- Visiting Alaska’s Denali
- Cruising Alaska
- Cedar Key, Florida
- Georgia Wine Drive
- Savannah, GA
- Callaway Gradens, Georgia
- Hawaii, Planning a Trip
- The Geology of Hawaii
- Charleston, SC
- The National Parks of Utah
- Yellowstone, An American Treasure
- Hogsback Rt 12 Utah
- St. Petersburg, Florida
- Avoiding Crowds in Yellowstone
- Blue Springs, Florida
- Hogs Back Rt. 12 Utah
- Celebration, Florida
- Glaciers in Alaska
- LegoLand Florida
- Packing for the Trip
- Airline Baggage Policy
- Cruising and The Jones Act
- The Power of Lists
- Houseplant Care While Traveling
- Technology for Traveling I
- Tech for Travel Update
- Cell Phone Navigation
- International Cell Service Options
- Cruise Ship Communications
- International Travel and Email
- Laundry: A Problem With a Solution
- Duty Free Exemptions
- Travel Insurance
- Cruise Line Loyalty Programs
- FYI Links (#1)
- TSA and Sequins
- Getting to Cruise Ports in Florida
- Airline Baggage Fees
- Singapore MRT
- Free Immigration FastPass
- International Cell Roaming
- Barcelona to Montserrat
- Barcelona, Heart of Catalonia
- Dubrovnik, Croatie
- A Few Days in Florence
- Keukenhof In The Spring
- Kotor, Montenegro
- Normandy: A Place for Reflection
- Eight hours in Rome
- Getting Around in Rome (Part I)
- Getting to Civitavecchia
- Skagen, The Watch & Town
- See Venice and…
- Changing Guard Copenhagen
- Malaga, Spain
- Room with a Bath, London
- Getting Around in Rome 2
- Two Restaurants in Bangkok
- Trattoria Mario, Florence
- A Gem in Manila
- Best Pizza in Civitavecchia
- Happy Hour in Charleston, SC
- B&B in Charleston
- Shave Ice in Hawaii
- Cats & Wine in Charleston, SC
- One Hot Mama in Hilton Head
- Find at Disney World
- Tony’s in Cedar Key, Florida
- Champers in Barbados
- Cheeseburgers, St Croix
Discover the Caribbean
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:
Dominica Grenada St. Barts Bahamas and more
We have also taken more than a dozen Caribbean cruises and we will offer some comments on these as well. Cruising the Caribbean I offers an overview of cruising the Caribbean. Cruising the Caribbean II talks about the short 3 and 4 day cruises out of South Florida and their destinations. Cruising the Caribbean III looks at the seven day and longer cruises.
A First Visit to Southeast Asia
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.
Back in the day a visit to Disney theme parks meant eating snacks or a variation of fast food with only a couple of sit down venues. Today it’s a whole different story. If you count food stands, bars and lounges, food trucks, cafes, family style restaurants and fine dining you could stay at Disney World for a month or two and never eat at the same place twice. While I wouldn’t characterize the food as inexpensive, I will sing the praises of the general variety and quality. If you are looking for an in-depth look at eating the “World” there are a number of web sites dedicated to supplying just that information. The best, in our opinion, being The Disney Food Blog .
We do have a few of our own favorites from numerous visits over the years and many of our picks vary by if we are dining with children or are going out for a special occasion.
One of our favorite overall selections is Boma at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. Our children have always liked this choice because all kids love a buffet and this features tastes of Africa. If the kids are picky eaters and won’t get into African fare there is also a section of kids usual favorites. If you are looking for a more formal atmosphere, again with a taste of Africa there is also Jico also in the Lodge. It features an extensive African wine list as well. If you are in the Animal Kingdom Park and are looking for a dinner choice Boma has a first cousin there called Tusker House with a similar menu but also at times featuring Character dining.
Another buffet that’s a hit with the whole family is Cape May over at the Beach Club Resort in The Boardwalk area. It features all-you-can-eat seafood with a really good selection. Also in the Boardwalk neighborhood is the Big River Grill & Brewery, an independent restaurant featuring their own craft beers and American fare, like steaks, burgers and my favorite, meatloaf. Just a short walk away from the Boardwalk, in the Dolphin Hotel, is our number one pick for seafood at the World, Todd English’s Bluezoo. This is a pricey choice, but well worth the
cost. While considering the Dolphin there is a low price gem tucked away in a corner of the hotel called Picabu Buffeteria. It is more of a snack bar than a restaurant but offers a selection of made-to-order tacos and burritos that are fantastic and surprisingly inexpensive.
A little hard to get to is Olivia’s Cafe, a casual restaurant in Disney’s Old Key West Resort. It offers comfort food dishes and a family atmosphere that feels relaxed and comfortable with a menu based around classic American fare. If you are lucky enough to be staying at Key West, don’t miss this gem.
Another upscale favorite of ours is Artist Point located in the Wilderness Lodge Resort. This restaurant features the food and flavors of the American Northwest. In our opinion, this is one of the most overlooked restaurants in the World. You can get to the Wilderness Lodge by catching a boat right outside the entrance to The Magic Kingdom which makes it easily reachable from the Contemporary, the Polynesian and the Grand Floridian resorts. If you are having last minute problems scoring a reservation at an upscale eatery, be sure and try this gem, it is usually available and you won’t be disappointed.
A number of recent surveys have agreed on a few favorite restaurants inside Walt Disney World with the number one currently being Be Our Guest in The Magic Kingdom. Because of its popularity it is a very difficult reservation to get. Another top pick is ‘OHana at the Polynesian, offering pit cooked meats along with kid oriented entertainment. For pizza the winner is Via Napoli in Epcot’s Italy with its coal fired ovens. The number one dinner show for well over forty years is the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue at Fort Wilderness Resort campgrounds. It features classic barbeque with a great show along with a sing along.
Two areas of Disney World that deserve mentions on their own are Epcot and Disney Springs and we would refer you again over to the real experts .
Inside Epcot you can choose between over a dozen restaurants themed on foreign lands and we haven’t been disappointed yet. We have had great food at Norway, Japan, Germany, England and Mexico and haven’t scratched the surface. Our favorite pastries can be found down an alley at Les Halles Boulangerie Patisserie at the France pavilion at Epcot. We have also heard rumors that the best steak in “the World” can be found in Canada at Le Cellier Steakhouse, though we haven’t tried it and they have some stiff competition including Don Shula’s at the Dolfin and The Yachtman Steakhouse at Disney’s Yacht Club Resort.
In Disney Springs we have really enjoyed Morimoto Asia (not so much their street food outlet), House of Blues for good BBQ, Homecoming: Florida Kitchen and Wolfgang Pucks but that only scratches the surface in this area.
One of our favorites at Disney Springs is Cooke’s of Dublin where you can get great fish n’ chips. Cooke’s is attached to Raglan Road which is more upscale but you can get a beer at the outside courtyard and go and order fish ‘n chips from Cooke’s and have it brought to you.
If you are a Florida Resident, Disney Vacation Club members or Annual Passholder you might consider Tables in Wonderland. It is a membership program with annual fees and each card is good for up to 10 guests. 20% off of all food and beverage purchases at participating Disney restaurants. That includes all Disney operated locations (except Victoria & Albert at the Grand Floridian) and most other on-property establishments but not all. Check out the current listing HERE. At 20% off it makes the cost of eating at Disney World a bit less outrageous.
About this time last year we were in Vietnam and spent a few days in and around Saigon. I know the map says Ho Chi Minh City but it seemed as if that name hasn’t really caught-on with the locals. Most people that we spoke with still call it Saigon.
The city is a study in contrasts but than so is Vietnam as a whole. Saigon still feature mazes of streets thru neighborhoods packed with small merchants and thongs of people but there are also new upscale housing projects springing up everywhere along with a surprising number of skyscrapers filling in the skyline. A long time ago I remember a million bicycles filling this countries streets but they seem to have given way to mopeds and motorcycles. It wasn’t unusual to see two or more people riding a moped carrying cartons stacked six feet high. On more than one occasion we say a mother, father and two or three children all on the same moped.
We were also puzzled to see a majority of the women riding mopeds wearing long sleeves, gloves and facemasks. Later we were told it is to protect them from the Sun. It seems that pale skin is important to women in Vietnam and they work at protecting themselves from the tanning rays.
In the city center near the Post Office and the Notre Dame Cathedral, you can hire a shinny new rickshaw that now peddles tourists around the central attractions. The square next to the
cathedral is dotted with American fast food outlets in case you need a fix of Dunkin Donuts or Carl’s. The old South Vietnamese Presidential Palace is now renamed the Reunification Palace and even with the numerous reminders of the war most Vietnamese seem truly welcoming to visiting Americans (the official policy of the Vietnamese government is that America is now a valued ally and the people should be welcoming).
Vietnam is a bargain-hunters paradise and, at times, it is difficult to walk away from the bargains. One item that caught our attention in a number of places was the pop-up, laser-cut greeting cards. Vendors were all along Dong Khoi Street and these beautiful cards were being sold for the equivalent of a dollar or two each and we now wish we had bought more. Also the US dollar is widely accepted in Vietnam with the current exchange rate being about 23,000 Dong to the US dollar.
Dong Khoi is one of Saigon’s main shopping streets with many fashion clothing shops, galleries and furniture stores along with good hotels (Sheraton @ $150 a night) and really ood restaurants. Also on Dong Khoi is the famous Opera House, which often offers free operas. A block over is the notorious Rex Hotel with its rooftop bar that was a favorite hangout for war correspondents and military brass back in the day. They still have a great happy hour.
Ben Thanh Market. The cities central market and a must-visit it is Vietnam’s largest and most diverse shopping experience. In the early mornings locals are shopping for fresh meats and produce. Later fashion stalls take over for the rest of the day. Everything is there from silk outfits to bargain T-shirts. You can get printed T’s four as little as US$3 but we would recommend buying two or three sizes too big. I bought some large shirts that won’t fit over my head. The market is also famous for rows of coffee traders, selling an amazing selection of beans. Vietnam has become a major coffee producer with it being one of their major cash crops. Come nighttime a night market opens up alongside the main building, selling everything from clothing, to souvenirs until almost midnight.
Saigon is famous for Lacquer painting, known as sơn mài, made from the resin of the sơn tree. The art form was developed in Vietnam combining French styles with Oriental themes.
From Ho Chi Minh City you can also book a number of excursions and day tours. In the city is the Mariamman Hindu Temple, the Jade Emperor Pagoda and the War Remnants Museum. There are also a number of free guided walking tours sponsored by local schools to give students experience with English. Day tours include the technicoloured Cao Dai Temple, as well as trips to the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Mekong Delta.
Planning a trip to Vietnam soon? We would recommend it but before you go you need a visa. While the government is friendly to Westerners that doesn’t mean they don’t need to know who you are and why you a visiting. Not too many years ago you needed an official guide to travel around the country but that has been mostly eliminated now. Getting a visa isn’t the easiest thing to do on your own we we would recommend a Visa Service to help . It might also be helpful to talk to a Tour Guide service to help you plan your visit.
Note To American Vietnam War Veterans: Before going back “in country” I had some real mixed emotions. I had experienced traveling in Europe in the early 60’s and witnessed some tense moments between Germans and people that had once been occupied. What would it be like in Vietnam? Don’t be concerned. I met more people that have bad feelings toward the current communist government than ex-American GI’s. We did run into one or two people that wanted to remind us of the war (mostly middle aged men with party affiliation) but usually we felt really welcome there.
A Day Trip From Barcelona
If you are visiting Barcelona, Spain, we would recommend that you save a day for a trip to Montserrat. The mountain is home to great hiking trails, grand vistas along with a Basilica, monastery, convents, restaurants and two hotels.
We visited on a tour arranged for us in Barcelona but it is not difficult to plan a trip for a day on your own. Start at the Plaza Espanya train station in Barcelona. The train station is in the same building as a metro station so it’s easy to get to. Follow signs for the R5 train which runs ever fifty minutes or so. The train will take you to stations at the foot of the mountain but, before buying tickets, you will need to decide whether you would like to travel up Montserrat Mountain by Cable Car or by the Rack Railway . There are agents selling combination tickets who can help you decide, so ask them for advice. You also need to confirm which station to exit based on your choice.
The mountain of Montserrat would be worth a visit if it was only a geological
spectacle and that alone draws hikers and rock climbers from around the world. It has also been a religious site from the days of the Roman Empire with a temple to Venus having been built there more than two thousand years ago. Since 888 AD there has been the Christian sanctuary of the Virgin Mary of Montserrat and, in 1025, Oliba, Bishop of Vic, founded a larger monastery at the hermitage of Santa Maria de Montserrat. The monastery soon began receiving pilgrims and visitors who contributed to the spread of stories of miracles and wonders performed by the Virgin. In 1409 the monastery of Montserrat became an abbey and from 1493 to 1835, the monastery underwent numerous improvements, growing and increasing in splendor.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Monastery of Montserrat became a cultural centre with The Montserrat Music School producing a number of significant composers. From the early nineteenth century on the Monastery was abandoned, rebuilt and restored a number of times because of the French War and the Spanish Civil War. Today, Montserrat is again a cultural and religious center welcoming pilgrims and tourists.
I recently came across a good post on avoiding mistakes in visiting Montserrat. Check it out HERE.
Above: Cliff Tops at Pointe du Hoc
The Beaches of Normandy, France
We visited Normandy for a day as a stop on an eastbound trans-Atlantic cruise in the spring. If you find yourself on a similar cruise you will be offered a number of tours including Paris and Normandy. Our choice was partly based on a desire to see the landing beaches but also thinking that a one-day trip to Paris would be just too short. After that day we now firmly believe that if you want to see Paris – spend several days at a minimum but do not pass up any opportunity to see Normandy.
If you are visiting Paris for several days, you should seriously consider a day trip out to the D-Day beaches. There are a number of tours available from Paris to Normandy and many can be booked through hotels. Another option is to rent a car and spend a couple of days in the area on your own. The countryside is beautiful and the people welcoming.
Your day should include a visit to the Caen Memorial Museum, the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer, a tour of Pointe du Hoc, as many beaches (Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, Sword) as you can fit in, Arromanches-les-Bains and the Pegasus bridge. There are also a number of other cemeteries in the area honoring those that gave their lives from the British Commonwealth and many other countries.
Generally, on past visits to France, we have found the French less then accommodating, but, throughout our day, we discovered the people friendly, talkative and still wanting to express gratitude for the American sacrifice on D-Day. While at Pointe du Hoc we saw a number of French school tours visiting and there seemed to be a serious effort to keep that moment in history alive for successive French generations.
Even today, visiting the quiet beaches and the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, the enormity of that event in 1944 still has an emotional impact. It is overwhelming to walk thru the Normandy American Cemetery with the 9,387 head stones standing in row after row, like the fallen soldiers they mark. Walking in the cemetery it is hard to process the number of lives lost in so short a time. The land beneath the cemetery is U.S. soil and the cemetery is maintained and operated by American personnel.
At Pointe du Hoc the tops of the cliffs are spotted with the immense concrete German bunkers and the ground is still gouged with the craters made by the Allied naval gun barrages. The most impressive thing, however, is to look down those ninety-foot cliffs and realize that 225 American Rangers climbed them while under attack from German gunfire and bad weather.
In addition to the D-Day experience is a drive through the beautiful French countryside. There are farms and villages spotted with yellow canola fields and bordered by oak trees thick with clusters of mistletoe. All-in-all an unforgettable experience.
A repositioning cruise traditionally is when a cruise company needs to move ships from one seasonal location to another. Winter is cruising season in the Caribbean while Europe is a Summer market. For that reason dozens of cruise ships head out across the Atlantic every Spring. These Atlantic crossing occur twice a year and are by-far the most common repositioning cruises. There are also other repositioning cruises including Fall Alaska cruises taking ships back to the Caribbean and out across the Pacific. Another opportunity is a late Summer reposition movement down to South America and back in the Spring.
In the past, many of these cruises have been tremendous bargains. A number of years ago these 12 to 15 night cruises could be had for four or five hundred dollars per passenger but probably not any longer. At times those repositioning cruise could even be less expensive than airfare. The down side was that you would have seven to nine straight days at sea. The up side was that the ships provided the same entertainment, the same great cuisine and the same attentive service. Additionally most of these cruises also provided a port call or two at each end of the cruise.
Lately, as cruising gets more popular and more people become frequent cruisers the ships have less trouble filling these cruise cabins and the pricing has regularly adjusted upward as a result. Even so, these cruises are still a very good value considering the length of the cruise.
To decide if these cruises are for you, consider a number of questions about what particularly appeals to you about cruising. In our case we really like the port visits and getting an introduction to exotic locations but we also enjoy the down time provided by “sea days”. We actually look forward to opportunities to catch up on our reading and each of us will go thru a number of books on a crossing. We also appreciate the time to organize our writing and photography. In our case we usually find it easy to stay busy but we know people that claim they would go crazy being stuck on a ship for a week or more.
In addition to the good value these cruises offer some cruise lines have added additional programs for passengers. They range from painting classes to lectures on varied topics. We’ve listened to lectures from a former director of the Kennedy Space Center, an archaeologist discuss their digs in the Eastern Mediterranean and a young lady talking about her adventures solo-sailing across the Atlantic.
So, the next time you start looking at cruise destinations you might consider a repositioning cruise as a good options.