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Archive for the ‘Adventure/active travel’ Category

We recently attended a work conference in Las Vegas.  If you’ve done the same in the past, you know how that can be.  Between the meetings during the day and late nights followed by early mornings, we were happy to get to spend a couple of days in Scottsdale after the conference.  We were fortunate to stay at the Royal Palms Resort, right near the line between Phoenix and Scottsdale on Camelback Dr., where many of the other larger Scottsdale resorts are also located.  But we felt that the Royal Palms really stood out in how intimate, cozy and charming it felt in comparison to the other more expansive, luxurious but less personable golf resorts.  It was originally a private vacation home-built in a hacienda style and as a hotel, it has kept all the charm and homey feel of the original home.  There are many beautiful spaces and nooks and crannies throughout the property with beautiful antique doors, Mexican tile benches, cacti, fireplaces and bougainvillea in bloom, palms, fountains and more.  The rooms are not large but very comfortable, homey and nicely decorated with decor to match the rest of this beautiful oasis of a hotel and some, like mine, with large and beautiful deep soaking tubs.  The food at T. Cook’s was absolutely delicious. The pool was small but quiet and relaxing with great poolside service (try the guacamole!).  All in all, The Royal Palms exceeded our expectations and I would highly recommend it as a great R&R getaway.

 

After a full day of just relaxing at the hotel and catching up on some much-needed sleep, we woke up the next morning and headed out of Phoenix for a full day of sightseeing on the Apache Trail. After some research, we decided this was the perfect way to see some great local scenery in the summer, since most of it can be viewed from the comfort of your air-conditioned car.  I had read conflicting stories about how beautiful the drive was but also some complaints about the safety of its partially unpaved roads. These stories made me even more curious and appealed to my spirit of adventure. So we set out in our rented compact car, with plenty of water and snacks (it was summer after all!), a full tank of gas, and our charged cameras and cell phones.

After passing Apache Junction (the official start of the drive) we came to our first stop, the Superstition Mountain museum. It is an indoor as well as outdoor museum with a reproduction 19th Century Wells Fargo office, stage-coach stop, barber shop, assay office and chapel, all with the beautiful backdrop of the Superstition Mountains.  It was a great first stop to get a feel for the history and landscape of the area. Just down the road is Lost Dutchman State Park, where a number of great trails lead to the Superstition Mountains.

Our next stop was Goldfield Mining Town, an old west ghost town with picturesque “main street,” consisted of shops, a chapel, saloon, brothel, jail and more (some in operation and some great for pictures).  A mine tour and a short train ride are also offered.  We stopped at the cactus shop and picked up some great original souvenirs (Yes! You can bring cacti on planes and they did a great job packing them up).

We continued the drive and admired the desert landscape with intriguing rock formations, saguaro cacti and other interesting vegetation which was foreign to us, when we first came upon Canyon Lake. This is one of four lakes created by the damming of the Salt River and it’s well described by its name. After finding a mostly deserted road on the Apache Trail, we were surprised at the number of local families we found picnicking, swimming, fishing, boating, grilling and generally enjoying their Saturday at this popular spot. The lake shore is easily accessible by car, and with its close proximity to Phoenix, yet remote feel, it is easy to see why it is popular with the locals.

  

After some more driving, we arrived at the much-anticipated old-west stage stop of Tortilla Flat, the only place to grab food and drinks before continuing on the Apache trail.  Here we found good food, a friendly bartender, saddle bar stools, walls covered in dollar bills and some very interesting bathrooms!  And before getting on the road, we tried some of the well-known prickly pear ice cream and were pleasantly surprised. We also met a friendly Harley-driving wanderer named Mike Whitewolf who told us about the drive up ahead and contributed to the allure of our Southwestern drive.

The road becomes unpaved shortly after leaving Tortilla Flat.  It is windy, with the mountain on one side and significant drops on the other but fairly wide and flat so the driving did not feel dangerous or very uncomfortable though we did notice some cars whose drivers seemed very much out of their element driving on unpaved roads.  The scenery and vistas throughout this part of the drive were stunning. There were canyons, gorges, fantastic rock formations, one-lane bridges, distant views of Apache Lake, flats, Saguaros, prickly pear cacti, etc.  There are several places to pull over and even some paved overlooks where you can stop and admire the beautiful vistas as much as you’d like.

The final stretch of the drive took us up to Roosevelt dam, the sight of which surprised us after going around yet another bend in the road. Before we knew it, we were staring right at the massive structure, and stopped at the large parking lot to admire the dam and its surroundings more closely. Given none of us were familiar with this dam, we were all very impressed with its sheer size and feat of engineering. On the other side of the dam, Roosevelt Lake gleamed in the sunlight as did the attractive suspended bridge that we later drove over. Boaters, campers and day-trippers all took advantage of the good weather and calm lake surrounded by the beautiful mountains.

Back on major paved roads after our stop at the dam, and after admiring the lake, we made one last quick pit-stop  to check out the RVs setting up camp with their boats and jet-skis by the lake shore. Then we got on the highway headed back to Scottsdale, arriving back just in time for a local Mexican dinner and a stroll through quaint “downtown” Scottsdale with its many shops, restaurants and bars where tourists and locals mingle and enjoy outdoor seating under the cooling misting hoses . We decided to end our day by testing out this unfamiliar and clever invention by sipping on margaritas while talking about our day’s adventures.

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Linda and Warren H. traveled to Costa Rica this spring for the first time and had quite an adventure! They visited Monteverde and the Quepos and Manuel Antonio areas. This is what they had to say:

“We had a FABULOUS time! All the arrangement worked out great.  The drivers were on time, the hotels had our reservations, the flights  were perfect, and we LOVED COSTA RICA!

I’ll take a little time to tell you about it now because, to tell you the truth, I’m a little depressed about being back and I like talking about the trip!  Of course, the road to Monteverde was a surprise even though I knew what to expect.  But it was a beautiful day and we enjoyed the adventure and the scenery very much.  Even saw a rainbow as we got higher.  Hotel Belmar was on a beautiful site–spacious lush grounds and high enough to see the Pacific.  Selvatura was wonderful.  It wasn’t crowded so we took our time and spent about 3 hours on the hanging bridges, then visited the hummingbird garden.  We discovered that Warren is an excellent “spotter” and he even pointed out animals to our guides throughout the trip.  We also went on a night tour.  The hotel itself was nice enough.  It’s pretty old and smelled a little musty, but it was quaint.  The only real disadvantage was that it is far from town.  Breakfast was excellent.  We ate the rest of our meals in town.  One full day was just enough time there.
It was very exciting to go down the mountain the next day and get closer and closer glimpses of the ocean.  Arenas del Mar is gorgeous!!!!  You have to go there the next time!  It feels like it’s the only hotel for miles around because they’ve kept so much of the rain forest intact.  We felt like royalty from the beginning.  The check-in process was very smooth.  They greeted us at the welcome pavilion and took us and our bags (on golf carts) up the steep, winding path to the reception area (spotting a sloth on the way up) and gave us delicious drinks while they took our bags on to the room.  Our room wasn’t quite ready but we didn’t mind sitting by the pool overlooking Manuel Antonio.  Breathtaking!  Our room was in the lowest building, which meant we were right on the secluded beach where the outdoor lunch area and second pool were.  The beach was so perfect–lots of sun and waves for Warren and all the shade I could ever want.  It never felt crowded even though the hotel was full.  There were always plenty of chairs and room to spread out under the trees.  Lots of white-faced monkeys and 2 sloths entertained us every day on the beach.  And the iguanas were so interesting and comical.  We could hear howler monkeys a lot but they were harder to spot.
The food at the main restaurant was excellent.  There were plenty of vegetarian options for us and they even gave us an additional vegetarian menu to pre-order for a future nights if we wanted to.  We also splurged and took advantage of the spa–very nice.  (We were given a free demonstration on the beach.)
We took two excursions.  The first was a guided walk through Manuel Antonio park.  Our guide was wonderful and since we only had 6 people in our group he was able to answer all of our questions and help us take pictures.  The only disappointment we had was that all the trails except 1 were closed (due to landslides) and that made it a little crowded.  The next day we did a zip line tour and loved it!!!  The one we took was by Safari.  It included lunch (surprisingly large) and a butterfly garden tour.  The course had 11 zip lines, 2 ropes to rappel, and a tarzan swing.  I didn’t know if I would be afraid, but I had no problem at all.  I was very impressed with how it was run.
The hotel staff were superb.  They encouraged us to learn Spanish.  We got to know several  of the staff personally.  I could go on and on about how well we were treated.  We did a little exploring in Quepos and ate 2 dinners there.  The food was good.
Our overall impression of Costa Rica was that the people are very friendly and the country is very beautiful, with mountains and beaches very close.  We were glad that we didn’t rent a car.  We heard from several people who got lost or felt it wasn’t worth the expense.  We are telling everyone that they have to go.  If we had had more time we would have like Arenal, I’m sure.  Everyone we talked to said it is gorgeous.  But I felt like we spent the time we had wisely.
Thanks SO much for all your help.  All of your suggestions were right on target and very helpful.  I don’t see how any hotel in that area could be any better (than Arenas del Mar).  Being right on the beach and in such a lush forest made it very special.”  by Linda H.

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Merhaba!  I recently had an opportunity to travel to Turkey with a group of family members including my 10 and 7-year-old daughters to attend a wedding. I had heard great things about Turkey and was very excited about the trip. I was also looking forward to exposing my children to such a different culture than what they’re accustomed to. I consider traveling part of their education and I was eager to share the different sites, architecture, food, music and other cultural aspects of Turkey.  I had read and heard everywhere that Turks love children, but had also heard there was not much in Istanbul for children to do.  But I didn’t need to worry.  As I usually find out on trips, after a certain age, children are much more easily entertained than adults!  For the most part, they’re also easier to please and impress.

After a stopover in JFK, we left on our overnight non-stop flight to Istanbul. The girls loved having their own personal video screens with a large selection of age appropriate movies and games.   After our arrival at the pristine and modern Ataturk International airport, we sleepily and slowly made our way to our hotel in Sultanahmet, the historic district of Istanbul. It was not too hard to convince everyone to take a short nap but it was not easy to wake them up from it!  As I usually like to do when I arrive in a new city, we decided to take an open-top bus city tour.  It’s a great way to get a good overview of the city as well as learning about the history and sites you are seeing thanks to the audio commentary provided.  Of course the kids loved sitting on the top-level of the double-decker bus.  It was great seeing the different parts of the city, fortresses, mosques, parks, palaces along with the street vendors, fish markets, children playing and local families out and about. 

We had an early dinner at the hotel, our first round of Turkish food.  As we found out throughout the trip, it was not easy pleasing the girls palates. Although they eat a variety of foods at home, Turkish food is very different from what they are used to; from their use of different spices, yogurt and vegetables to the different grains, and ways of cooking.  But we almost always found something they could eat such as pasta, delicious pide (similar to white pizza) , french fries, calamari, rice, humus, some kebabs and watermelon (often served after dinner) and they were happy to find that Turkey has a huge variety of many types of fun shaped and delicious breads which we all enjoyed throughout the trip.  They loved buying fresh squeezed orange juice from the many juice stands and even found they loved apple tea, which is served in tiny glass cups throughout the day and after dinner.  My oldest even brought some back to make at home!  

After an early wake up due to the time difference and the 5:30am call to prayer heard throughout the city, we went for breakfast.  This was an easy meal each morning. There were lots of great choices at the buffet including more western choices such as cereals to more Turkish choices such as olives, feta and other cheeses, yogurt, etc.  The girls mostly enjoyed fresh bread with Nutella every morning, a rare treat back home!   Our first day of sightseeing by foot was spent visiting Ayasofia, where everyone was as impressed with the architecture and frescoes as the girls were taken by the cute kitties walking around the grounds (and throughout the streets of Istanbul).  We also visited the Basilica Cistern, a very interesting site and welcomed break from the mid-day heat. Unfortunately my 7-year-old did not care for the dark, underground site and couldn’t wait to leave.  Fortunately it did not take long to visit and getting ice cream and getting to feed the pigeons afterwards quickly put the scary visit behind her.  The Blue Mosque was beautiful and grand.  The girls loved finally getting to wear the scarves we brought to cover their hair and were very interested to hear about muslim customs. After walking around the Hippodrome, with the different columns, including a small obelisk, we rested our feet during a nice outdoor lunch where the girls had some pide and the waiter made napkin roses for them!  Refreshed, we headed for the Grand Bazaar.  There isn’t much you can’t find there.  The girls were fascinated by the vendors and different types of merchandise.  They had their cheeks pinched by vendors several times (a typical gesture towards children in Turkey) and one especially forceful pinching session drew my 7-year-old to tears after she had walked away.  I found that her big blue eyes were quite irresistible and while she loved the compliments she received, she did not care for the pinching!  My 10-year-old enjoyed buying her own souvenirs and asking for prices at the different stalls and making her own decisions as to whether the price was right. Dinner was enjoyed by all tonight in one of the quaint pedestrian alleys of Sultanahmet. To the delight of the girls, we got to sit at a low table surrounded by a bench covered with lots of pillows were we sat to eat our dinner. This was their chance to eat dinner on the couch!

The next three days were divided between sightseeing and wedding related events.  We walked across the Galata bridge, where we checked out the fishermen and then rode the tram to Galata tower and saw the amazing 360 degree views form the top.  We had dinner at Hamdi, a great restaurant with delicious Turkish food and beautiful views of the waterfront and New Mosque (Yeni Cami).  Some of the adults enjoyed a visit to Cagaloglu, one of the oldest, biggest and most impressive Turkish baths in Istanbul.  We visited Topkapi Palace, a large and beautiful complex of which the nicest and most interesting part was the harem, where we saw beautiful tiled mosaics and the girls were interested to learn that the sultans had many wives but there was a special place where only “the favorites” were allowed.  They were amused by the “posh” baths with gold-plated faucets, mosaic and marble walls and floors yet “toilets” that were carved out of stone and at floor level.  Their favorite palace however was probably Dolmabahce.  Whereas Topkapi has more Asian and Ottoman influences and overall appearance, Dolmabahce is much more Western.  So based on their idea of a palace, Dolmabahce was more, well, palatial!  Huge carpeted rooms in reds and blues with heavy French draperies, high ceilings, French ornate furniture, crystal chandeliers everywhere, high canopy beds, maids quarters, children’s playing rooms, libraries and every other type of room imaginable definitely impressed them. Of course they were also impressed to learn that president Obama had had a state dinner there!  We also all thoroughly enjoyed the Bosphorus cruise.  The ferry is simple, with bench seating and a snack bar on board.  But the views are amazing on both sides.  We made quick stops along the way where we beautiful waterfront homes and lots of different types of boats.  We got off the ferry at the last stop, Anadolu Kavagi, and had a seafood lunch and got to walk around the small town and visit a couple of shops before boarding the return ferry. 

The wedding we attended couldn’t have been more beautiful. It was held at Del Mare, a beautiful restaurant with excellent food on the Asian side of Istanbul.  The setting on the water is amazing, and the beautiful sunset was a perfect backdrop for the couple arriving by the restaurant’s private boat.  Later, once dark, we enjoyed the view of the Bosphorus Bridge, with its light display that changes colors every few seconds.  We had a great time dancing to both American and Turkish music and really enjoyed the food.

We left the amazing historical city and the hustle and bustle of Istanbul behind after 5 days for a very different experience.  We flew from Sabiha Gocken airport, on the Asian side of Istanbul, to Kayseri, in the Cappadocia region of Turkey, known for its striking landscape, unusual rock formations, some known as “fairy chimneys”, underground cities, and entire cities built inside these rock formations, including homes and churches.  On our drive from Kayseri to Goreme, where our hotel was located in the center of Cappadocia, we saw the landscape changing from flat rural land to unusually carved mountains and soon enough we spotted the first fairy chimneys!  Many hotels in this area have taken over some of these ancient “cave homes” and have made the necessary changes to convert them to hotels.  A cave hotel is a must if you want to get the full experience here.  We stayed at Kelebek hotel, a beautiful cave hotel at the top of a hill looking down on Goreme and the valleys surrounding it as well as mountains in the background.  The views from the many levels, patios, restaurant and pool of the hotel were extraordinary.  We never tired of it.  Of course the girls thought it was very cool to stay in a room that was carved into the rock!  And the unusual scenery was unlike anything they had ever seen.  The small and refreshing pool was a welcome sight for them. I enjoyed my local Efes (beer) on one of the loungers with a great view while they splashed in the pool and made friends with an Italian girl who was also on vacation. I enjoyed watching them interact and trying to communicate in languages the others didn’t really speak, with a lot of gestures, grunts, pointing, and translating help from the parents.  But adults can learn from kids.  They managed to have a wonderful time and make a new friend despite the obstacles.  After the relaxing break, we headed for Goreme’s outdoor museum.  It was an amazing place full of previously inhabited cave homes, cave churches with frescos still on the walls, etc.  The girls really enjoyed going in the different rooms and trying to figure out what the rooms and different carved niches were used for and going through door openings, cave hallways and up and down steps carved into the rock to access the different rooms.

The next morning, after being woken at sunrise by the call to prayer coming from the nearby minaret, I decided to go outside my room to one of the hotel’s patios to admire the sunrise.  It was probably the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen.  The colors in the sky were breathtaking and the amazing landscape below made it even better.  Soon, I started seeing the hot air balloons rising up into the sky and before too long, I walked around the entire hotel counting a total of 20 balloons in the sky. This is a popular (albeit pricey) activity in this area that most say is worth the cost and I hope to be able to participate in on my next visit.  After a delicious and plentiful breakfast, we departed on our full day tour of the area.  We started with a 3 km hike in the Rose Valley. It was hot and we drank plenty of water but the views and terrain were unusual and breathtaking. The tour guide picked grapes off forgotten vines which we ate along the way and made the girls forget about the heat for a while.  The path was mostly sandy and could be a little slippery at times. So shoes with good treads are recommended!  After we were picked up by our van, we drove to Pasabag (Monks Valley), where the most unusual mushroom-shaped rock formations can be seen and explored. After some refreshing fresh squeezed orange juice from a vendor, we got back in the van and went to a local large pottery studio and factory where all pottery is made by hand, mostly using pottery wheels and painted by local artists.  The quality was incredible and appreciated even by the non-connoisseurs.  The level of skill, precision and patience required to finish some of the pieces was hard to imagine.  After our visit, we had an excellent lunch at a local restaurant before heading to Kaymakli underground city.  Not for the claustrophobic, or the very tall, this was a very interesting and entertaining tour.  We wandered through 4 floors (all below ground) around the different rooms once used for sleeping, eating, stables, storage, cooking and more, all connected by tunnels were everyone but the girls (finally grateful to be short) had to bend at the waste and crouch down to get around. 

On our way back to town we stopped at an ATV rental shop and decided to take a 1 hour tour (another great way to see the area).  We had an absolute blast going down dirt roads and off-road.  It was a first time on ATVs for all of us and not only was it a fun way to see the are from a different perspective but it was an exciting and great way to end the day.  After being “air dusted” by the guide, we went to dinner and went back to the hotel for one last quick dip in the pool.  To the disappointment of my 7-year-old, the tooth fairy did not come from one of the fairy chimneys this night, no matter how much wiggling she did during the day.  It wasn’t until the flight back to Istanbul that she finally lost her tooth and hoped the tooth fairy would know where to find her!  The following morning was a repeat of the previous one with the amazing sunrise, views and hot air balloons in the sky. After breakfast we departed for the airport for our flight back to Istanbul.  Because most flights back to the U.S. depart early in the morning, we had to spend the night in Istanbul. For convenience, we chose to stay near Ataturk airport and stayed at the recently opened Courtyard by Marriott. I was very happy we stayed there. There are not many great choices around and I would guess that this is the best one. It was certainly the nicest Courtyard I had ever stayed in with very large, modern and nicely appointed rooms, nice bathroom, good restaurant and a beautiful circular indoor pool which we enjoyed this afternoon before dinner and our last night in Turkey.

I highly recommend Turkey as a travel destination. It is such a wonderful mix of Eastern and Western cultures!  It’s a perfect alternative for those who do not want to travel further than Europe, are comfortable in Europe, yet want to explore something quite different.  And for those who have been to Turkey on a cruise and explored the coastal towns should return and explore Istanbul in-depth as well as some of the beautiful inland areas such as Cappadocia.

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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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As we drove into Hot Springs and I looked up over the tree tops and saw the clock on the Homestead’s impressive and distinctive red brick clock tower, I realized that this was no ordinary deluxe resort. This first impression was over twenty years ago and yet I still get that excited feeling when I drive into the small village and look up and see the Tower.

After checking in, we were walking to our tower room when we ran into friends in the lobby. Surprisingly, my wife recalls that years ago this couple had said how much they loved the Homestead, but had also said “put me in the ‘old section’, not the new part”. Our room, located in the “old section” was beautifully and freshly decorated and the bathroom was newly renovated. The wallpaper appeared new as well as the rest of the room’s furniture but nothing could mask the distinct slope of the floor – something that’s charming and prevalent in buildings as old as this one.  Thirty five percent of all rooms have been renovated this year.

We had a very late dinner reservation so we ate a late lunch and then met our friends at the outdoor pool. Quite a few guests were trying to get cool at the pool as the temperature rose into the nineties; something that rarely happens in the mountains. There were plenty of lounges and umbrellas and the well attended bar was busy serving various adult beverages until it closed at 6 p.m.

The dining room was still busy as we arrived a few minutes early for our 9 p.m. reservation.  The trio of musicians was playing easy to listen and dance-to music, and husbands danced with wives next to young dads dancing with their pre-teen daughters. Greeting us as we walked in was Woody Pettus, the every present maitre d’ of the Main Dining Room for fifty years. Whether he really remembers you or not, he sure makes you feel special and lets you know how much he enjoys seeing you that evening.   Among our party, we ordered the Sautéed Mountain Trout “Homestead” with peeled grapes and almonds in lemon butter sauce, duck breast, and medallions of pork – all prepared as you would expect from the finest restaurant. The Homestead offers two other elegant dinner venues, the 1776 Grille and Sam Snead’s Tavern, but we all agreed the Main Dining Room was one of the Homestead’s truly unique experiences and we decided to eat here every night.

The next morning I arose early for an 8:20 a.m. starting time on the Homestead’s Cascade golf course, considered by many to be the finest mountain course in the US, host of several USGA championships, and ranked by Golf Digest #12 on its Best American Resort Courses. The Cascades course is one of three championship courses at the Homestead. I am glad to say that my driver kept me in the fairway most of the day and the greens are usually reachable if your irons are straight, which by some unusual circumstance mine were that day. But, as those of us who play a lot of golf have come to understand, it’s tough for everything to be working all in the same day; my atrocious putting prevented me from having a great score on this impeccably groomed course – but I will putt better the next time I play it.

While Bill and I were enjoying the Cascades, our wives decided to enjoy the services offered by the Homestead’s world class spa.  Built on the centuries-old tradition of “taking the waters,” the spa brings you the most innovative of luxury spa treatments available today in a unique historic setting. Whether you want a typical spa offering such as one of eight different massages, hydrotherapies, body therapies, skin care or hair and nail therapies, the spa offers you many choices to help you relax and to revitalize yourself. My wife and Barbara each reserved a different treatment and each complimented their individual therapist as being extremely professional.

The boys met the girls after golf and spa appointments for a quick lunch and we all lounged for the rest of the afternoon; I got a little more pool time and one more frozen margarita! High tea is served complimentary in the main lobby each afternoon, but we passed on this today. There are too many other activities to list here, but suffice to say, they have something for everybody; fishing, horseback riding, carriage rides, sporting clays, falconry, just to name a few.

Both couples met the next morning to enjoy the Homestead’s legendary buffet breakfast. Served every morning in the Main Dining Room, it offered a wide selection of fresh fruits, ham, bacon, eggs and omelets cooked to order, pancakes, waffles, pastries, and much more; the woman ahead of me at the cooking station ordered chocolate chip pancakes!

After a few purchases in the shops located in the hotel, it was time to pack and say goodbye to one of Virginia’s finest resorts, if not THE finest. If I went to the Homestead every month, perhaps it wouldn’t be so special, but since I don’t go often, it is truly a wonderful experience that everyone should enjoy periodically.

  

Since this is a Virtuoso property, our clients always receive the best price available either for a room or for one of numerous inclusive packages, plus the value-added Virtuoso amenities. These amenities include FREE breakfast daily (that’s a $50 per day bonus), a $100 activity credit per stay, early check-in and late check-out based on availability and a FREE upgrade at check-in if available. By Dan Smith.

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Here’s what clients who recently returned from an anniversary Mediterrenean cruise aboard the Crown Princess with an extended stay in Rome & Vencie had to say about their trip.

  

Where do I start…..our trip was AMAZING!!!!  All went well with our flight to Rome and our transfer to our hotel. The driving in Rome was a little scary, but we made it to our hotel just fine! Our hotel was teeny tiny but nice…I would dare to say that our room was smaller than our room on the ship, but we didn’t mind since we didn’t spend much time there!!! Upon arrival we dropped our bags, took a quick nap and then headed to the Colosseum. Before we left we downloaded a bunch of Rick Steve’s podcasts which ended up being great! We just walked in to the Colosseum, put on our headphones, hit play & got a step by step tour guide from Rick Steves….we would highly recommend this for future travelers!! After the Colosseum we headed over to Vatican City, as you recommended it was best to go there late in the day..that was great advice, we were able to walk right in, put on our headphones & do our own tour. We heard from a lot of our friends on the ship that they waited in lines that wrapped around the square!!! That evening we enjoyed a great meal and then walked in the rain around Rome, had gelato and saw the Pantheon & Trevi Fountain. The next morning we got up early to go to the Roman Forum where we once again did the Rick Steve’s tour & then grabbed our bags and headed to the train station. The train to Civitavecchia was confusing but we managed to make it to the port eventually. The walk to the port was also confusing, but we followed the crowds…the craziest part was the steep staircases we had to lug our luggage up & down!!  (Note from agent: we strongly recommend all our travelers pre-book car or shuttle transportation to and from the port to avoid such hassles).
 
Princess Cruises was all that I hoped for and more. H. and I were both curious about what we would think about cruising & both of us ended up absolutely loving it! The service, atmosphere, prices, entertainment & food were all excellent!! We ended up becoming friends with a few other couples and really enjoyed sitting on their balcony each evening before dinner while drinking wines that we had bought at port!  The first three days of the cruise were exciting as well as exhausting since we signed up for full day excursions in Cannes, Florence & Naples. After the back to back excursions we made some changes to our plans so we had more free time on our own for the future ports…we were glad we did this, but wish we had downloaded Rick Steve’s podcasts for those locations.
 
I would have to say that we loved the island of Santorini the most. Corfu, Capri & Sorrento were all close to the top as well, but riding a donkey up the cliff in Santorini, eating delicious Greek food & riding four-wheelers all over the island led to Santorini winning out!  We were fortunate to not see any strife in or around Greece considering we were there right around the time of the riots.  Athens was quiet since we were there on a Sunday!  
 
Ending the trip in Venice was wonderful….what a beautiful, unique city!! We had a very smooth transfer to our hotel by utilizing the vaporettas. Our hotel (the Casa Verardo) was nice & the location was ideal. We spent the day & night getting lost as well as hanging around St. Mark’s Square…seeing it flood at night was wild!
 
The next morning we had breakfast & headed out to the airport. The flight back was great & as much as we loved our vacation, it was nice to finally be home!
 
Thank you for all of the time that you spent helping us plan this once in a lifetime vacation. Your planning and advice fit just right with what we were looking for in a 2-week European getaway! Thank you for helping to make our dreams become reality! By K.C.L.

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Azamara Club Cruise from Athens (Piraeus), Greece to Rome (Civitavecchia), Italy aboard the Azamara Journey:    A fantastic cruise filled with seeing wonders of the ancient world. 

A wonderful cruise in the Mediterranean aboard the Azamara Journey began in Athens (Piraeus), Greece.   Arriving a day early to Athens gave us time to relax and enjoy the sites of this large, historical city before boarding the ship for our seven-day cruise.  There are many places to enjoy in Athens from the Plaka area to the Parthenon (all are accessible without a guide; just make sure to have a map and information on the sites).  Getting around by foot or the metro are both quite easy.  A highlight is watching the illumination of the Parthenon at dusk.

Leaving Piraeus, we set sail aboard for Kusadasi, Turkey.  I chose to take one of the shore excursions offered by the ship, which included the House of the Virgin Mary and Ephesus.  Both of these sites are quite crowded tourist attractions so I definitely recommend going with a guide.  If you have never been to the area before, these are definitely worth visiting (Note:  remember to bring water and wear sunscreen and bug spray).  The ruins at Ephesus are in amazing condition.   There are many different tours offered by the ship.  I chose a half-day excursion so that we could have a leisurely afternoon on our own in Kusadasi.  There are many shops; Turkish rugs and lamps, silver, and leather seemed to be the most common purchases (Note:  U.S dollars were accepted in most shops).  The shop owners will try to entice you into their shops by offering apple tea or Turkish wine.  I recommend trying both while in Turkey, but make sure you are ready to negotiate (shop owners will try to get you to purchase something). 

Our next port of call was Bodrum, Turkey.  A relaxing change from the hustle and bustle of the big city of Kusadasi!  This seaside port was just what we needed after a previously busy day.  The sailboats and the clear waters of the Mediterranean are absolutely beautiful here.   We chose to take the shore excursion offered by the ship to St. Peter’s castle; however, you certainly could do this on your own (pay in Turkish currency only, no Euros or U.S. dollars accepted).  The castle is worth touring to see remnants of the medieval crusade period and the influence it had on this city.  The afternoon in Bodrum was quite relaxing.  We enjoyed walking the small streets, stopping at tavernas (cafes) along the beach for drinks and lunch, and shopping (no pressure from shop owners here).   A beautiful, friendly city that I will definitely visit again!

Docking the next day in the town of Rhodes, Greece, we chose to walk and see the medieval castle and town on our own.  Meandering through the castle and down the streets within the walls was wonderful.  Shops were scattered throughout and everyone was very pleasant.  After shopping and sightseeing all morning, we walked to the beach in town to enjoy lunch on the water.  An appetizer of tzatziki and a Greek salad was just perfect! 

Along the harbor are the deer that guard the city where it is thought that the Colossus of Rhodes (one of the ancient wonders of the world) may have once stood.  There is much to see on the island of Rhodes, so pick and choose a sampling of sights to see and know that you will want to come back to Rhodes again. 

Cruising the Greek isles is something that should not be missed.  The clear, smooth waters are beautiful.  Make sure to be on deck each evening for sail away and sunset if possible.  Both are amazing!

Our next port of call was the small island of Mykonos.  Arranging a taxi on your own to take you to any of the many beautiful beaches is quite easy (the taxi stand is in the center of the harbor).  Another option is to spend the day strolling through town.  Mykonos has over 400 small churches, each unique.  The small streets can be a bit confusing; however, if you always keep the sea in sight or navigate back to it, you really will not get lost.  Early mornings are very quiet as you walk the town and see the shop owners washing the streets in front of their shops.  Of course, a walk to the windmills is a must.  I suggest heading there first and then wandering your way back through town towards the ship.  You will find so many wonderful restaurants and clubs with great food and drinks.  A great appetizer to try is saganaki.  If you are lucky, you will see the Mykonos mascot, an albino pelican; he is known for “hanging out” near restaurants for fishy treats.  This port of call is such a relaxing day that you will understand why it is often a destination for three to four-day vacations. 

Our last port in Greece was the town of Katakaloon where I chose a shore excursion to Olympia.  The ruins for the ancient Olympics are so vast and impressive!  It is a must see!  The amount that has been excavated and the condition of the pieces inside the museum are quite amazing.  Sprinting from the starting blocks at the Olympic stadium is a photo moment!  The town of Katakaloon is quite small, so do not worry about most of your day being spent in Olympia. 

Sailing from Katakaloon you leave the last of the Greek isles to head towards Rome.   The last day is a relaxing day at sea.  You will definitely want to get up to see the sailing around the boot of Italy, a beautiful view of the coast of Italy and Sicily.   There are many things to do on the ship on the last day:  relaxing at the pool or spa, playing in the casino, enjoying a wine tasting or onboard entertainment to name just a few.  I recommend the wonderful therapeutic spa; it is a great for the muscles and tired legs. 

We disembarked in Civitavecchia.  We decided to extend our trip and stay an extra night in Rome.  It was wonderful to sightsee in this Italian city.  A bit more of history brought to life from the Colosseum to the Roman Forum or the Spanish steps.  More than a day’s worth to see, after all Rome was not built (or toured) in a day!

The entire trip upon the Azamara Journey was wonderful.  The size of the ship was quite nice, as you were able to easily get around on board and able to get into smaller ports of call.  The crew was extremely friendly and willing to assist in any way possible to make your cruise more enjoyable.  On board entertainment was mediocre; however, the days in port were quite extensive and we did not need nightly entertainment.  Instead we chose to enjoy a longer, relaxed dinner with other passengers we had met, followed by music and dancing in the Looking Glass Lounge.  The food was quite good in the dining rooms; we also enjoyed dining in both of the specialty restaurants on board. 

If you are interested in a relaxing way to see many of the sights of ancient history, I would certainly recommend this cruise!  By H. McKenzie.

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