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Archive for the ‘Group travel’ Category

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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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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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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