the midst of harvesting the grapes but opened for us.  We were able to sample the same wine twice; once in an oak barrel and again in a stainless steel barrel.  We all enjoyed the oak barrel over the stainless steel.  It was quite and education for us.p1060164 p1060167

William, our tour guide extraordinaire, in front of the winery
William, our tour guide extraordinaire, in front of the winery

On our way to the small village of Lourmarin, we passed by the Pont (bridge) Julien which was built in the 3d century BC.  Until recently cars still used this bridge as a means to go over the Coulon River.  That information just blew my mind seeing something that old and still in relatively great shape way we passed by.  The village is listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France.is surrounded by vineyards, olive trees and almond trees. The day that we were there was an French market that all from around the area go to.  I’m a sucker for the outdoor markets featuring all different types of foods, clothing, crafts and so much more.  One of my favorite foods is cheese, particularly French, pungent cheeses.  We were able to get some to take with us on our cruise and since William had a cooler in the back of the car, we knew we could keep it cool till we arrived on board.  Walking along the alleys and pedestrian ways, I felt so at home even though I could not understand the French language.  I felt like I had come home.p1040857After walking through the narrow passageways and back to our car, we set off for lunch.  William had a suggestion where we should eat and we let him make that decision.  He called ahead to let them know we would be coming.  This meal turned out to be the BEST meal we had in all of France.  Le Carillon, located in the small main square in Goult, turned out to be a Michelin restaurant.  We sat outside and enjoyed the scenery, the entire ambiance of these delicious meal.  We had the fixed price meal which included an appetizer, main course and dessert.  I had the best beef carpaccio that I ever had with shaved parmesan cheese on top with a few capers. We would most likely have never found this restaurant if it hadn’t been for William.  Here we are in a very small French village in the countryside, no traffic at all, sitting outside under an awning eating one of the best meals we have ever had.  This is what travel is all about.

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The rest of the day was traveling through more little, quaint villages.  Another of our favorite was St. Remy which has become quite popular and expensive due to celebrities who live around here.  William asked if we liked chocolate.  What a silly question to ask us, of course we all do.  He took us to a well known chocolatier and even though the shop was quite small, the chocolate had great taste.  They had small squares of chocolate and on each top was a letter of the alphabet.  This letter corresponded with what type of flavoring it had.  One of the flavors was lemon and clove; another was violet.  Many were traditional flavors and others were different combination.  We were able to hand pick the chocolates that we wanted.

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As we were getting closer to Arles, William told us how lucky we were to be here at this time since Arles was celebrating The Festival of the Harvest of the Rice – honest!  The next day there was to be a bull fight in the their colosseum, bulls running through the street like in Pamplona and fireworks in the evening.  We sometimes “luck” into special events like this and were happy to hear that it would be happening again.

William pulled up to the dock, we hopped out, gave him a hug and a huge thank you for all that he did for us, all that he shared and showed us as well as enriching our experience in Provence.  Our vacation continues to get better and better and we are anxious to see what adventures we will have on the river cruise portion of the trip.

More coming up in future posts.

Provence Explorer: Aix-en-Provence and Cassis

NOTE:  I know this is a repeat for many of you but a number of people also told me that they never received it.  Bear with me while I repost this recent article.  New one tomorrow, I promise.  Jane

Before we flew to Marseille, we had decided that we would NOT book a rental car to drive around the area.  Everyone had recommended that to us but we had a bad memory of a previous European trip when we did rent a car.  Driving in cities, finding parking, understanding road signs and getting lost were a few of our problems from before.  With the extra money that we received from United Airlines from our trip last year (7 hour delay because of mechanical problems and EU Rule 261) we had the flexibility to book tour guides to take us around.

On my list to see was Aix-en-Provence and on Blogger Hubby’s was Cassis.  I was able to determine that Thursday was the day that Aix had their market and I, of course, wanted to go to a French outdoor market. I knew that we would not see the famed lavender plants in full bloom as that happens in July but nevertheless, Provence was a place I did want to see, feel, smell and walk through.  Cassis was a seaside city known for its limestone bluffs and best viewed from a boat.  I could not get much information online about Cassis but we had spoken to someone who had been there recently and they recommended it to us.

We found a half day tour through Provence Explorer which would take us to both Aix and Cassis.  I emailed the company and explained that we had a mobility issue with one of our friends that was coming on the tour with us and would that be a problem as she couldn’t walk far and did use a cane.  He had said that it would be no problem.  I reiterated it when I paid online.

We went to the designated meeting spot, outside of the Tourist Information office,  and arrived about 10 minutes early. We waited, and waited and waited.  Finally our driver arrived about 15 minutes late due to traffic. We were also missing 3 others that had booked this tour so we waited again. Our driver had not been told that we had a person with difficult walking. Not her fault but it showed lack of communication with the company and their drivers. Finally we took off without the other three passengers. It was a pleasant drive to Aix. We would ask her questions which she answered.  She did not give us any background on where we were going or any background about France. For a driver that is fine but when someone is a tour guide that is not acceptable. You can tell that she was a summer tour guide and not a professional one by the way she handled the tour as well as telling us she was thinking about going back to school to get a degree is tourism.

She dropped us off at the market and told us where to wait for her while she parked the van. We looked around a little bit but needed to be close meeting spot for her to find us.  Of course, that took longer than usual because there was no quick parking. Not many things were told to us as we walked around other than the famous cookies that Aix is famous for. My friend and I each purchased some lovely scarves for 5€ each.  My friend also purchased some beautiful kitchen linens.  Our guide wanted us to walk to the produce section of the market which was way too far for our friend. The guide really had no idea about how far is “too far” when you are mobility challenged and didn’t explain distances to us.  Instead our friends went back to the meeting spot where we were dropped off.  We quickly went through the produce area, purchased some lavender walked around with her a bit.   The driver went to get the car and we went to the spot to meet our friends and to wait again for her to bring the car around.  And wait we did..and wait…and wait. We knew another person was joining us who was going to do the Cassis/Marseille portion of the day but when she finally showed up the missing three were in the van as well as the other person that was expected. The van was very tight with 8 passengers and one driver; three had to sit in the front.  It was a beautiful day to be outside and Aix is a charming destination spot to be.  I’m hoping this will be a place that we return to in the future.img_1406p1040820

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After we got back on the road we made a “pit” stop and our driver was clear in telling everyone to only take 5 minutes so we could leave. Apparently the 3 that were late for the morning and joined us as we were leaving Aix decided to do some shopping at the convenience store where the bathrooms were. Once again, we were waiting. The driver (who looked like Monica Lewinsky) finally went in to get them. Not her fault but it just added to all of our wait time.

We had a pleasant drive to Cassis, again without much of a commentary about where we were going. When we arrived she dropped us off and told us to get our boat tickets and then have lunch. We immediately went to the ticket booth and was told we could not purchase tickets yet since the boat trip before our desired time hadn’t left. We went to have a quick lunch and then we purchased our tickets. When our friends tried a few minutes later, the ship was sold out. Little did we know, or apparently did our driver,  that there are only 12 tickets on the 45 minute boat tour. We wished she would have advised us better so the four of us could have gone on this boat trip together particularly since our friends sat and waited in Aix.p1060068p1060134p1060113

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I would not recommend this tour company because of the lack of a knowledgable  “summer hire” tour guide, and the lack of communication about our friend’s mobility issue and the fact that they didn’t really do anything, other than park the car, to help us. There wasn’t even a bottle of water for us as most tour guides have.  There was no consideration of our time as we were at the appointed meeting spot and had to wait (I understand giving a 10 minute window but we were closer to 25 minutes) and as we waited to be picked up at Aix. I learned from this to spend the extra money and get a professional tour guide wth a private tour and not shared.  Granted this may have been an off day with this tour company but are you willing to risk it?

I would like to go back to Aix and Cassis.  In Aix,  I would take a better tour and see more than just the market.  In Cassis, rather than the 45 minute boat ride, I would take the longer one along the coast.

In spite of all this, the day was enjoyable, we were outside and were in a lovely part of the country.

Our First Full Day in Marseille

Our long awaited vacation has begun!  We woke up in lovely Marseille. the start of an almost month long trip to France and Belgium done mainly on points and miles.  We did pay for our AMAWaterways cruise but since I got the group together, we did save money with the group rates and a discount for being a past cruiser.

We woke up and glanced out our motel room to see the sun shining over the Mediterranean Sea with parts of the medieval wall in full view.  This structure was probably about 600 or more years old.  As our eyes wandered, we looked to the harbor and how beautiful it was with the sailboats and their masts.  We felt so luckily that we had the Club Carlson points to be able to stay here (Club Carlson brand includes Radisson, Park Inn and Country Inn and Suites).

Breakfast was not included and I did not want to pay 20€ per person for breakfast at the hotel.  Blogger Hubby did what he usually does when we are traveling in cities.  He finds a local bakery for our pastries and small super-ette for our yogurt.  Yummy chocolate croissants were in the bag that he brought back to the hotel.

Blogger Hubby and the husband of the other couple with us chose to do a tour of Marseille on E-bikes.  Have you heard of electric bikes.  They are not like a motor scooter but instead give you a little  kick when you are starting. Here’s his account:

We met in front of the National Theater on the Old Harbor in Marseille; almost next door to our hotel. Our guide, Remy was a young man in his late 20’s who is from Marseille. He spoke very good English, and was very friendly. We walked a short distance to their office and storage area in a parking garage on a back street behind the theater. Each rider was individually outfitted with a bike, helmet and water bottle.

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This was my first experience with an electric bike (e-bike). My bike was a regular size bike and wheels. There were some smaller bikes with small wheels and a high seat. I am an experienced recreational biker, and I bicycled before the cruise to make sure I was in shape for bicycling in Europe. I even bought a bright-colored biking shirt with back pockets and padded liners to wear under my shorts. My travel companion and I were the only ones with ‘biking appeal.

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I have experience bicycling in Europe having done so on our Danube River Cruise. Bicycling in Marseille was more difficult than my prior experiences, and it is not good for beginners. Most roads we traveled did not have bike lanes, and we had to travel on some narrow roads with parked cars on one side and moving traffic next to us. There were also steep uphill and downhill sections. Nevertheless, we stayed together, went slowly, took back streets to the extent possible, and crossed at traffic lights on busy streets. Only one person in our group had difficulty, and that was because she was not familiar with shifting between low and higher gears.

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For me this was one of the best tours I had on our trip. Marseille has a beautiful coastline, many scenic points to overview the harbor and the city, and interesting historical sites and buildings. We got to see them up close and personal. Remy was very personable and low-keyed, knew the city, and shared a lot of stories. At a couple of locations, he stayed with the bikes while we walked around to tour a particular site. During the tour we stopped at a small take-out lunch place in an out of the way neighborhood for lunch that we took and eat on the steps of a museum overlooking the harbor. Bicycling around the harbor on the promenade was a great way to end the tour.

The company was “E-Bike Tours Marseille,” and the tour was the “Grand Tour of City and Seaside.” The tour lasted four hours (10am-2pm), covered 23 km, and cost 52 €. Their website is here.  They provide detailed information about the tour and instructions regarding the meeting place on the harbor.

While they were doing that, my friend and I did the HoHo bus tour of Marseille.  We found that to be a better deal than the petite train that also took tourists around Marseille.  To do all of Marseille like we did on the bus, you would have had to do 2 or 3 different trains.  We felt comfortable just sitting in the open air upper deck.  We were given earphones that we would insert along the inside of the side of the bus.  We were able to have the narrative in almost any language we wanted.

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That evening we walked around the city, feeling very safe.  We saw that the city had an Eye but to see it in the evening, it really lit up the sky.

p1060147 There are many restaurants, puns and bars around the harbor and even a few streets back.  Once we did go behind the main boulevard there were many, many streets with all different kinds of restaurants.  We gravitated toward the pre fixed 3 course dinner. As we were close to many vineyards, we were advised to buy wine that had the AOC designation (Appellation d’Origine Controlee) which means the controlled designation of origin under the auspices of the French government.  Those three letter designations helped guide us throughout our journey in France.

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We have fallen in love with Marseille.  Coming up next our tour in Aix-en-Provence and Cassis.

Flights and Preparing for our Trip to Marseille and Provence

Excitement was building in our home as we finalized all of our preparations for our AMA Waterways River cruise up the Rhone River.  As some of you know, I always invite friends to travel with us so we are in essence “a group” and are entitled to group rates.  It was no exception on our AMA Waterways cruise on the Rhone.

Some in my group were doing the pre cruise in Barcelona with AMA while others joined us in Marseille for our own pre cruise.  Ito be honest, I wasn’t overly confident about our stay in Marseille and we were only going there for two reasons.  Since we weren’t doing the pre cruise, this was the closet airport to Arles where we would board our ship and secondly, we were able to use our Club Carlson points to reserve a room at the Radisson Blu on  the Waterfront.  I had booked this hotel before their devaluation of points in May 2015.  I booked 2 nights under my name and in essence paid for only one night with points with the other night being “free”.  We thought that this would be a good opportunity to explore Provence a little with some tours from Marseille.

With that in mind, I began searching through Trip Advisor for tour guides.  Being frugal is always our traveling motto though we do not want to miss a unique opportunity for our frugality – it’ s a fine balancing act that we walk.  As we were going to be in Marseille with another couple we wanted to do things that all of us could enjoy and do.  The husband of the other couple enjoys bike riding as does Blogger Hubby.  I knew that they would enjoy going on an E-bike tour while the wife and I would do the HoHo bus around town.  My friend has some mobility issues so we didn’t want to be walking all around town.  The other two tours we booked were with Provence Xplorer to go to Aix en Provence on market day and spend part of the afternoon in Cassis.  The next day we were booked with One Day in Provence to go into the small villages, a winery, St. Remy and what ever our tour guide suggested.  For the Provence Xplorer, the 4 of us would be doing a shared excursion, joining others and for the One Day in Provence, the 4 of us would be doing a private tour.  More about those later.

We flew Upper Class on Virgin Atlantic into Heathrow and then British Airways to Marseille.  A concern we had was that we would have to pick up our luggage in Heathrow and then check them in to British Airways for the flight to Marseille.  Luckily when we asked the Virgin Atlantic ticket agent at departure if they could Interline them.  He said ” yes” and put a luggage tag on them requesting them to be transferred over to BA.  Nevertheless, I took a photo of our bags just in case they should get lost.  According to him, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic don’t like to play nice with each other but we had no problem.

I was not overly impressed with the Virgin flight although the flight attendants were very nice, friendly and helpful.  The cabin seemed crowded and very little room to move around and, to me, seemed like there wasn’t much storage in our pod.  The food, for airplanes, was fairly decent.  I had a steak and I actually ate most of it.

With the entertainment system along the wall to my left, I had to pull it out and swivel it to be in front of me.  With the food tray fully engaged, if made if very difficult getting in and out of my seat.  I also thought the cabin was warm and was glad I wore a tee shirt under my top.

Would I fly VA again?  Probably not.  It was okay but not the experience I was looking for.  I’m not sure what I am looking for and it may not exist on a transatlantic flight or if it does, perhaps I’m too frugal to spend too many extra points for it.  Nevertheless, it was fine.

The short flight to Marseille was no different than a domestic flight in the U.S.  Once again we were business class but what that means is that you are in a row with 3 seats and they put a tray over the middle seat so you do not have someone sitting next to you   To reserve your seats ahead of time, you need to pay $49 per ticket.  I did not do that.  If you go online 24 hours prior to your flight, you can reserve your seats for free.  When I went on, they had the two of us together and in good seats.  I made no changes.  It was interesting to me that a flight as short as this one we were still able to be served a hot lunch.  Why can foreign airlines do this but American Airlines can not?  As we were closer to Marseille we could see the Rhone River out the window and then closer to landing, we could view the cliffs and the calanque (a narrow, steep-walled inlet that is developed in limestone, dolomite, or other carbonate strata and found along the Mediterranean coast).

approaching Marseille
approaching Marseille

To get to our hotel we could either take a taxi which would cost about 52€ or we could take the city shuttle bus from the curb outside the airport to the central train station for about 8€ each and then either take a cab to the hotel or a bus.  The shuttle was perfect and saved us a lot of money.  We opted for the cab once we got to the train station since it was very hot and we were tired. The taxi which was about 22€ to go to our hotel, the Radisson Blu Waterfront in Marseille.

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As we rounded the bend and got our first view of the waterfront, we were taken back at how beautiful it was.  This was not the grimy port city that I was expecting; instead there were hundreds of sailboats of all sizes around this rectangular shaped harbor. Our hotel faced this harbor.  After we settled in, we went exploring.  Along all 3 sides of the harbor there were restaurants, pubs and shops.  Along the harbor, it was an expanded sidewalk that was well lit with dark sky approved lights.  I felt very safe.  There is even a ferry that crosses the harbor for 1 €.

Ferry across the harbor
Ferry across the harbor

One of Blogger Hubby’s concerns in traveling to France is that neither of us speaks French.  For that matter we don’t speak any other foreign language but his lack of French bothered him.  Our first restaurant we had to pull out the English-French-English dictionary but as time went on, we were able to read about half of the menu.  Most French people that we met spoke a little English but to me they spoke quite a bit.

The hotel, in addition to the beautiful view, was very nice with a restaurant attached that had good reviews on TripAdvisor.  Nevertheless, we didn’t eat any meals there.  For breakfast, we were on our own because when we booked the hotel on points it did not include a breakfast.  As usual, Blogger Hubby offered to go out  early and find a bakery to bring back some delicious just made pastries.  Our room overlooked the secluded pool area,and the harbor.

view from our room at the Radisson Blu Waterfront
view from our room at the Radisson Blu Waterfront

We went to bed a little early so we could catch up on our sleep and be ready to explore Marseille and Provence.

Sunset in Marseille
Sunset in Marseille

Hope you enjoyed our photos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Mexico – Land of Enchantment

“This land is your land, this land is my land.  From California to the New York island.”  That song always goes through my mind when I am traveling across our vast country and see the many differences.  This is our land and we need to spend time exploring and getting to know it. Foreign travel is exciting but traveling within our own country allows me to see the grandeur of our country and many spots that are very eyeopening and educational.  I think that sometimes I have preconceived ideas of what areas should look like or what I will find there. Most times I have been proven wrong. Sort of like judging a book by its’ cover and we all know that we shouldn’t do that.

As we sat by the window traveling through New Mexico it somewhat reinforced in both of our minds what we thought the landscape of New Mexico would be – somewhat flat with mesas, buttes, orange/red soil or clay and small little bushes popping up here and there.

When we arrived in Albuquerque, ending our epic Train Trek, we took a cab to pick up our rental car at at the airport, then we got some lunch (at Twisters – a delicious semi-fast food restaurant) and then began our drive toward Santa Fe for our first of five nights in New Mexico.

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We had been told that there are two ways to drive to Santa Fe and we chose the more scenic route which is known as the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway.  This is off the main highway and takes about an hour to travel between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.  This trail was well known as a site for the rich deposits of turquoise, gold and iron ore.  You can find in this area the rare blue green turquoise names after the town of Cerrillos.  There are a few towns on the Turquoise Trail and they tend to be more artist’s havens.  Stop in some of the cafes along the trail for a bite to eat, go in the gift shops and look at the silver and  turquoise jewelry.  One shop that we stopped in at Madrid had turquoise that the elderly owner mined herself.  How many shop owners can say that?

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P1050675IMG_1074IMG_1075Santa Fe has some wonderful restaurants restaurants and a preacher on our train from Albuquerque advised us to eat at Tomasita’s for authentic New Mexican food that is family run.  Of course we had to obey the preacher.  Fairly easy to find and like all good restaurants, there was a line.  Food was delicious though it was a bit hot for this northern girl – even the green salsa.  They waiters wanted to make sure that I enjoyed this experience and with their help, I did.

Santa Fe has the most charming plaza of all of the cities that we visited.  I had looked forward to the Georgia O’Keefe museum which is only a couple of blocks from the center of the plaza.  I was able to get the last ticket to go on a docent led tour of her work and learned about her background – fascinating.  I think we all know her for her famous red poppy painting (which is only about 7 inches) but did you know she was also an abstract painter?  She painted many landscape scenes though they were of two themes familiar to her – the area around Lake George area where she would spend her summers with her husband and those of Texas and New Mexico with the beautiful colors of the mesas and skies that she grew to love.  Her personal story is very compelling as  well and you learn about her personal life at the museum.  I would highly recommend this museum.

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Walking to the Georgia O’Keefe museum we passed by shops that had animal sculptures along the street.  Blogger Hubby and I loved whimsical and fun sculptures.  What do you think of these?

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P1050840P1050838P1050843P1050839The Palace of the Governors  is within the Santa Fe Historic District along the plaza downtown and it served as the seat of government for the state of New Mexico for many centuries. The Palace of the Governors is the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States. Outside the building on the portico you’ll find native Americans selling their pottery, jewelry, metal work, drums, leather items, drawings, paintings and so much more. My word of advice, if you choose to purchase, which I did, pay in cash and do not bargain – it is an insult to the Native American vendors whose prices are very fair and less than what you would pay in one of the shops along the plaza.  They also have exquisite workmanship on all the wares that they sell.

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We also went to the State House, a few blocks from the plaza area.  This is the only state house that is round.  It also has four wing entrances, designed after their state flag.  The four wings represent the four cultures in New Mexico – Angelo, Spanish, Mexican and Native American.

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Across the street from the State House was a sign telling us about the Santa Fe Trail  and how it was a main thoroughfare .

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We stayed outside the downtown/plaza area at a Holiday Inn using our points.  It was fine – nothing special.  In hindsight, I would have preferred to have stayed along the downtown plaza area.  There is a lot of traffic in this area, parking is tight and it is just a vibrant place to walk around and be.  We would have gone there our first night except for all the traffic.  Learn from my mistake and stay by the plaza.

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Do You Purchase Travel Insurance and if so What Type?

No issue brings us as much angst as the question as to whether we are going to insure a trip.

Buy Travel Insurance Online                     We used to always purchase travel insurance and yet when we did, we were never sure if it was a good policy or not.  You really have no way of knowing till you have file a claim, or someone you know, and how their claim was resolved.  The other part of this equation is,  if their claim was not paid, was it because the claimant didn’t follow the rules.  Perhaps they didn’t notify the insurance company and make a phone call before seeking out medical help first….or save the receipts…go to an authorized physician or facility.  Just  because it was denied doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a good company, it could be as I have alluded, that it was the fault of the insured.  But then again, maybe it just wasn’t a good company.

Let’s go a step back and talk a little bit about travel insurance.  I’m no expert and I don’t hold myself up as one but if you are going to purchase travel insurance make sure you ask questions and compare policies before you purchase.  If you are purchasing through your travel agent, they are not the ones to ask questions of.  They are not insurance agents but merely passing on to you the travel insurance that their agency sells. It may be a good policy but ask questions of that insurance company. Some questions to ask: are  you looking for a cancel for any reason insurance policy? cancel for health or death in your family?  how close must the family member be? do you want your pre-existing medical conditions covered?  do you want medical evacuation?  medical coverage? if you have several trips do you want year long coverage?  Lots of questions to consider and to ask. One thing that I will say about having your pre-existing medical condition covered, you generally need to purchase your travel insurance within 14-21 days of putting down your deposit on your trip.

If you are looking to compare different policies, I recommend you going over to the Insure My Trip website.  You can check off what you want in your policy and then compare them.  If you are more comfortable, give them a telephone call and tell them what you are looking for.  They will be able to guide you.

Another option for you to look at is your credit cards.  Chase Sapphire Preferred has primary rental insurance for your car rental.  In addition to that they also have Trip Interruption/Trip Cancellation coverage of up to $10,000 per trip; Baggage Delay insurance of 5 days at $100 per day.  Make sure you save your receipts to get the reimbursement. Finally, they have Trip Delay coverage.  You need to have purchased your tickets using your Chase Sapphire Preferred card which you should be using since you do get 2 x points on travel.

You should check with your health insurance company to see if you are covered overseas.  I do not believe that Medicare covers you overseas but my military health insurance, Tricare does.  It is called Tricare Overseas and if you do have Tricare and find that you need medical care while overseas, call their telephone number for the region that you are in.  Wondering how I know that?  When we were in Denmark I did have an accident – I fell out of a very tall bathtub while attempting to take a shower because there was no mat and the tub was very slippery.  I cracked my head open on the toilet and was laying on the bathroom floor bleeding profusely from the back of my head.  All I could think about was that we didn’t get health insurance.  Visions of the English actress Natasha Richardson with her head injury from her fall kept going through my head.  Tricare Overseas was called and off to the hospital we went.  But you know what?  Since Denmark has socialized medicine, there was no charge to be seen, for the tests, for the suturing of my head or for the two bags of medicine they sent  back with me to the hotel.

Right then and there it had reaffirmed my decision that if I was traveling in a country with a western culture and socialized medicine, I would forego travel insurance for medical purposes.

The next issue we consider is whether we would cancel due to a death in the family.  My husband’s father is still alive at age 90 and is quite healthy but we know that things can happen.  If something did happen, would we cancel the trip or would we need to return?  We discussed different scenarios and made the decision that works for us.

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Using our points for our airfare and hotel stays, we are able to cancel and get the points, sometimes with a small fee, redeposited to our account.  When estimating the cost of a trip, I have to exclude those arrangements that we are not paying for and that are refundable.

For our cruise to South America that we just booked, we did decide to get travel insurance.  We figure that being at the bottom of South America, medical care may not be readily available if something serious was to happen.  The insurance covers medical evacuation up to $500,000 if I should need to leave the area.  It’s been years since we purchased insurance but at our age and our destination, we feel that we are being prudent in purchasing it.

 

 

River Cruising and Viking Cruise Line – Strictly My Opinion

For those who know me and ask my opinion about which river cruise line to choose when sailing through some of the European rivers, I’m quick to say “avoid Viking”.  I know, many of you have had wonderful experiences on Viking and when things go right, then they have many satisfied passengers.

The problem in my mind is when things do not go right, how does each river cruise line handle it.  After all, high water or low water affects all the cruise lines and they handle these problems differently.

Last year when there was low water on the Danube and a few other rivers, most of the cruise lines let their passengers know ahead of time.  Some of their passengers had “cancel for any reason” travel insurance and they were able to cancel their trips rather than be docked for most of their river cruise and be bussed to their ports.  These passengers said that they paid for a river cruise, not a bus trip.  From my understanding after reading all the different threads on Cruise Critic – River Cruising thread, is that Viking did not alert their passengers to the potential that they would have a bus trip or have to switch ships halfway through their journey.

Another reason, particularly when the rivers are low, that I do not like Viking is that their ships have a lower draft to them and therefore are deeper in the water.  Last summer when their was low water levels in the Danube, Avalon, AMA Waterways, Uniworld and other lines were able to complete the majority of their cruises without interruption but not Viking.

Viking is the largest provider of river cruises in Europe and you will hear more negative reports about them.  It seems that some of the common themes is lack of communication to their passengers alerting them to a problem or the potential of a problem.  Having high water (like currently in Europe) or low water (like last summer) is nothing new and all the cruise lines should have some notion of what to do and have alternate plans in place.  They generally do a good job except for Viking.

Found this article about the high water that is affecting many of the central European rivers.  Which which cruise line is having to make alternative itineraries and which ones are not.

I have cruised both Avalon (Rhine River) and AMA Waterways (Danube and shortly the Rhone) and I feel that they are both excellent cruise lines with very good reputations.

Have you done a river cruise and which cruise line did you sail on?  What was your experience?  Were you sailing during a “normal time” or one when there were problems with the water levels?  I’d love to hear your opinion.

AMTRAK’s South West Chief

We were finally on the last leg of our three part train trek around parts of America.  We enjoyed almost all aspects of the trip so far, perhaps with the exception of one of us having to climb into the upper, narrow bunk bed and the train whistles at night when going pass a crossing.  The South West Chief was originally  operated by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway until AMTRAK took over passenger rail service in 1971.

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Los Angeles, along with Chicago, has a lounge of first class passengers and we took full advantage of it.  When you enter the front of Union Station, walk straight back and near the rear, turn right and then go up the escalator.  There are chairs, a few tables and chips and soft drinks as well as coffee. There is an attendant sitting at the desk to help us with any questions you might have.

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As lounges go, or at least as compared to airline lounges, this wasn’t too much but it was a nice place to hang out and eat the few snacks that they had.  Because of the way that the station and tracks are laid out, when it was time to go to the track to board our train, we were driven there in multi-row golf carts.  If we had chosen to walk, we would have had a long way to go including going under a tunnel to get to the other side of the tracks.

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We weren’t sure if we would get dinner since we weren’t scheduled to leave Los Angeles till 6:15.  As we boarded we found out that we would get dinner and as the attendant came around, we signed up for one of the first sittings at 7:00.  Same menu that we had on both the Empire Builder and Coast Starlight.  Blogger Hubby was quick to let our table mates know how good he thought the seafood cakes were, which he had again!

We went to bed early because one of the stops in Arizona, early in the morning around 5:45 AM was Winslow, Arizona.  It seemed like I was humming the Eagles song” standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona” all night while I was trying to sleep.  Unfortunately, I woke up about 5 minutes after we passed it.  At breakfast we met a couple who had just gotten on the train.  The did the option of going to the Grand Canyon through the Grand Canyon Railroad.  Although they had a good time, they were exhausted because they had to leave their hotel at 3:  AM to be at the train station at 4:00 AM – unfortunately, the train was late and they had to wait about an hour for the South West Chief to come by.  Although they loved the canyon, they wouldn’t recommend going by train other than the convenience of being very close to the rim.

For us, we enjoyed seeing the change in scenery across America.  Here are a few scenes that we passed on our last day on our train trek.

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IMG_1042As I mentioned, our train, unbeknownst to us, was running late but what we found out on every line is that they build time into the schedule so they very rarely arrive late at the station at the end of the line.

Our final stop was Albuquerque.  Our train trek was over but now our New Mexico part was beginning.  It was 11:00 in the morning, the sun was shining and we were excited.  We gathered our bags, left the train and walked out front to get a taxi to the airport to get our rental car.  Problem was – there were no cabs.  I tried calling one cab company but no answer.  I tried Uber but it was surge pricing very high.  Finally got a cab company who would send a cab out to the train station in 10-15 minutes but no guarantee that we would get it.  After half an hour, one came but there was a little disagreement on how got to ride.  The other couple and us came to an agreement that we would share it since we were both going to a car rental at the airport.IMG_1047

We closely examined the car, loaded our bags and headed north to Santa Fe.

Would we do this again – yes!  We’d like to do the California Zephyr route which is San Francisco to Chicago traveling through scenic Colorado and the Rockies.

This entire train trip took 65,000 of my Ultimate Reward points that I had transferred over to AMTRAK (no longer available to do it) and remember, traveling first class included all of our meals.  I used points to stay at the Holiday Inn and Suites in Chicago the night before our train trip, also for the Weston Bayshore in Vancouver, points for our night at the Hilton Doubletree Checkers hotel in Los Angeles.  We paid for our night at the Seattle Grand Hyatt and used a Diamond upgrade for our Emerald Suite.

Up next, Land of Enchantment – exploring Santa Fe, Taos, Albuquerque and its environs.

REMINDER: I’m getting together a group for a cruise around the southern tip of South America.Come join us on March 5, 2018 (that’s right – 2018) on Holland America’s Zaandam, a vessel with about 1450 passengers as we board in Valparaiso, Chile as we cruise among the fjords, through the Strait of Magellan, Beagle Channel, visiting the southernmost town in the world, Montevideo, Paraguay and disembarking in Buenos Aires, he home of fine leather and the tango.  With a group, basically in name only, we received the lowest rates and amenities. .  Leave a comment and I’ll respond privately to you about this cruise or contact my travel agent, Michelle, at michelle@mccabeworld.com and tell her you are in Jane’s group!

Chicago Seminars 2016 – a Must if you are New to this Game of Point/Mile Collecting

I cannot say enough GREAT things about this seminar – which I have absolutely no affiliation with other than being a very happy attendee.  This will be my 5th year in attending and each year I come away with more confidence to broaden what I do.  The seminar was begun by Rick Ingersol of Frugal Travel Guy and taken over by Howie Rappaport.  If you have a chance, go on over to Howie’s blog.

First of all, this seminar is, in my opinion, very, very affordable.  The entire weekend of seminars beginning Friday late afternoon to late afternoon on Sunday and including your lunch on both Saturday and Sunday is $105.00.  The event is at the Elk Grove Holiday Inn, a short shuttle stop from O’Hare Airport.  If at all possible, try to stay at the host hotel but if not, book a room at one of the overflow hotels where shuttles will run you back and forth to the event.  If you are in an overflow hotel, keep checking back at the host hotel because there are ALWAYS last minute cancellations, even the day the seminar begins.  I would go to the host hotel first and see if there were any openings before checking into the host hotel.

Most times there are two concurrent seminar topics running in adjacent rooms.  Tough decision which to choice or better yet bring a friend, spouse or find a friend and offer to share notes..  Bring a sweater too – some rooms are very cold, others just right or hot.  You just never know.

Bring your laptop (I do), a notebook for jotting down information, your iPhone to take pictures of the screens to help you remember.  The main thing that you should bring with you is a willingness to meet people, include others in your conversations, share and to ask questions.  So much of what I have learned has been in the lobby between classes, or over a beer in the connected restaurant or over a meal with a newfound friend.

You may ask why am I attending for a 5th time.  Well, as most of you know, I am a YOUNG senior and although I have plenty of free time (ahh, retirement is grand) I do sometimes take a little longer to “get it”.  My first time attending I felt overwhelmed and that everyone was speaking a language that I didn’t get and I felt too embarrassed to ask any questions.  I hid out in my room some of the time though I did have a great excuse of my broken foot in a cast and needed to elevate it.  The second time I had taken a couple of trips, knew the words but still a little unsure of the strategies.  I spoke more, sat with strangers and involved myself in the conversations.  I knew what to expect the second time and even spent an extra night (Sunday) so I wouldn’t miss Sunday afternoon and wasn’t as rushed.  The third time was really the charm for me.  I met a great group from Boston and a really nice woman from Texas.  She and I have stayed in contact passing on deals to each other.  We joined a large group for dinner and had so much fun.  Last year, I felt like one of the more veteran attendees and it was answering questions from newbies, encouraged those who stayed outside of circles to join us.

No matter what your level or expertise in this hobby is, I know that you will take home a new trick as well as new friend.

Here is the link to the registration form   Please consider attending, you will not regret it, I promise

 

 

 

 

 

Why I LOVE going to the grocery store – not what you think!

As most of you know by now, the majority of our travel is from earning and burning points and miles from our various credit cards. We don’t earn too many of them from travel but rather from strategically using our credit cards as well as credit card sign ups.

As I have mentioned in the past, one of my favorite combination of credit cards is the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card with the Chase Freedom card. The Freedom card by itself is a money back card but if you have the Chase Sapphire Preferred card or one of the Chase Inks (business cards) then the Freedom card will earn the Ultimate Reward points that can be transferred to airlines and hotels and formerly AMTRAK.Freedom

What is unique about the Freedom card is that they have different category spending per quarter. The second quarter of this year is 5 times points at grocery stores and big box stores like Sam’s Club, BJ’s Warehouse, Costco, etc.

I need to have a few windows replaced and had Lowe’s come over and give me an estimate for the window replacements – over $2,000.00. Hmm, my local grocery stores sells Lowe’s gift cards and if I purchase them this quarter, I’ll get 7,500 ultimate reward points rather than just the 2,000 points from paying Lowe’s directly.  Note:  you are limited to spending $1500 per quarter to get the bonus points.  Do I hear a Cha Ching!

That got me thinking.  What else do I ordinarily spend money on that I could purchase a gift card for during this quarter? I always need gas so a few BP gas cards went in my basket as well as a few restaurants gift cards and movie theatre gift cards and of course, those lovely and ever so versatile VISA $500 gift cards. Luckily, Blogger Hubby also has a Freedom that that we can use for all these extra points.

This should be a banner month for me with it all ending on June 30th. I hope you have the Freedom and and have taken advantage of this quarter’s bonus categories. If you don’t have it and are interested in one, please leave me a message in the comment section.

UPDATE:  Mommy Points has just written that Chase Freedom will continue to pay 5 x points when used at wholesale club stores through the end of the year.  You can read her post here.

Who Wants to Cruise With Us to South America?

Yes, I admit it…..I’m a planner.  I like to have a goal, or trip in mind so I can have fun researching, planning and of course saving for it.  Blogger Hubby and I have looked at our bucket list again, re-prioritized it and found what we want to be our next trip.  Since we are taking off next year from big travel (putting money into our house) I had to begin looking at 2018.  I know, I know – that’s a L O N G time off but because it is a long time off, I was able to get a really great deal.  The best deals for trips are really far out or last minute.travel world

 

One cruise that we have wanted to do for about 5 years now is the cruise around South America and Antarctica.  Having Antartica as part of the trip  added on about a week and several thousand dollars more to the. Regretfully, I let go of that dream.

My next decision was when to go. Obviously, their summer was the best time or was it?  Summer is considered the rainy season, not like monsoons but more like here where the heat of the summer will cause afternoon thunderstorms.  I’ve also become sensitive to the heat and that needs to be taken into consideration.  Last year’s trip to Europe, where it was in the high 80’s and low 90’s almost every day was a major drain on my energy as well as how much time we spent out of doors and waiting in long lines.  I read that the early fall is a wonderful time to visit – think of New England in the fall.  From what I read, drier air will move up from Antarctica and will give us those azure blue skies that we see in the spring and fall.

map south america

I have been on Celebrity, Princess, Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Holland America as well as two river cruise lines.  I fee like I have a taste of their personalities and know what to expect from the ships.  I chose Holland America (HAL) because of what it offers me.  I really enjoy their Culinary Arts Kitchen where they will give you small group cooking lessons, large group demonstrations, the rocking and rolling Piano Bar, easy access to loungers and tables around the pool, entertainment that we enjoy.  With all this information in hand, we chose to begin our cruise on March 5, 2018 on Holland America’s Zaandam.

zaandam

We begin our cruise outside of Santiago, Chile and sail past beautiful, green and lush forests and lakes, through the Strait of Magellan, Beagle Channel, seeing many glaciers.  Did you know that there are more glaciers in Chile than in all of Scandinavia?  We will go to the southernmost town in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina.  We will enter Glacier Alley and stand at the front of the ship with warm beverages in hand as we gaze at the glaciers that may be gone in our grandchildrens time.  Have you ever seen a glacier calving – that’s when a chunk breaks off and falls into the water and hear the noise they make?  We will see penguins in their natural habitat and so much more.  But it’s not all scenery.  We’ll spent a day in Montevideo, Uruguay and overnight in Buenos Aires.  I’m planning on having a custom made leather jacket made for me in Buenos Aires.  We’ll also stop in the Falkland Islands and be able to have a spot of tea, British style.

The beautiful glaciers
The beautiful glaciers
Glaciers galore
Glaciers galore
Ushuaia, Argentina - the southernmost city in the world
Ushuaia, Argentina – the southernmost city in the world

While in are in South America, this would be an opportunity to visit Machu Picchu, Easter Island, the Galapagos, or Iguazu Falls

My fantastic travel agent, Michelle, of McCabe World Travel outside of Washington DC, will be coordinating the group travel.  She has been able to lock in for our group the lowest prices for us.  In addition to the lowest prices, there will be amenities for our group.  I’ll try to arrange some excursions that are more personalized and smaller than what the ship offers though you are free to do what you want.  Remember, we are a group in name only so we can get the best prices.  Of course, we are all a friendly group and it will be run to see each other and share stories.  Don’t you want to be part of this great group?

Am I tempting you a little bit?

 

 

Coast Starlight Train from Seattle to Los Angeles

Traveling by train is not quick.  You will not get to where you want to go fast.  Train travel can be expensive but for some of these routes, it is much less than airfare for these remote locations.  Train travel is a lazy, relaxing way to sit back, and watch the scenery go by while you are going to your destination and enjoying the ride.  That’s something that most people don’t say about airplane travel.  You have the opportunity to meet people, share travel stories, get recommendations  if you are stopping in their hometown.  Train travel is almost a luxurious way to travel because you are not rushing.  It’s a throwback to other times for most of us.  Rooms are small, even the large bedroom that we got very very small.

In our "large" bedroom" on the train.  It was the same setup on all the trains.
In our “large” bedroom” on the train. It was the same setup on all the trains.
hallway where our bedroom was located
hallway where our bedroom was located

We began the second leg of our Train Trek across America in Seattle when we went to Seattle’s King Street AMTRAK station to board the Coast Starlight. We had heard so much about this leg of our trip that I wondered if it lived up to the hype. After reading this, you be the judge.  If you missed our first leg, you can read about it here.

At the King Street Station, there is no lounge.  Like airports, there is a dedicated line waiting to board for first class passengers. You need to look at your ticket for it to tell you which car you are on and which room. Our ticket said 1130 D which translates into train #11, car 30, room D. You need to remember this information because you will use it in the dining room to charge your meal to your room (remember, your meals are included if you are a first class passenger).

We settled in and went exploring. We had heard that this train was different and we wanted to find out how it was different. One car behind us was the Parlor Car which I don’t believe any other long haul train has. This is exclusively for first class passengers and it has padded, swivel chairs so you can look our the windows. This is similar to an observation car with the windows at chair level and on top as well. There are 12 of these chairs as well as about 8 tables.

comfortable chairs in the parlor
comfortable chairs in the parlor
tables for eating during dining hours in the parlor as well as the wine tasting.  We would play cards here as well
tables for eating during dining hours in the parlor as well as the wine tasting. We would play cards here as well

You can make meal reservations in the parlor car and they have a different menu that what we had on the Empire Builder or what we would have on the SouthWest Chief. Excited that we would have something different, I quickly signed us up for lunch. BIG MISTAKE. Nothing is prepared fresh, or at least as fresh as it could be on the train. I ordered a salad which was mainly arugula and sliced red cabbage with a salad dressing that was not to my liking – and I like most salad dressings. Blogger Hubby had the chicken salad sandwich and he said it was a “nothing kind of sandwich”, pre-made who knows when. There was another choice and it too was a sandwich. Lesson learned – eat meals in the dining room.

The parlor car is also where they have wine tastings for $7.50 for three tastings and an offer to buy a cheese platter for $10. The first day it was 2 wines from Washington and one imported wine from Argentina. The second day it was 2 wines from California and the same imported wine from Argentina. Although it was nice to do this, it could have been presented and run better. After we were served our wine, the parlor stewart disappeared. Sometimes there were long waits before pours. You decide whether you want to do this or not.

tasting a Washington State wine
tasting a Washington State wine

 

We left Seattle about an hour and more late. They had to put sand on the train for us to spray in the tracks where we would potentially have problems climbing elevation and possibly slippery tracks.

Once we started moving we were glad that we were in the comfortable parlor car seats as we admired the beautiful scenery that was unfolding before our eyes. We crossed smaller rivers, traveled along the Columbia River, climbed mountains, saw Mt. Shasta and just took in the sights. We certainly understood why Oregon is called the Evergreen State as we traveled southbound. What surprised both of us was that there was still snow on the ground.

Through the Cascade Mountains
Through the Cascade Mountains

On all of the trains, there are some longer stops where you can get off the train, go in the station or just stretch your legs on firm ground.  Here we are in Eugene, Oregon where the waffle sole was invented and Nike was begun.  The longer stops are called “smoke stops” as there is no smoking on the train.

One of our stops, Eugene, Oregon.
One of our stops, Eugene, Oregon.

As we traveled through California we stopped at Salinas which is nicknames “America’s Salad Bowl” and marveled at all the rows and rows of crops that were growing and being harvested.  We could quickly spot the red strawberries that were growing on the plants and wished we could have reached out the train window to grab some.

Salinas, California - America's Salad Bowl
Salinas, California – America’s Salad Bowl

Further down the coast, south of San Luis Obispo, came the sheer beauty of this coast.  There was nothing between us and the shore.  With colors ranging from deep green to tans and browns, it was breathtaking and made us glad that we were seeing this from the train – we could have never done it by automobile as there were no visible roads to our eye.  Mountains in the background, sand and ocean in front of us as we were zipping along on this stretch of track that this train route is noted for.

Pacific Coast
Pacific Coast
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Pacific Coast south of San Luis Obispo

There is one point in this section that you go around a curve and can see both the front of the train as well as the back of the train at the same time.  Of course, I wasn’t able to photograph it but here is the front of the train.

The front of the Coast Starlight train
The front of the Coast Starlight train

Every train has a different personality with different crew. Also, each of the trains we rode had the same menu yet with different cooks, the same food was different on the trains.  Blogger Hubby loved the seafood cakes which were a combination of shrimp and crab meat.  He thought that was the best on the menu.  I had the signature steak on al three trains and the Coast Starlight had the best steak by far.  Salisbury Steak, the special on all the trains, was hit or miss.  We didn’t try the pasta with the overcooked veggies.  The herb chicken was also good.

We arrived in Los Angeles around 9:00 PM and took a cab to our hotel with an attitude from our cabdriver since our hotel, the Hilton DoubleTree was only a few blocks away.

As a reminder, everything on this trip with the exception one hotel night was booked using points.  Your meals on the train are included in your first class fare/miles.

Leg two of our epic train trek was now in the books.  Next up, what to do near the train station during the day.

Seattle to Vancouver to Seattle – Which is better – Amtrak Bus or Amtrak Train

As part of our Empire Builder train trek, we were allowed to add on to our trip an extension to go up to Vancouver.  I had done research as to which mode of transportation through AMTRAK that I wanted to use.  Research aside, it came down to our schedules.  To go north, we used the AMTRAK bus that was scheduled (was being the operative word) to leave the King Street AMTRAK station at 1:45.  Now if you choose to use this method, go out the front door of the station and turn to the left, the far left and wait there for the bus.  There isn’t anyone outside to tell you this.

After standing in line and dropping our luggage off near the luggage compartments of the bus, we boarded and chose whatever seats we wanted. The seats are close together, my knees actually touched the seat in front – similar to that if an economy seat on an airplane.

The bus driver had a problem with the tickets and passengers not matching up, a broken water bottle that was full and a few other problems.  We left about 35 minutes late.  We were advised that because of this we would be in the middle of rush hour traffic.  Delightful!

Once we reached the Canadian border our driver instructed us that we needed to get off the bus, claim our luggage and go into the building where we would be interviewed by Immigration.  That took almost an hour with a full bus.  Border Control would then inspect the bus.  When this was completed we could recheck our luggage and get back onto the bus.

crossing the border by automobile
crossing the border by automobile

What was another surprise to us is that the bus didn’t go straight to Vancouver but instead made two stops at hotels.  The first in Surrey and the second in Richmond.  Since we were stopping in Richmond, we tok a different route into the city.  We finally made it to Vancouver at almost 7:00 PM – about a 5 hour and 15 minute trip.

With cabs being inexpensive in Vancouver and with the conversion factor in our favor, we took a quick trip to our hotel, the Weston Bayshore.

For our return we needed to leave on Sunday as the train on Monday morning would arrive too close to our scheduled departure on the Coast Starlight.  So that we would have some time in Seattle, we took the 6:30 AM train – being still on East Coast time, that was no problem for us.   You need to arrive at the train station about an hour before departure in order to fill out the forms needed for entry back into the United States.

departing Vancouver
departing Vancouver

We stood in the line, received our seat assignments and then proceeded to be cleared through US Customs and  Border Control right before we boarded.  We were also told that that Customs and Border Control would go through the train car by car and we needed to stay in our seat.  They would even check the restrooms if someone was in there.  Doing this at the station and on the train saved us some time but the route we took, along the coast, was longer than the road that the bus was on.  We also had much more room on the train and we were comfortable.

seats on the train from Vancouver
seats on the train from Vancouver

We left Vancouver at 6:30 and arrived at the King Street Seattle station at 10:55 a total of 4 1/2 hours.

It’s your choice which you choose but if I were to do it again, I’d take the train – more comfortable and a much more scenic route.

Seattle – Our Layover and What We Did

We chose to continue our trip after we got off the Empire Builder and took the AMTRAK bus to Vancouver. We had about 4 hours between our arrival in Seattle and our departure. Not one to miss an opportunity to explore, we were off.

In the terminal in Seattle, if you go to the ticketing counter, they will help you in holding your luggage. They do this because the room where the locker is store is not always manned. The cost is $4 per piece .

King Street Station, Seattle
King Street Station, Seattle

We left the train station and walked down to Pike’s Public Market. We were so hungry because that morning on the train, the breakfast was open from 5:30 AM till 7:00 AM. With all the time changes, it was not a problem getting up for breakfast at that time.

What I love about Pike’s Market are the flowers that they sell and have arranged in bouquets. They are so fragrant, so colorful and so inexpensive. One of my favorite flowers is the peony and you could get a beautiful arrangement with white peonies, dark purple irises, purple delphiniums and other beautiful filler flowers for $10!

Rows and rows of beautiful floral bouquets many featuring peonies and irises
Rows and rows of beautiful floral bouquets many featuring peonies and irises

Pike Market is known for a fish stall that throws the fish to the wrapper once you have selected your piece to bring home. It gets very crowded and when a fish is thrown, loud applause follows in appreciation. It is a sight to behold and if you haven’t seen it, look for a crowd around a fish stall.

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A new meaning to the term “flying fish”

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We found Pike Barbeque inside the market – only 7 stools but worth waiting for a stool – do not attempt to eat this sandwich on your lap. It is juicy with lots of sauce on it. In fact, they dip the top bun in sauce before putting it on the sandwich. Being from Virginia, I am somewhat of a barbeque snob but this was very, very good. We shared the brisket sandwich and I was licking my lips and fingers afterwards.  If barbeque is not your thing, go downstairs and you will find a restaurant that serves local fish as well as Dungeness crab. There are many other choices for lunch so walk around first and find what you want.IMG_0775

What I like about this area is the complete diversity of shops although many are associated with food in some ways. There was a Russian restaurant, Turkish, cheese making, a pear store, hot dogs and so much more. I wish I had a larger stomach and larger clothing so I could have a sample of all of these tempting tasty treats.

For those that may be coming to Seattle for the first time and have a little more time, please allow me to make recommendation – go down along the waterfront and take the cruise to Tillicum Village on Blake Island for the Native American Dinner Show. The ferry ride out to the island is beautiful and the native story and the salmon dinner (you can request chicken at time of booking) is delicious. Walk around the island before or after the show.  This will be one of your highlights of your trip.

at the Wharf
at the Wharf

We walked back to King Street Station in time for our bus to Vancouver. Since we took the bus up to Vancouver and the train back to Seattle, I’ll write a blog post comparing both means of travel.

All Aboard – AMTRAK’s Empire Builder

This trip was booked last December transferring points from my Ultimate Rewards account to AMTRAK.  This is no longer available.  You can read about it here.

We left the Holiday Inn and Suites and walked directly to Union Station going in the entrance that I described in my previous post. Inside the lounge is a checked bag room where we ditched our bags so we could still walk around the city and get some breakfast. You do need to show your ticket once you enter the lounge.

Entrance to the lounge
Entrance to the lounge
early morning at the lounge in Union Station, Chicago. It will get much more crowded the closer to departure.
Early morning at the lounge in Union Station, Chicago. It will get much more crowded  closer to departure.

The lounge that we used will be closed in a few weeks and a new lounge will be opened, probably around the second week of June. The new lounge will have showers, more seating, and will be located in the Great Hall. In the lounge were hot and cold drinks and snacks like potato chips, pre-packaged breakfast rolls and nachos.  Here is a link to the new lounge.

After checking our bags, we left the station and headed to the French Market which we had discovered the day before. I had one of the best breakfasts that I’ve ever had – a freshly made crepe filled with fresh strawberries, crème fraiche, and almonds. Delicious !  Blogger Hubby had the crepe with lox, cream cheese, tomatoes and red onions. There were tables at the back of the market and outside for you to sit and enjoy your food.

The best breakfast ever!
The best breakfast ever!

With no bags and still a few hours before we needed to be back at the station, we walked around the city more. We walked over the to canal where tourists boats took passengers on a city tour.

IMG_0574We found the Chicago Cultural Center and went in – free admittance is always an incentive. They have two beautiful rotundas and one was by Louis Tiffany. This building was the former Chicago Public Library.

IMG_0577Close by was Millenium Park and the Chicago Art Museum – both worth walking to and through.  Throughout the park we saw a number of fountains, sculptures that we found very unique.IMG_0585

 

IMG_0591Did you know that the famed Rt. 66 begins in Chicago?IMG_0593

Throughout the city were beautiful tulips in bloom as well as other sidewalk arrangements in concrete planters – some with pussy willows which I hadn’t seen in a long time.   Another building that we saw was the Board of Trade building – very unique with huge eagles at the top corners of the building almost looking like gargoyles.

When we returned to the lounge, it was crowded and difficult to find seating. There are two screens on the walls – one for arrivals and one for departures. You will see the same name of trains so be sure you know what you are looking at. For example our train, The Empire Builder was arriving at 3:00 yet our train, the Empire Builder was leaving at 2:15.

Traveling in a sleeper, we had priority boarding. They will call you and open the door to the track. Everyone stops at the first car to see if it is theirs. If you are going to Washington State, keep moving. Our train splits in Spokane during the – the cars at the end are going toward Portland and the cars in front of the dining car are going to Seattle. That clue will tell you where your car will be.

Our Room – To get to our room, we entered the train and had to walk up a narrow stairway. If you have a large suitcase that you won’t need in your room, you can leave it on the first floor in the luggage area. We had the larger bedroom and they were denoted with a letter – we were in “D”. The smaller rooms had numbers. That tip might get you in the correct corridor since you can go left or right at the top of the stairs.

The lower level had rooms as well though I think they were smaller rooms, community showers and extra toilets (we were warned that there is no ventilation in the community bathrooms). Yes, train bedrooms are small. We knew that and expected it. The bathroom is a combination toilet/shower. To take a shower, put down the lid on the toilet and turn the water on. Since there is a lip to get into the bathroom, the water stays in the bathroom. You do have the option of using one of the community showers if you want something larger. Tip – put down the lid to the toilet to prevent it from crashing down in the middle of the night when you hit a rough patch of tracks.   We propped open the bathroom with a backpack so we could see the blue nightlight in the bathroom. Again, we didn’t want the door slamming in the middle of the night.  To get more air or less air, look to the ceiling to open or close the vents.

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Tip: If you are charging electronics, you might want to bring an extension card as one outlet is on the wall by the sink mirror and the other is on the wall by your head. You don’t want your electronics dangling as you recharge them.

We didn’t sleep well the first night because the train was always blowing their horns due to all the train crossings that we were passing.  You’ll get to know the whistle – 2 long, 1 shorter and 1 long.  Sometimes it seemed as though when the first set of whistles ended, the next one began.

The top bunk, which I had, was doable.  In the fact that there isn’t much turn around in and the ceiling was about 2 feet (or a little less) from my bed.  Getting up wasn’t a problem but getting down was (for me) as trying to turn around to come down the ladder was difficult since there wasn’t much room to turn around in.  I ended up putting my foot on the corner of the vanity and then the other on Blogger Hubby’s bed.  Not pretty but I did it.

We both brought carry-on luggage and a backpack. I would not bring anymore than that as they only place to store the luggage is under the bench sofa and chair in the room and a very small shelf above he chair. The rooms are small and compact and for just two nights on the train (or longer for us since we are continuing on) you really don’t need much. My concern in packing is whether the train ran hot or cold – I found this particular car on this particular day ran right in the middle. I have on a sleeveless top with a lightweight sweater and long pants though in the evening it did get a little cooler but never, in my mind, cold.  We’ve been told the Super Chief runs very cold.

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OBSERVATION CAR – had both seats and booths with a table. Downstairs was a lounge car where you could buy snacks as well as sit at one of their few tables. On our train were two Park Service Trails and Rails volunteers that gave a small narrative when we were going by a few things. If you brought your National Park Service passport book, they will stamp it for you (I had mine). Tip: there are some seats with 110 volt plugs so you can charge your electronics there as well. TIP – I turned on my Google Maps app while in the observation deck to see where we were and what we were passing.   There is no train wifi so I was careful how much cellular data I was using.

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DINING CAR – When you first board, stay in your room because a dining steward will come by and you can make reservations for dinner. Dining is about on par with airline food. For dinner I had the signature steak which was okay, baked potato and very overcooked medley of veggies. The salad was very fresh and served with packets of Paul Newman salad dressing. Second night I had the herb chicken which was much better and Blogger Hubby had the seafood shrimp/crab cakes and he thought they were very good.  Dessert was a good portion, neither too large or too small. All of this is served on plastic plates rather than the china that AMTRAK used to serve food on. Your first class accommodations include your meals on board and a drink. Beer and wine are a separate charge and they are available in the dining car. One thing to remember, although your meals are included in your accommodation if you are a first class passenger, you need to remember to tip the wait staff in the dining room. It also appears that the menu is the same on all the trains with a dining room. TIP: your first night when you leave Chicago, sit on the right side of the dining car as you are going forward and sit so you are facing forward. We had the 7:15 dinner and you could see the sun setting over the Mississippi – a bright orange ball and it was beautiful. Unfortunately we were not sitting on the correct side or facing the correct direction to get a picture but it was beautiful

Two rules that are strictly enforced on AMTRAK – no smoking and you always must wear shoes when walking around the train.

NOTE:  If you do plan to experience the Empire Builder, I strongly encourage you to download this PDF of the train route.  It gives you information on the train as well as the stops that it makes.  It’s interesting to know a little information about the cities that you are stopping or passing through.

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We have met very interesting people on this journey so far either at meal time (4 to a table) or in the observation car.  We were the only ones doing a train trek.  Many were going to or from vacation, family celebrations or just as a means to travel.  I was very pleasantly surprised at how much room there was in the coach section with leg rests and room between the seat in front of you – so unlike air travel.

More to come tomorrow.  If you have any particular questions, drop me a line and I’ll try to answer as soon as  can.

All Aboard…..

 

AMTRAK Bound

“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “To talk of many things.” That’s my idea behind this blog – sharing what I’ve learned and learning something from you, my faithful readers. I’ve got some sharing to do today and hopefully, if I have wifi, I’ll be doing it for a few days, week or more!

For those who have been with me for 6 months or longer, you may recall that Blogger Hubby and I booked a trip on AMTRAK for a transcontinental train trip – an epic trip by our standards. This was accomplished by transferring some Ultimate Rewards from my Chase credit cards to AMRAK (no longer a transfer partner) and it was before AMTRAK changed their miles program requiring more miles rather than the zone based award chart that I used.

Today we positioned ourselves to get ready to board our train tomorrow. Blogger Hubby was in Michigan, I was in Virginia. We both arrived in O’Hare about 30 minutes apart from each other. It was nice to see his smiling, welcoming face as I left the plane. That was our first hurdle – be able to meet each other though contingent plans were in place if either one of us was delayed.  By the way, neither one of us had problems with TSA though we were not at major city airports.

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We had made reservations to spend the night at the Holiday Inn and Suites on West Harrison Street in Chicago. We used the points that I had been accumulating for quite awhile through nights that I’ve stayed, promotions for stays as well as filling out 97 index cards to enter their winter promotion “The Endless Surprise”.

Getting to this hotel was much easier than I had expected and glad that I had done some homework. At O’Hare we were able to catch the CTA Blue line train in the direction of Forest Hills (tip – they all head for Forest Hills at O’Hare since O”Hare is at the end of the line). At the train station, you go to the kiosk and purchase a single ticket which costs $5, tap it at the turnstyle and then go down the escalator to the tracks. It took about 45 minutes to get to our stop – Clinton. We walked out to the right, up the stairs and in complete view of the Holiday Inn.

Walking in to the Holiday Inn and Suites we were warmly greeted – the warmest greeting I’ve ever had at any Holiday Inn. We were given tickets to a complimentary glass of wine in the attached restaurant, two bottles of water, 500 welcome points and a typed but had signed note from the Front Desk Manager welcoming us. We went over a few questions we had about where to eat lunch, dinner, where Union Station was, etc. A local map was given to us and they circled where we needed to go, including a grocery store and liquor store to purchase a bottle of wine to bring on board the train.

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We were upgraded to a suite with two double beds, and another room with couch, chair, television, refrigerator, microwave and more. The view was not much, a ramp going up to the highway.

I mentioned that I wanted Chicago pizza for lunch and they quickly directed us to Giordano’s, about a 7 minute walk from the hotel. One of the specials was a personal size pizza with soup or salad and a soft drink.  This was perfect for what we needed. Not sure if I liked this pizza – it almost seemed like an upside down pizza with pepperoni on the bottom, then the cheese and a layer of sauce on top. Like a pie, the crust came up the sides to the top. Unfortunately for me, it seemed almost too hard, not the softer crust that I was used it. It’s probably just a matter of preference .

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We continued our walking tour of Chicago, or at least of our neighborhood. Just up a block from the restaurant was the Hellenic Museum. Neither one of us is Greek but we did go to Greece a few years ago and I always enjoyed ancient history. The price was $10 each or $8 for seniors! They had a special art exhibit on the work of the actor Anthony Quinn. He had a special affinity for anything Greek since he was in Zorba the Greek.   We found his paintings, his sculptures and his story extremely interesting.   Upstairs were two more exhibits – one of the modern Olympics which began in Athens in 1896 and the other on the Creation of the Aegean Archipelago. The few personal stories that we read about American competitors were very inspiring. Since the Olympics were new, there was no American organization to sponsor them and many people had not heard of them. There were some competitors who were studying at Harvard who had to quit school in order to compete. If you go to this museum or are interested in this story, I’m sure you can google the information.

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As you might be able to guess, the Hellenic Museum was in Chicago’s Greek Town. The restaurant that had been recommended to us was Greek Islands. We went there to “scoped” it out. The menu looked authentic and the prices weren’t bad. We planned on eating dinner there till we hit a brick road in being very tired and ended up eating instead at the Holiday Inn restaurant. (It was so-so).

We continued our walking of Chicago finding the French Market, which have many different types food stalls in a converted warehouse. The sights, the smells, the French macaroons (my favorite cookie) and the cheeses all delighted our senses and we decided this was where we were going to eat breakfast the next day since the hotel did not have complimentary breakfast. I highly recommend coming here. When we came back the next morning, my breakfast was at the Crepe stand – freshly made crepe filled with strawberries, almonds and crème fraiche – what could be better. Blogger Hubby had the crepe that was filled with lox, cream cheese, red onions, tomatoes and spinach.

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Evening at the hotel – although I had indicated that I liked our hotel, how easy it was to get there on the train from the airport as well as to other places, what I didn’t like was the street noise. In part that may have been because we were on the second floor, not that far from the trucks and cars on the ramp going to the expressway. If you decide to stay at this Holiday Inn, ask for a room on a higher floor – you’ll thank me for your good night sleep. We did wonder as we got into bed if noise was going to be a problem when we saw ear plugs on our nightstand. We were so tired that nothing kept me awake.

Union Station – there are multiple entrances to Union Station. What we found for this journey was to not go into the iconic building with Union Station lettering on it. You will do a lot of walking inside if you are looking for the passenger assistance counter, the ticketing office or (for at least a few weeks) the lounge. Instead, go across the street where there is a black office building that houses the FTC (Fitness Training Center). Just after the FTC, you’ll see a sign for Union Station – go in that door, go down the escalator and you’ll find all that you need there. Since we had our confirmation number but no tickets we went to the ticketing counter the day before – we like to be ready and still remember last year’s misadventure when we were at the wrong train station in Budapest With ticket in hand we were ready to begin our traveling train adventure the next day.

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Daily Getaways are Back Starting Today!

An event that we look forward to every year is the Daily Giveaways for four weeks sponsored by the US Travel Association. Each workday for two weeks, beginning today April 4th promptly at 1:00 EDT,  you have the opportunity to  (attempt) to purchase one of their daily specials.  Some days are better than others but there is usually something for everyone during this four week period. To purchase, click on this link.

I have purchased points from Club Carlson, IHG as well as a few other vacation goodies to bump up my point totals when I had plans to use them.

What I like about the first week of daily getaways is that they are family friendly. You can be one of the few to buy points from IHG (Holiday Inn, etc), Comfort Inn, Sleep Inn and a few more.  Want to go to Busch Gardens with discounted tickets or planning a trip to Vegas.  You might try getting a great deal through the Daily Getaways.  Here is what is planned for next week:

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There will be more goodies the following week and that is the end till next year.

Looking at what is offered for this coming week I might consider the Busch Garden tickets since our daughter lives fairly close to one of the Busch Gardens – or I might just get them and give to her. They like to go when it is Howl-o-ween at Busch Gardens.  They took their 2 year old this fall and he loved it!  I might consider some of the IHG points since I have just used up a couple of hundred booking our trip in New Mexico/France and Belgium.

Remember, it begins at 1:00 Eastern time and they are very limited so if there is something you want, get the correct time and jump on it as soon as you can.  Some daily giveaways have more opportunities to purchase than others.   Post here if you are able to purchase anything so we can all congratulate you!

Good Luck