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Archive for September, 2010

Our voyage began with an extended stay in Amsterdam, Netherlands.  Amsterdam is a beautiful, bustling city which offers a variety of walking tours that I highly recommend.  I chose to be adventurous and stroll through the old city on my own following a printed walking tour from Frommer’s which took about 3 hours.  This tour highlighted all of the “must see’s” of Amsterdam:  the Royal Palace, New Church, the National Monument, the flower markets, Zeedijk and the Red Light District, and other sites.  If you have time, I recommend ordering tickets for Anne Frank’s house online before you get to Amsterdam (the lines are quite long, but can be avoided if you purchase tickets early).   Canal cruises are available on most streets, but note, if you venture a bit into town you will find some better deals.     

Leaving Amsterdam, we set sail for Cologne, Germany aboard our river barge, the River Ambassador.  Cologne is a wonderful German town.  Our guide took us through the Dom (Cathedral), where you can see the Shrine to the Three Magi, and to many historic points of Cologne.   A great stop is to go to Früh, the largest brew house in Germany (it is actually larger than Munich’s).   The local beer is known as Kolsh.  Make sure to put a coaster on top of your beer when you are finished though, or they will keep bringing them to you! 

The next stop was Koblenz, Germany where the Moselle and Rhine rivers meet.   The narrow streets of Koblenz are quaint and picturesque.  A morning tour takes you to the historic churches and through the Old town.  The cruise line offers an extended afternoon tour to Marksburg Castle for a fee.  We chose to walk around town and to climb the William I monument for a beautiful view of where the two rivers join.  There is also a cable car that takes you to the Electoral Palace and over the rivers for 8 euros. We were docked there late into the evening, so we ventured back into town to try the local wines at a typical Weinstube (wine tavern).    

The next morning we were up early to sail the romantic Rhine Valley.  More than 40 castles are located along this stretch of the river.  Our cruise director narrated the history of the area and stories of the castles as we enjoyed the view from the deck.  Local beer, sausage, and pretzels were served. 

That afternoon we sailed into Rüdesheim.  Our cruise director took those interested in a quick tour of the small village.  Time on your own could be spent exploring the self-playing music instrument museum, shopping, taking the tram up to the Neiderwald monument, or enjoying local wines at a winestube.  A local favorite is Rüdesheim coffee:  a coffee made with brandy and set on fire.  An afternoon wine tasting tour to Schloss Vollrads vineyard was wonderful.  Even if you do not drink wine, I recommend taking this tour to see the beautiful Riesling wine roads.  A paid excursion into town for a typical German dinner with entertainment was offered.   (As a note, there are many biergartens with entertainment, so you could choose to do this on your own without paying for an excursion.) Having experienced something similar before, we chose to have a German meal on deck and watch the sunset on the Rhine.  This had to be one of the highlights of the trip.  I certainly recommend taking advantage and signing up for this whatever night it might be offered (they can only do it on a night when you are not sailing). 

The next morning we docked in Speyer, Germany.  A tour was offered of the town in the morning, but you could certainly walk this on your own.  Speyer is small, but quaint.  The largest Romanesque cathedral in Europe is situated in the center of town and is a “must see.”  An extended tour to Heidelberg is planned for this day.  I recommend taking the tour to see this very large, beautiful castle and to have some time on your own in town for shopping and sightseeing in Heidelberg. 

 Leaving Germany we set sail for Strasbourg, France.  A beautiful city situated in the Alsace region of France.  A morning canal tour of the city and the L’Ill River was wonderful!  The rest of your day was spent sightseeing on your own.  We chose to stroll through the cathedral and then have lunch in the area known as Petit France. 

 Our last day was a full-day tour along the Alsatian Wine Roads.  We started in the small French village of Keysersberg.  Here we saw the famous storks which migrate from South Africa to this region.  Our next stop was in Riquewihr, another picturesque French wine village.  You must try the local tarte flambee!  C’est fantastique!  There are many wine tasting rooms from the local vineyards located here, but you must have a planned tasting time if you want to enjoy these.  Your local guide can schedule one if asked.

 Our last stop of the day was in Colmar.  We chose to walk to the area known as Little Venice and sightsee there.  Located in Colmar is the home of Bartholdi, the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty.  We were here on a Saturday and also enjoyed a beautiful orchestra concert in the park!

Many locks are located along the Rhine.  You will certainly want to be on deck to watch sailing through one.  As we sailed from the Alsace region, we entered several.  The oldest lock is located just before Basel and was built in 1932. 

Our cruise ended in Basel, Switzerland.  Here we disembarked and added on a few more days to see Switzerland.  Walking tours of Basel are quite easy.  You can see the Münster Cathedral and the Marketplatz Square all located in the Old Town.  On Sundays most shops are closed in Switzerland, so keep this in mind. 

We took a tour to Lucerne, Switzerland.  This has to be one of the most beautiful cities, perfectly located along the Alps.  A crystal clear lake runs through the city.  The old bridges where history unfolds in pictures as you walk through are amazing.  Small restaurants and historic churches align the waterfront.  It is no wonder this town is such a tourist attraction.   

Our last day, we took the train to Zürich.  There are trains that run every half hour from Basel directly to Zürich.  The train station in Zürich is located in the heart of the Old town.  A walking tour here is quite easy as well.  Make sure to visit St. Peter’s (the largest clock face in the world), Grossmünster, and Fraümunster.   Also Bahnhofstrasse is a famous street for very expensive shopping (similar to Rodeo Drive).  I recommend taking time for lunch somewhere along the lake; we chose to have Swiss fondue.  The portions are large so make sure to share!

The entire trip was wonderful!  Traveling in late August- early September the weather overall was very pleasant.  Temperatures varied from mid 50’s to low 70’s.  Make sure to plan to dress in layers (cooler mornings and evenings, but warmer afternoons).  Although we had some rain showers, this really did not interfere with our tours or sightseeing.  The food on the ship was good. They incorporated many local cuisine dishes which were enjoyable; having local wines and beers included with dinner was also nice.  The ship had been recently renovated and all accommodations were comfortable and clean.  The staff on board was extremely friendly and accommodating.  I would definitely recommend taking this cruise to see a beautiful part of the world! By H. McKenzie.

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Clients and friends write from The Victoria Falls Hotel in Zimbabwe with news of their adventure in southern Africa.

“You really outdid yourself this time.  Everything has gone so perfectly it is unbelievable and all of the planning you did has made for such a wonderful trip.  I’m so impressed with Thompson’s Africa (tour operator) and how they have handled everything also.  Cape Town was unbelievable in its beauty, with wonderful places to eat and all of the events you planned were just perfect.  KLM flights were great, all on time and service unreal (business class).  Hotels have been great.  We are really in a gorgeous place here in Victoria Falls.  We have free wireless in the hotel so getting caught up a little this evening as we had a little time to rest before starting on a vigorous schedule again tomorrow.  Kruger Park was unreal.  We saw unbelievable sights to include two huge lions right beside the road, leopards mating, herds of elephants with babies, more giraffes than we could count, hyenas, hippos, kudus and so many kinds of different deer we couldn’t count–zebras, warthogs, birds, etc.  On night safari, a big white rhino was in the road and we had to wait for him to decide to move–awesome!!!!!!! At Cape Peninsula we saw elands, ostriches, and was so beautiful.  Robben Island was so inspiring with what Nelson Mandela went through there.  Winelands tour was super–visited a cheetah recovery farm there also as well as seeing zebra, etc. And they met us here and gave us our details for the time here and at Chobe Park –things have gone extremely well with every hotel and event–we can’t thank you enough.”
 
The next day:  “We had another wonderful day.  The Flight over the Falls (Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe) was unbelievable.  The 15 minutes is quite adequate.  We flew over the falls with a wonderful view; over the bungee jumping bridge that separates Zambia and Zimbabwe and then over the bush just nearby and saw three herds of elephants.  Just got back from the Walk with the Lions.  3 young lions, 2 females age 14 months and a male 11 months old.  You pet them as much as you wish with the assistance of the guards and an armed park ranger as well.  On the way there and back we saw several elephants, zebras, kudus and more waterbucks.  Off to the Boma dinner this evening.  The Victoria Falls Hotel is just gorgeous and of course if very elegant with high tea.  We received one day high tea complementary with our stay (A Virtuoso exclusive amenity).  Did it yesterday and was great.  These pictures were taken at Kruger Park. Jack has taken about 1,000 photos since we have been gone, so I will just send 4 for now of the animals that we saw.  He’s also keeping a journal so he will be happy to write a summary when we return. More later and thanks again for arranging such a wonderful trip.” 
Last day at Victoria Falls:

 “Good Evening! Another wonderful day.  Again, I don’t know how you put this program together.  Everything continues to go the smoothest of any trip ever.  The Boma dinner was fantastic last evening with wonderful Zimbabwean food, music. Jack and I both ate the Mopani Worm and have a certificate to prove it!  We all got our own drums and beat them.  I danced when they wanted audience to come do an African dance. 

Today the walk to the falls was awesome with a great guide.  The total Falls is about 2 kilometers or 1.2 miles with most of it on the Zimbabwean side of the Zambezi River–the other being in Zambia.  We went to the statute of Livingstone and saw the Island from where the falls were first written about in England. This is the best time of the year for viewing as the water is lower and the mist is plenty but not enough to keep you from viewing close up. We came back to the hotel, rested a bit and then walked back down to the Bridge that goes over the river below the Falls and you can walk through immigration border to the Center of the Bridge where there is bungee jumping–huge drop of 110 meters.  You cross over into the Zambian side but do not have to buy a new visa for return if you just go briefly into the country.
The sunset cruise is a must–unreal.  Above the falls.  At one point saw 8 hippos swimming and raising their heads out of the water.  A huge elephant grazing on an Island and later walking through the water back to the Zambian shore.  Two more later on as well as several other hippos–WOW!!!!  What a day.  Attaching a picture of the lion cub -14 months old that we walked with and petted over and over, the mopani worm, two pictures of the Falls and one of the elephants we saw this evening.  Off to Camp Chobe in Botswana tomorrow.” 
News from Johannesburg after visiting Chobe National Park:  “The trip just continues to go unbelievably well.  Thompsons has been unbelievable.  Always on time and very organized.  We are on our last night in Johannesburg this evening.  Soweto was unreal with the shacks that people live in and no schools, electricity, etc with over 2 million living there. nearly 30% unemployment in the country. The southern part certainly is so much more prosperous in the Winelands area as well as the beauty of Capetown and environs. 
Chobe Park was unbelievable as well as the Chobe Game Lodge.  They could not have been better and unbelievable at the sights we saw.  There are 45,000 elephants in Botswana and I swear we saw 36,000 and learned so much about them as well as seeing kudus, impalas, Sable, baboons, giraffes, leopards, two female lions, buffalo, strange birds, and masses of baboons.  The Lodge was unbelievable with food, service, etc.  The trip to the village in Nimibia was also well worth the trip and so happy we did this. 
We also saw, petted, walked with and scratched lions for about an hour.  There were 3 and this one is a female alebout 14 months old.  A little scary but you have a ranger there with a weapon in case anything goes wrong. An elephant from the sunset cruise on a Zambian Island. Hippos–saw 8 in one group; elephants from some of the families we saw there. Saw as many as 32 in one family–baby ones and all sizes; a beautiful sable, and finally elephants and baboons together going for evening water in the Chobe River which separates the two countries.”
Last night in South Africa: “It’s quite unbelievable that we’re coming to the end of this fabulous trip.  The past two days have been windy and dusting in Jo’Burg.  Today the wind has stopped and the sky is brilliant blue.  The perfect day for our city tour.  We fly out at mid-night, ending what has been an absolutely perfect adventure.  To be honest, I expected that of all our adventures, this had the highest probability for mishap.  However, everything has been perfect.  Thompson and/or their subs have served us extremely well.  Everything has work perfectly and with absolute punctuality.  I delighted with the Melrose complex in Jo’burg.  The hotel, in particular (Melrose Arch), well, dramatic to say the least.” 
TIPS from the travelers: 
“Southern Africa Visas:  A US citizen may freely enter South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia without a visa (or they are issued upon arrival at the airport).  Zimbabwe requires a visa and if you plan to purchase on entry at the airport expect some confusion and minor delay.  No computers here. All entry work is done by hand and requires two to three agents.  CAUTION 1:  Our plans were to fly into Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, stay several days, then to cross into Botswana/Namibia, and return to Victoria Falls Airport solely to depart the area.   This requires a “dual entry” visa ($45) vs a regular visa ($30).  If you neglect to purchase “dual entry” at the airport you’ll have to purchase another visa to enter at the border post, which is even more complicated.  Having the exact amount is a big time saver. CAUTION 2:  If you opt to visit the bridge connecting Zimbabwe to Zambia make it very clear to the agent that you are not exiting Zimbabwe or entering Zambia — simply visiting the bridge.  You’ll be issued a special pass to clear the border without using one of your visa exits. 
 
Safari and Bad Backs:  We took two game drives in each of two locations in southern Africa.  In Kruger National Park, SA, our 3-hr twilight drive was 100% on paved roads.  Our 8-hr drive was ~95% on paved roads with the remainder on hard-packed dirt surfaces.  Kruger is definitely bad back friendly.  Hard surface roads don’t exist in Chobe National Park, Botswana.  While the Chobe Game Lodge is a marvelous place to stay, use caution about game drives.   If you opt to take part expect to be seriously jostled and pummeled.  However, Chobe drive do tend to be shorter, usually ~3 hrs.”
By Will Williams and Jack Buchanan.

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The last time that I stayed at the Greenbrier was two years ago. At that time, it was two months from bankruptcy and its future was uncertain. It was still a great resort, but small cracks were evident in service levels and offerings. Small things like rotating dining room menus and finger bowls in the dining room had been cut. I actually overheard an employees’ meeting discussing ways to cut services to cut costs; employee relations were low and therefore morale was also low.

 Now out of bankruptcy and under the ownership of Jim Justice, I am pleased to tell everyone that the Greenbrier is better than ever. My wife and I along with seventy-five other couples just returned from a three night golf trip to the Greenbrier and things have really changed – all for the good. Employee morale is very obviously at an all time high. Every employee (except one banquet waitress) was obviously excited to be working and wanted the guests to know that fact; smiles and pleasant greetings were received from all employees from the bellmen and front doormen, to the registration clerks, to the golf shop employees, to the dining room wait staff, to the new casino employees. Every employee with whom I came into contact convinced me that they wanted to do anything they could to enhance my stay.

 The classical architecture, the Dorothy Draper decorated interior, the three world-class golf courses, and the wonderful main dining room all continue to wow guests, but the new dining venues and the new casino really enhance the Greenbrier’s offer. The new casino, open only to hotel guests and certain other Greenbrier associated clubs, is more like a European casino than Las Vegas. A hundred thousand square foot casino is small by Las Vegas standards but is plenty for the Greenbrier. The resort was full during our stay and the casino had lots of patrons, but it did not feel overcrowded. One very obvious and welcomed difference from “Vegas” was the casino’s no smoking policy. The ten o’clock complimentary champagne toast of luck to all guests was a nice touch although my comment card included a suggestion to eliminate the dancing performances in the casino.

 Perhaps the biggest changes have come from the enhanced dining choices. The main dining room, Draper’s, and Sam Snead’s at the Golf Club continue to provide guests with the same offerings that they have for years. A new steak house, equal to most steak houses that I’ve ever visited now occupies the space once housing The Old White Lounge.  Order one of several choices of prime steaks or dry aged beef, or splurge and order a Wagyu beef steak that is ordered and priced by the ounce. Friends dined here and reported a wonderful meal.

 A “pizzeria and wine bar” now occupies the space previously housing Draper’s. We found this more of a full Italian restaurant than a wine bar and everyone in my party had a four course dinner. We ordered personal pizza, calamari, a veal steak, baked chicken, and shrimp and lobster pasta and all were delicious.

 Part of the new underground casino construction included a new sushi and Oriental restaurant. Although no one in my party tried In-Fusion, the menu looked great and I look forward to eating there next time I visit.

 How do you enhance an already outstanding golf program? You start at the entrance. A modern, colorful sculpture of golf tees now sits at the golf club entrance – it’s a nice addition. The large locker rooms and pro shop have not been touched and remain world-class. New uniforms for all starters and course marshals included neckties. Although they didn’t do much to improve my game, they really added a touch of class that was observed by all with whom I played.

 In summary, the always classy Greenbrier has just become more so. The noticeable high employee morale coupled with the enhanced dining and entertaining venues have come together to make the Greenbrier one of the country’s top resorts. Its aggressive pricing packages now make the Greenbrier more affordable than ever before. You owe it to yourself to spend a few nights at the Greenbrier and enhance your “return on life”.

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It’s the little things that separate good resorts from great resorts, and Tides Inn is a good resort. When we recently pulled up to the motor entrance, there were four cars parked in the circle, no one in any of the vehicles, and not a door man or porter in site. We were sure a porter would appear in minutes but after waiting, my daughter and I unloaded the luggage and schlepped it into the lobby ourselves while my son-in-law backed out of the circle and parked his car.

My wife had checked in the day before so there was no issue with my room being ready. Check out time is 12 noon at Tides Inn and it was now 2:15 p.m.; in spite of calling ahead and being told that her room would be made up as soon as the present occupants checked out, my daughter’s room was not ready. That really was no problem because we had not had lunch so we went to the pool restaurant for lunch. We all ordered a round of beverages and an order of quesadillas to start. When the drinks arrived, we ordered lunch. In due time, our lunches arrived but we never saw (or missed) the quesadillas. The waitress placed our orders in front of us and disappeared, leaving no napkins or flat wear; with no one else there, I had to help myself to utensils on other unoccupied tables. The BLT sandwich and the crab cake sandwich we ordered were both good, although we all thought it a little strange that the crab cake was served with a bowl of tarter sauce that must have measured at least one full cup! My daughter’s chicken garden salad looked like weeds from the back yard with a few pieces of chicken; I ordered my hamburger cooked medium and it was served well done.

My wife and granddaughter indulged themselves before I got there with room service breakfast. They ordered it the night before and it was delivered on time, hot, and 100% complete.

Both grandmother and granddaughter also visited the spa. The spa area is small, as you would expect a 100 room resort to have, but both said it was clean, bright, and the aestheticians were friendly and accommodating.

The Tides Inn décor is bright, clean and shows well. Our bathroom was modern and pleasant. Every staff member that we encountered was extremely pleasant and friendly. The Tides Inn has one inherent problem that any resort located on the water will have; that’s a mildew smell in the rooms. This is the same problem we encountered ten years earlier when my wife and I last were there. I have been to dozens of seaside resorts and the great ones solve this problem; the good, mediocre, and poor ones don’t seem to be able to solve this problem.

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