This site is dedicated to all those people who have the time and resources to feed their wanderlust and are looking to enjoy a certain level of comfort. At the same time not being inclined to waste money that could be put toward more traveling…
With this site we hope to share some of our travel experiences and offer some useful advice. We are hoping some of our travel friends will help out from time to time as well. We are just getting started but hope you will check back often.
Please take note of a few features on this site. Any underlined blue text is a link to another website with additional information. The general menu has a search page entry that has additional links and a search bar. Comments are not generally posted in an effort to reduce clutter and avoid confusion but we do welcome comments and contributions. Please email us at:
Of specific interest are recommendations on hotels and restaurants and overviews of destination cities. We are also looking for details on getting around a city or if you experienced a particularly interesting event we would love to hear about it.
For over twenty-five years the heart of our business was servicing customers in the Caribbean. It would be easier to list the places we haven’t been than were we have. As a result we like to think we know the neighborhood pretty well.
Back in the beginning, Eastern Airlines was the primary carrier from the U.S. to most islands and they sold an island hopper ticket that allowed us to travel around the islands for a discount price. We would usually go out for a couple of weeks at a time spending a day at each island and staying at local or discount accommodations. Fast forward a decade or more and Eastern is gone (mostly replaced by American) and, because we now have to book each flight in and out with between islands mostly being LIAT and seaplanes, the trips take in fewer stops at much higher prices. Fortunately our business is more successful but travel has gotten more complicated because we are hauling children with us.
The restaurants, hotels and resorts are more upscale and we tended to spend more time in each location, partly because of the airfare, but also because we are spending time with more customers. We also took a number of busman’s holidays because we liked skin diving and beach combing but also because we could include business and offset some of the costs.
There are some places that we haven’t been back to in a while but we can still talk about the character of the islands. There is one place we can’t go back to because a volcano buried it (Montserrat). There are a number of places we return to often and can offer current tips and suggestions. Keep an eye out as we add articles about our little corner of the world including:
We spent all of February cruising with Celebrity’s Constellation in the South China Sea on back-to-back itineraries. We visited twelve ports with only one repeat (Ho Chi Min City). If you are going to fly twelve thousand miles you probably should make the most of the trip. We flew into Singapore and with the return for the second cruise and the extra day in port at the end we had five days to explore the city and all we could say was wow! The ship also spent two days in the port for Bangkok and we spent that night in a Bangkok hotel and booked a private tour (more about that at another time ;-).
Beyond the usual reasons for cruising there was an additional advantage on this trip. If you are not into a diet of noodles with dried fish flakes or hot curries, the ship gives you the opportunity to return to a Western style menu. The ship also takes care of visas and immigration ahead of each port.
Besides our time in Singapore our trip included four stops in Vietnam, Hong Kong, two stops in the Philippines which included Manila, two stops in Borneo, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, Brunei and two stops in Thailand. We had an opportunity to see a lot as well as try a number of cuisines. Many of the destinations were studies in extreme contrasts but it was also obvious that things are greatly improving economically. It is also interesting to switch from Muslim to Buddhist to Western cultures as we went from one port to the next. On board there were a number of excellent in-depth lectures on the history and culture of the various countries which provided a good perspective on the ways the region developed.
Over the last number of years we have found cruising gives us an opportunity to sample a number of places and than we decide where we want to come back to for extended stays. Southeast Asia is no exception to this and we certainly have a few we will add to our return list.
Phone Service: We were traveling on this trip with an iPhone 5 on Verizon service ($80 for 250 international minutes)and with a Blu 5.5 phone with a prepaid international plan from One Sim Card service. Vietnam and Brunei were not part of the Verizon international service so we switched use to OneSimCard. Phone calls with Verizon worked well everywhere else but there were problems getting text messages out on a few days. The only reliable data that we found on the Verizon service was in Singapore (didn’t attempt in Hong Kong) most other places indicated “Data Service Failed”. The One Sim Card service worked as expected except in Vietnam. There we connected with the recommended service provider (Viettel) but instead of text messages costing the expected 25¢ they were charged at a couple of dollars. One Sim Card did send a text message warning of high costs on this service recommending we switch networks, even though Viettel was their recommended provider.
In the near future look for posts covering each of these countries with pointers on must do things, food, transportation and hotels.
A recent incident involving an acquaintance and a conversation with a travel friend have highlighted the importance of international travel insurance. We will take this opportunity to offer our thinking on this matter along with the results of a little research. Please understand that this is focused on American travelers but we are also aware of similar plans offered in Canada and other countries.
There are a number of different categories of travel insurance and you need to understand how your specific travel plans should determine the insurance you buy. Generally, insurance is available to cover problems in five specific areas:
Trip Cancellation and Interruption
Theft of Property Loss
Health and Accident
In truth, we have maybe been too casual in selecting our own travel insurance. Our concerns have been focused in three main areas. First is a concern in having to cancel an expensive trip at the last minute and losing our invested money. The second is travel interruption causing us to miss difficult connections or a cruise sailing. Lastly are medical cost concerns while being out of the country.
We usually buy a cruise policy for longer cruises to cover us in the event we have to cancel or we unavoidably miss a sailing. Normally we forgo this insurance on shorter cruises because the potential loss in dollars is small and there is little likelihood of missing the cruise. In general, these policies provide medical cost reimbursement and property theft and loss protection. Some also, but not all, cover the cost of medical repatriation.
As a habit, we do not buy air travel insurance. The cost of these policies is mainly focused on the life insurance component and not on trip interruption, which, in most cases, is the airlines responsibility.
Our health insurance does have an international travel component that pays up to $50,000 with a lifetime cap of $50,000.
We have also carried a medical evacuation and repatriation policy for the past number of years that, to us, seems a reasonable expense. Less than $200 for an annual plan.
Cruise only – Let’s say you are taking a Mediterranean cruise with flights into and out of the sailing port, a cruise insurance policy probably provides the appropriate amount of coverage in most areas. We have at times been charged for medical services while onboard and had to submit documents to get reimbursed under these policies. We also had one occasion where a camera was stolen and we never seemed to be able to provide enough proof to get the loss paid but that is typical with many insurance policies. Most cruise policies also cover medical expenses if you need care in a local clinic or hospital while on the cruise as well as medical evacuation and repatriation. The same policy usually covers booked cruise/land packages.
Cruise with an extended land itinerary – If you are taking that Mediterranean cruise but then plan to go off on your own for a couple of weeks in Europe, chances are that a cruise policy will terminate on disembarking the ship. For that reason you need to understand that you will not be covered for medical emergencies above the limits of your American health insurance and, based on the incident involving our friend, that can be financially catastrophic.
Frequent international travel – If you are a frequent international traveler it is most important to analyze your risk concerns and how much you are comfortable paying. You have options of buying a complete medical plan (Geoblue) , a medical evacuation plan (EA+) or a complete annual insurance policy (Allianz, Amex) that offer some coverage in virtually all areas. Most policies however only provide coverage while on trips of less than 60 days each.
In our case we take a number of cruises and international trips a year and our biggest concerns are medical emergencies and evacuation so we keep an annual MedEvac plan in place. We believe our Medicare supplement offers adequate (we hope) medical coverage for now and will buy cruise policies on individual trips as mentioned above.
There are also complete annual travel policies, which should be considered if you travel internationally often. Generally they have lower limits on coverage, especially in areas like trip cancellation and property loss. For example most annual policies limit cancellation protection to $2,000 per year. Following is an example from a recent annual generic quote provided by Alianz for a typical retired couple.
If your future plans include more then an occasional cruise, you might want to consider focusing your bookings on a particular cruise line because of the loyalty programs they offer. Benefits can include discounts on or even free internet, laundry, photos, cocktail parties and fancy coffees. Some lines also offer cabin upgrades and priority treatment with boarding and tender usage.
Picking Your Cruise Line – There are a lot of similarities between the major cruise lines but there are also differences that make some more suitable to your particular needs. They all feature good dining options from main dining room dinners to buffets to specialty restaurants and good entertainment and shows, but the things that set them apart is often related to the passengers they try and attract.
Most lines cater to families but a few are stand outs because of their children’s programs. Two of the best are Disney and Royal Caribbean. There is also the price range that varies from one cruise company to another. At the economy end of the price range are Carnival and Norwegian. Stepping up a bit in price are Royal Caribbean, MSC, and Princess followed by Holland America and Celebrity, which are a bit higher still. At the other end of pricing you will find Cunard, Disney and Oceania with Silver Seas and Seabourn being the ultra exclusive lines.
Besides simply price, there are a number of other things to consider when picking a line. Following are some observations we have made regarding a couple of cruise lines:
Carnival – Besides being the price leader, we have found Carnival to be a favorite with young adults. Especially in the Caribbean, these ships have a non-stop party atmosphere. We have not cruised with Carnival outside of the Caribbean so other itineraries may be less that way. The food and service have generally been good and the cabins a bit roomier then many.
Royal Caribbean – Good value in a cruise line and really focused on families. It has one of the best kids’ programs at sea with great entertainment options. Many of the ships have basketball courts and climbing walls and a couple have ice skating rinks and Flo-Rider surfing. Some of their newest ships have simulated sky diving and an amusement park style area.
Celebrity – Features a step up in service and appeals to a more mature cruiser. We like this line because of the enrichment programs, which include lectures and classes. Celebrity also offers a number of longer itineraries and more exotic destinations than some of the other lines.
Disney – The name alone says kids & family and you won’t be disappointed. From movie themed areas to Disney characters the whole ship is a Disney experience. One feature that really appeals is an evening dinner rotation that moves your group to a different style restaurant each night and your table staff goes with you. Oddly Disney is also really good at providing adult only areas that are more strictly enforced than other lines.
Plans and Perks – If you plan on cruising on a regular basis, even as infrequently as once every year or two, you should still join a cruise line loyalty program. Royal Caribbean’s is The Crown & Anchor Society and it’s free to join. If you don’t join you won’t earn the points. In their case, once you reach Diamond status you get a dedicated lounge on board with specialty coffee, some free internet, a free photograph, a special gift and a free cocktail party each evening. Priority boarding and other perks are also offered.
Carnival Cruise Line has their VIFP Club with members-only promotions, invites to cocktail receptions while you sail, priority boarding & more. Like most programs, the more you cruise the more you get.
Celebrity has the Captain’s Club and when you reach Elite status you get access to the Captain’s Club Lounge for daily coffee house style breakfast and evening Cocktail hour. Other features are complimentary 90-minute Internet package, some complimentary dry cleaning and laundry on every sailing, a private shipboard departure lounge serving continental breakfast, priority tender service in tender ports of call and more…
If you’re going to cruise anyway, you would be wise to commit your loyalty and begin accumulating some perks.
One additional note, Celebrity is part of the Royal Caribbean family along with Azamara and frequent cruise status can be extended in a one-time transfer between these cruise lines.
In a recent post about our trips thru the parks of Utah we made mention of the cost of the National Parks Senior Pass going up sometime soon. We got information from a reader that they decided to go out and pick up their pass right away to avoid the price increase. They were told when they went to a nearby National Heritage site that the increase will go into effect in August and it will go from $10 to $80. You can buy the pass by visiting an entrance fee National Park or National Historic Site or go to the online store (currently the site has issues with high traffic) and the official increase date is August 28th. We would also advise that if you are a couple that you each buy a pass since they are non-transferrable.
The central attraction in Bangkok is the Grand Palace and Grounds featuring many temples, palaces and a museum. To do it right, the area is worth most of a day and that means at least finding a place to sit down and have lunch. If you are in the area near Wat Pho (Giant Buddha) a good choice for lunch is Eat Sight Story. The restaurant is on the Chao Praya River across from Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) with a deck featuring tables, umbrellas and great views. To find it, go down Tha Tian Alley towards the river from Maha Rat Road, south of the Naval Welfare Department.
In addition to the deck overlooking the river, ESS has tables inside along with a small air conditioned dining room. The staff is friendly and efficient and, while not inexpensive, the food is very good. The afternoon we visited, we had curried beef, Pad Thai, grilled chicken skewers with rice and cold Thai beer and were very pleased with our selections. Based on other meals we ate in Thailand we believe that their offerings are toned down some to appeal to western tastes.
The Beer Bridge was located just down the street from our hotel in the The Portico Building, 31 Langsuan, Ploenchit Rd., Lumpini, Pathumwan, Bangkok. The Beer Bridge is a modern eatery in an upscale neighborhood just a block away from Central Chidlom, Bangkok’s largest department store and near a number of major hotels.
They offered a wide selection of beers (local and imported) along with a nice wine list, cocktails and typical pub food. We ordered an appetizer which turned out to be the tiniest Buffalo chicken wings we’ve every eaten. But, after a long and warm day walking around Bangkok, The Beer Bridge provided exactly what we needed – really cold beer and some western familiarity.
Late last summer we spent a couple of weeks driving around the north Georgia mountains, hiking and visiting wineries. Georgia wines were a pleasant surprise. In general, their quality was good and the wineries were fun to visit. We had planned this trip for the spring but than had to postpone and didn’t update our information before heading out. We discovered too late that many of the wineries had reduced their hours for summer or were closed when we tried to visit, so we had to modify much of our plan. Be sure and update days and hours before you head out and also pricing, as each winery has a different charge for sampling.
We started out driving north through Atlanta stopping for lunch at the famous
Varsity Hot Dogs next to the campus of Georgia Tech. We had heard a lot about this institution and it turned out to be much bigger than we expected and the food was remarkably good. After lunch we left Atlanta heading for the small town of Oakwood and our first night on the road.
Early the next morning we headed for the Atlanta Botanical Garden in Gainesville. The gardens are reasonably new and diverse featuring over 1,200 different plants including 80 varieties of magnolias, oaks and maples. There are some nice lily ponds and a mountain stream flowing through the plantings. The gardens are also home to an impressive concert series in the summer.
From the gardens we drove toAmicalola Falls Lodge inside the state park. The lodge was great, with modern, well furnished rooms. It sits atop the tallest cascading waterfall in the Southeast (729 feet). The falls are paralleled by a staircase with 604 steps and the park is also crossed by The Appalachian Trail. That evening it was a treat sitting out on the deck of the lodge watching a mountain sunset. The Lodge also has a decent restaurant with reasonable prices.
While in the area we visited The Cottage Winery in Cleveland, and Cavendar Creek Vineyards, Montaluce Winery and Wolf Mountain Vineyards & Winery near Dahlonega, Georgia. Dahlonega is a quant mountain town that also offers tasting rooms for many of the region’s wineries – sort of one stop shopping and tasting.
From Dahlonega we traveled over to the Alpine town of Helen. The town has been a tourist destination for a number of years. Our first stop in Helen was the Habersham Winery with a nice tasting presentation and gift shop. Years ago the town rebuilt itself as an Alpine village featuring Bavarian food and gifts and offers a number of interesting restaurants and accommodations. The town is also popular for the tubing stream that flows through it. We had lunch at The Old Bavaria Inn, an old-world tavern specializing in imported beers and classic German fare.
After Helen we drove up Brasstown Bald, the highest peak in Georgia at 4,784 feet above sea level. While at the National Park Service facility at the top we got caught in a thunderstorm which brought a bit of excitement to the afternoon, with lightening, thunder and clouds rolling by. After the storm we drove to Hiawassee on Lake Chatuge , checked in to The Lake Chatuge Lodge and then visited the Crane Creek Vineyards in Young Harris for Friday happy hour. It appeared that we should have made reservations as it is a very popular evening event in the area. The staff, however, was very accommodating and we bought cheese, crackers and a bottle of their dry rosé making a great ending to the day.
The Chatuge Lodge is within walking distance of the Fred Hamilton Gardens and the Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds. The Fairgrounds opened in 1978, and are home
to several popular events throughout the year including the Georgia Mountain Fair, Georgia Mountain Moonshine Cruizin, Georgia Mountain Fall Festival, Superstar concerts, and Georgia’s Official State Fiddlers’ Convention. Any of those events have impact on room availability and rates so, if you’re planning on going, check dates and make plans well in advance. In the same area we also visited Odom Springs and Paradise Hills Wineries.
We left the lake early Sunday morning and headed for brunch at Tiger Mountain Vineyards & Winery which turned out to be the high point of the trip. The wine and food were delicious. Their Red Barn Café was selected as a top-ten winery restaurant by USA Today and our wine choice, Petit Manseng won a gold medal at the San Francisco International Wine Competition. We would highly recommend this Sunday Brunch.
After leaving brunch we made a brief stop at “Goats on the Roof” in Tiger, a throwback tourist stop featuring gifts, food, ice cream and yes – goats on the roof. We then headed for Tallulah Gorge and another long hike. This is a beautiful and rugged area and was the setting of the Burt Reynolds movie Deliverance as well as Disney’s The Great Train Chase.
Tallulah has an interesting visitors’ center and a number of trails with steps that go to Tempeste and Hurricane Falls and then further down into the gorge. To go beyond the main trail into the creek to slide on the rocks, you need a permit. Only a small number are issued each morning so you need to be there when the park opens.
After a day in the gorge we headed for Mark of the Potter in Clarkesville, an interesting store featuring local pottery and crafts. Then it was on to Savannah and the next part of our adventure. More on Savannah, Georgia soon…
Top Photograph:The Japan Bridge, Hoi An.
2nd Row: Street Scene Saigon & Village near Nah Trang
3rd Row: Boats on the Mekong & Market in Hoi An
Impressions of Vietnam
Our recent South China Sea cruise made four stops in Vietnam. Because we were back-to-back cruising, Phu My, the port for Ho Cho Min City was duplicated. We took advantage of two ship’s tours and an independent trip into Saigon with bus service provided by the ship (separate fee). We really enjoyed our time spent ashore and found it both interesting and worthwhile. Shopping was inexpensive and easy because the U.S. dollar is the preferred currency. Almost everywhere we went, prices were quoted in dollars (about 22,000 Vietnamese Dong to 1 U.S. Dollar).
The official position of the Vietnamese government is that they are friends with the United States and that the Vietnamese people should welcome Americans. We had extended contact with three different Vietnamese men during our time in Vietnam. The first expressed no political opinion and was friendly and seemed welcoming to us. The second taught history in secondary school, was a party member and seemed focused in his thinking on the war and all the problems America caused and is still causing. The third thought most of Vietnam’s post-war problems were caused by government corruption and the party and wished that American style capitalism was given more opportunity.
Ho Chi Min City
Our first stop was listed as Ho Chi Min City (Saigon) but the ship docked at Phu My, an industrial area without anything within walking distance. There are some residential areas and a business strip between 5 to 10 miles from the port but nothing of specific interest.
Ho Chi Min City is an hour and a half drive from the port. The cruise ship offered tours and also just a round trip bus service into the city which ran about $60 per person. A number of passengers took local taxis into the city. They claimed that with four people it was cheaper than the bus but you had to negotiate your fare upfront. We arranged a tour to the Mekong River Delta and went into Saigon on the second cruise.
The journey to the Mekong took three hours each way. The long bus ride gave us an opportunity to see rice farming in the countryside, old and new buildings in Ho Chi Min City as we drove through, and thousands of motor scooters carrying local people everywhere. The motor boat ride on the river was interesting followed by a small boat ride down the canals and then lunch at the Mekong River Rest Stop. The highlight of lunch was the delicious local elephant ear fish. Our tour guide was friendly and spent much of the trip talking about the Vietnamese people, their lives and their hopes for the future.
Our recommendation, unless you have a specific reason to visit the Mekong like we did, would be to take a city tour of Saigon or just take advantage of transportation into the city and do your own walking tour. There are a lot of great shopping bargains in the city and many things to see. Some of the highlights include the old Presidential Palace (now Reunification Palace), the Catholic Cathedral, and the old Post office. A short walk from the city center are the Opera House, The Rex Hotel (the roof bar was a gathering place for journalists and military during the war) and Dong Khoi Street with many souvenir shops, good restaurants and fashion boutiques.
Da Nang is a major city with a lot to see and features the Dragon Bridge which is actually a recent addition. Near by is China Beach which is now a modern seaside resort but during the war it was a “rest and relaxation” area for the military. Just south of Da Nang is the city of Hoi An which is well worth a visit. Hoi An is also becoming a beach resort with lots of new properties being developed but it is the old town (Ancient Town) that should get attention because of the history, architecture, shops and restaurants. We stocked up there on tee shirts ($3 and $5) and had a great lunch at Brothers Cafe. If you are cruising you should be able to find a tour that covers all these highlights.
This is also a developing area that is a seaside resort particularly popular with Russian tourists. There is a cable car that crosses the bay, an amusement park, a water park and some good beaches. On our stop we had to tender-in and merchants had set up tables full of souvenirs along the dock. The town itself was small with with a few shops and cafes but you could get a taxi tour at a reasonable price or take one of the ship’s tours.
We recently discovered another retired couple that recently visited Vietnam with some good information posted in April 2017. Check out Adventurous Retirees web site.
If you are visiting Italy you should not pass up a visit to Florence, the capital of Italy’s Tuscany region. From many Italian cities, including Rome, it is easy to reach Florence by express train for an extra night or two stay.
The city is the birthplace of the Renaissance where Michelangelo carved many of his masterpieces and where Dante Alighieri lived and the Medici family ruled. Galileo lived in Florence most of his life while Donatello, Giovanni Boccaccio and Leonardo da Vinci are also on the list of notable residents. It is difficult to stroll the narrow streets and cross the many piazzas without feeling that you are walking through history. Add that to the museums, art galleries, shops, cafes and great restaurants and it is impossible not to fall in love with Florence.
Last year we caught a train up from Rome and walked the few blocks from the Santa Maria Novella train station to our hotel. We enjoyed our stay at the Hotel Mia Cara and it was right on the edge of the historic center of Florence making it convenient to walk to many points of interest. The famous Duomo (Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Flore), Ponte Vecchio bridge, Uffizzi Gallery, Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens are only short strolls away. If you are an art lover and are interested in history, this is the perfect Italian destination because there is so much to see and it is mostly located in a concentrated area.
Ten recommended destinations:
Gates of Paradise, Lorenzo Ghiberti (1425 – 1452) at the Museo del Opera del Duomo (originally the doors of the baptistery)
Madonna della Seggiola, Raphael (1513 – 1514) at the Pitti Palace, Palatine Gallery
The Medici Palace, Michelozzo di Bartolomeo (1445 – 1460) near the Church of San Lorenzo
The David, Michelangelo (1501 – 1504) at the Accademia (a copy is also in the Piazza Signoria)
Primavera, Sandro Botticelli (1482) at the Uffizi Galleries
The Perseus, Benvenuto Cellini (1545 – 1554) Piazza Signoria
The Florentine Pieta, Michelangelo (1547 – 1553) at the Museo del Opera del Duomo
The Slaves, Michelangelo (1525 – 1530) the Accademia
The Mosaics in the Baptistery, (1240 – 1300) Baptistery in Piazza Duomo
Madonna della Seggiola, Raphael (1513 – 1514) – in the Pitti Palace, Palatine Gallery
There are a series of three walking tours detailed at the web site visitflorence.com. Walking directions are provided along with background information on the art and sites along the way and even suggestions for good places to enjoy coffee and gelato as you stroll.
Shopping opportunities are everywhere in Florence from street markets to exclusive shops. The city is famous for its’ leather as well as jewelry and embroidery. Check out bargains at the Mercato Nuovo, a leather and souvenir street market as well as Mercato di San Lorenzo for food specialties. Not to be missed is shopping on the Ponte Vecchio bridge and the small shops near the west side of the bridge.
Stretching between Piazza Duomo and Piazza Repubblica is Via Roma featuring Florence’s main department store, Rinascente along with Gucci, Cartier, Hugo Boss and many more premium shops. The home of Florence’s up scale designers is Via Tornabuoni. This street spotlights many of the famous fashion houses, as well as historic churches and plazas. Near Via Tornabouni, are Via Porta Rossa and Via della Vigna Nuova, offering more upscale fashion shopping.
While in Florence take time to sample la dolce vita (the good life) with frequent stops at sidewalk cafes for cappuccinos, gelato and wine. One of Italians favorite pastimes is sitting at cafes and watching the world go by.
From Florence you can take a quick side trip to Pisa. It is only a short train ride away with trains leaving about every half hour or so from Santa Maria Novella train station. The Regionale Veloce trains are the ones making this trip, which takes about an hour each way with ticket prices about $10. From the station in Pisa the cathedral and the leaning tower are only a moderate hike away. There are also numerous organized day tours outside the city at reasonable rates that include a day trip by train to Cinque Terre, a beautiful seaside town south of Genoa along with bus tours into the Tuscan countryside.