Taking New York City By Storm

Carri of Fox World Travel recently took a trip to The Big Apple.  Hear all about her experience here!

New York Skyline

When my children graduate from high school, their gift from us is a vacation weekend of their choice.  This time it was my daughter’s turn, and she chose New York City for her celebration weekend.  We took along several friends who had also never visited the Big Apple.  We planned a busy weekend because in my daughter’s words “I’m going to be a poor college student for a very long time and won’t be able to do this on my own, so I want to see as much as possible on this trip”.

Day 1 We arrived into La Guardia and within five minutes saw Honey Boo-Boo and her mom ordering fast food in the airport.  A hilarious start to our weekend!

Our hotel for three nights was the Crowne Plaza Times Square.   I chose this hotel for the excellent location at 49th and Broadway, situated right in the heart of Times Square, the Theatre District, and within steps of the stop for the Hop On/Hop Off.

On my daughter’s “must do” list was a craving for authentic New York Pizza.  We had asked our 143limo driver for a recommendation, and he steered us to Lazzarra’s Pizza in the Garment District.  After checking in to the hotel and dropping off our luggage we took off on foot to find this place.  It was a quick 15 minute walk from our hotel and the pizza was fabulous.

I wanted everyone to see the Statue of Liberty by night, so I booked the Harbor Lights Cruise with Viator.  We sailed at 7pm as the narrator pointed out various sights from the water.  This was a 90 minute cruise along the shoreline and the East River, highlighted by cruising around the Statue as the sun set.  The scene was beautiful as the Statue glowed and the NYC skyline twinkled in the night.

Halal Guys LineAnother “must do” was to find a food cart that we had seen on the TV show Diners, Drive-Ins, and DivesThe Halal Guys operate a cart featuring Indian cuisine.  We found the original location, and for $6 we received a huge bowl of steaming chicken, rice, and vegetables accompanied by various sauces.  It was delicious!  Every time we passed the cart over the weekend there was a long line of tourists, locals, and businessmen.  We later learned that this cart brings in $4000-$5000 on an average day!  (Pictured is the line for the food cart!  Photo courtesy of the Halal Guys official website)

Day 2  Next on our list was a visit to the 911 Memorial and Museum.  I had visited the Memorial in the past, but was looking forward to the Museum which just opened on May 21st.  We purchased tickets ahead of time and when we arrived we walked straight in to a line marked “Top of the Hour 911MuseumTours”, bypassing lines of people waiting to purchase tickets.   The 911 Museum is very well done, but impossible to describe.  It takes you through every aspect of the tragedy, even showing you video coverage of the terrorists passing through airport security on that terrible day.  Visitors are able to view profiles and pictures of every person who perished that day, and listen to stories told by their friends and family members.  We listened to recordings left by the victims on voicemails to their loved ones, and saw the stairway that many of the survivors used to escape that day.  There are far too many things to even begin to describe.  We spent four hours here but agreed that you could easily spend a full day here and not see everything.  It was truly a moving experience, and a place that I think every American should visit. Photo courtesy of 911memorial.org

Day 3  This morning we biked through Central Park.  Biking through the park on a summer Saturday morning was slightly chaotic.  People were skateboarding, biking, and running, and there wasn’t much room to maneuver.  There were so many runners on the trails that I mistakenly assumed that it was a race.  It was actually just weekend traffic.  I think biking would have been much more enjoyable midweek.

By this time we were starving, so we found an Irish pub for lunch before heading off on our next adventure, the TMZ Tour.  This is a great idea for anyone who is up on pop culture.  We saw numerous homes of movie stars and music people, including Katie Holmes, Robert DeNiro, Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman, Beyonce and Jay Z.   We saw the “in” restaurants, clubs, and hotels, and saw the entourage waiting for the arrival of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.  His birthday party was being held there that night.  It was a fun fast two hour tour and I’d highly recommend it.       

At that point we decided to check TKTS for last minute show tickets.  TKTS is a booth in Timesfantasticks Square that offers discounted show tickets for that evening’s performances.  Based upon a recommendation we grabbed tickets at $50 each to see Fantasticks – the world’s longest running musical.  We hustled off to the tiny theatre and enjoyed this hilarious performance.  My daughter said it was the highlight of her weekend. 

After the show we headed to Ellens Stardust Diner for a late dinner.  This is a “must do”!  Ellen’s is a retro 1950’s themed diner where the wait staff sings and performs.  Prices were reasonable, the food was great, and the entertainment was incredible.  There is a lot of talent working in this diner and we had a great time here. 

startdust

 Day 4 Our busy, fun-filled weekend ended with a quick NYC breakfast of a bagel and coffee, followed by our private transfer back to La Guardia.  

 

For more information on NYC Destination Travel click here or contact a Vacation Travel Specialist today!

 

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Adventures in Alaska with Katie Tappa

FAIRBANKS

I arrived the Fairbanks airport and was warmly greeted by a Royal Caribbean representative that took my luggage and directed me to the waiting1 area for our group.  Next was a brief drive to Pike’s Waterfront Lodge – which was to be our host for the first night.

I honestly can’t say enough about the hospitality of this property.  What it lacks in the grandiose landscapes of some other Alaskan towns – it makes up for in personality.  It was absolutely adorable; with tons of fun activities for travelers of all ages.  The owner, Jay made us feel like family and this was hands down the best stay during our tour.  My hotel room was very nice with a little balcony overlooking the Chena River.

We were treated to an unexpected dinner at the onsite restaurant next door which was delicious.  It’s a great dining option for weary travelers arriving (and for locals too!)

We spent the morning on the Riverboat Discover Tour which is included for all guests on a 2RCCL and Celebrity tours that include Fairbanks.  This is a must do!  So much more was included than I expected.  In addition to the ride on the old fashioned Sternwheeler, you get to stop off for 3 different educational areas meant to recreate some of the Native fishing camps, home steads, a small recreation of a Husky kennels and more.

DENALI

We arrived at Grande Denali Lodge which is perched high into the Cliffside which makes 3for a winding, scenic drive up.  The view rooms overlook “Glitter Gulch”, the tourist area of Denali.

Next we visited the McKinley Village Lodge.  This complex is HUGE so they do have a golf cart operating from the main lobby to each building for those who may have mobility issues.  It was clean and comfortable, with a log cabin décor throughout.

4I chose the Husky Homestead for my optional excursion and would recommend this tour for any animal lover.  We spent time touring Jeff King’s kennel.  He is a three time Iditarod champion and has competed every year for the last 24 years!  Fun fact: it costs him approximately $100,000 every year to participate in the Iditarod. We got to meet with the Husky puppies (too cute!) but also hear about his experiences in raising sled dogs and the competition.

The tour concluded around 830 pm and with our 5 am bag pull coming the next morning – I called it a day and headed off to bed.  We were scheduled on the 6 am Natural Wilderness Tour in Denali National Park.  To say that it was worth the early wake-up call would be a complete understatement.  It was breathtaking.  In terms of wildlife, we encountered a grey wolf, a moose, caribou, and an artic squirrel.  The rarity of these animal sightings was a great learning opportunity.

5We then boarded the Wilderness Express for lunch and transportation to Talkeetna.  This was one of the best parts of our tour.  The drink and dining menu was excellent and delicious.  The staff onboard was charming, comical, and informative.  The 3 ½ hours just flew by with a great combination of laughter and learning.

TALKEETNA

We arrived into the “big city” of Talkeetna in the early evening for a site inspection at our host hotel, Talkeena Alaskan Lodge, which was located only 10 minutes away from town, with a shuttle running every ½ hour.

The hotel was very nice but it was the least authentic “Alaskan” experience we had up until6 that point.  The sales director made it clear that the locals did not much like having this big corporation in their backyard.  The hotel was making conscious efforts to repair this relationship by featuring local influences in their restaurant, shops, etc.  Rooms  were very clean and well appointed – the lobby was beautiful with picture windows and a stunningly huge stone fireplace.

The town is home to the climbers who come to tackle Denali.  It is SMALL – walking the downtown stretch takes about 15 minutes.  It has whimsical little restaurants and shops, and a few offices for tour operators.  And that’s really about it!

7We had plenty of free time during this stop – both on our arrival evening and the following morning and afternoon.  I spent many hours bumming around town.  I enjoyed warm, reasonably priced coffee at the organic “Conscious Coffee”, pizza by the slice at “Mountain High Pizza Pie” and locally made brew at  “Denali Brewing Company”.  All were excellent, authentic experiences.  Unfortunately, in all my wandering – I never stumbled across the “Mayor” of Talkeetna.  Mr. Stubbs is a cat who apparently has a stubby tail, only drinks water from wine glasses, and has retained been voted mayor of this quirky town for the last several years.  This sort of randomness is everywhere in Talkeetna – and I think they like it that way.

ALYESKA / GIRDWOOD

The drive from Talkeetna to Alyeska was along the Skagway Highway and was breathtaking.  This highway is often voted as one of the world’s most scenic drives.

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Fun Fact – While our original itinerary listed our next stop as Alyeska; that is not the name of the town.  I learned upon arrival that the town is called Girdwood and that Alyeska refers to the ski resort at the base of the mountain of the same name. The Hotel Alyeska was our host hotel for a mere single night, although I think both our tour guides and the rest of the agents would have been happy to stay here the remainder of the trip! It was just gorgeous!

I can’t gush enough about this resort – 5 stars all around.  Arguably one of the most luxurious I have ever seen or had the pleasure of staying at.  Rooms were well appointed9 and comfortable.  Meticulously decorated with no expense seemingly spared – it was high end while still being warm and welcoming. The hotel is home to the Alyeska Tramway and our stay included tickets to the top. The ride up takes just about 3-7 minutes and the views are stunning.  There is a bar and gourmet restaurant at 2,300 feet up called “Seven Glaciers”.

10The hotel had a number of mid to high end shops so it was easy to fill the remaining hours right onsite.  They also host a number of fun events and festivals throughout the year.  We happen to arrive during the celebration of the Fiddlehead Music Festival.  They had a large outdoor stage area set up, live folk music, food and beer tents, and locals selling their goods.  It was fun to have this type of activity available to guests.

ANCHORAGE

The biggest city in Alaska, Anchorage is home to 400,000 residents.  It feels very much like any other US city with big box stores like Cabela’s and Targets now peppered throughout.  It still retains its charm with many great independent, small businesses mixed in as well.

We started off the morning at the Anchorage Museum – oh my goodness, what an00 experience!  This Museum is an official Smithsonian affiliate and boasts an endless amount of Native Alaskan relics.  By and large the most impressive museum I have ever visited.  We only had about a 1 ½ hour here and it didn’t even crack the surface of all there was to see and learn.  The museum includes the most impressive children’s area – the “Imaginarium” with larger than life bubbles, physics stations, dioramas, marine life stations, and much, much more. This would be a must see for families visiting Alaska.  A traveler could easily fill an entire afternoon here.  The museum also offers a surprisingly gourmet restaurant onsite that served a lunch that was to die for!

Next up was the Alaska Native Heritage Center.  We added this tour last minute and I am so glad we did.  They had some Native dancers sharing their traditional song and dance, recreated and authentic totem poles, homes, tools, garments – and so much more.  They also have a small sled dog kennel, with an opportunity to experience a sled dog ride for an extra $10.  It’s a good stop for any guests who may have a couple of free hours in Anchorage.

Here we had a bittersweet farewell reception.  I can’t say enough how much we enjoyed our team.  Aimee Price with Royal Caribbean, Jocelyn with Premier Alaska Tours, and our driver, Marilyn were all so lovely and managed our group so efficiently.   Their patience and thorough explanations allowed us all to learn more than we could have imagined.  Their warm personalities made all of us feel comfortable.  It was a great group of travel agents from all over the country, in all different types of travel agencies.  I learned much from them as well.

After our goodbyes, the majority of us decided to go into town for one last dinner (and a few drinks of course!) together.  After a few unsuccessful attempts (it is apparently very hard to seat medium and large size groups in Alaska!), we ended up at McGinley’s Pub – a little Irish bar and restaurant a few blocks from the Marriott.  Service was great with a large variety of local, Alaskan brews on tap.  We laughed and recapped our adventure for hours before bidding each other safe travels home.

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Boutique River Cruise in Italy with Lisa Pease

Lisa Pease, Manager and Travel Specialist in Fox World Travel’s Sheboygan Office recently had the opportunity to explore Venice and the Gems of Northern Italy with Uniworld Boutique River Cruises.  Hear all about her trip here!

This river cruise experience was my first, and I was very fortunate to sail one of the best…

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The drive from the airport to the ship was only about 30 minutes.  The motor coach stopped just a few yards from the ship and we were welcomed aboard immediately. The check in process was extremely quick and a light lunch was waiting for us in the lounge.  Our cabins were ready by 2:00pm at which time I took a well-needed nap.

The River Countess is extraordinarily beautiful.  The ship is not gaudy, but, instead welcoming, luxurious and opulent (without the snootiness  you might expect).

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ALL INCLUSIVE:

Unlimited drinks-Wines, Beers, Spirits, Cocktails, soft drinks, juices, cappuccinos, lattes, espresso and French press coffee, teas and mineral water.  Some higher end liquors for a slight charge. (Gratuity included)

The cabins are “cozy”.  I was surprised with my own cabin with a french balcony which at 140 square fee, I greatly appreciated.  There are ample storage areas in closets and space under your bed for your luggage.

CABIN AMENITIES:

  • Very comfy beds with down comforters or blankets as needed
  • The bathroom is very luxurious complete with bathrobe, slippers and L’Occitane bath products.
  • Fresh water in a pitcher and candies are replenished daily.
  • Maid service is offered 3 times per day
  • Pillow menu is offered
  • Internet access
  • Uniworld Intranet
  • Flat screen TV’s with movies and shows
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My French Balcony Cabin

CUISINE:

All meals are included on board the ship.

The food is phenomenal prepared with fresh fruits, meats, vegetables.

Breakfast is served from 7:00-9:00am with a smaller offering until 10:00am.

Lunch is served from 12:30-2:00pm.  Dinner is served from 7:00pm-9:00pm.  All dining is open seating.

It is very enjoyable to sit with different guests each night.  The wait staff is excellent.  They never missed a beat or made a mistake.  They were all charming, personable and professional.

The top deck was very nice complete with a Pizza Station, lounge chairs both shaded and unshaded and a designated smoking area.  No pool.

SHORE EXCURSIONS:

As an all inclusive river cruise line, shore excursions are included.

A portable audio headset (found in the closet in your cabin) is used on the group tours.

You have the option to do the standard pace or gentle walking tour.  The shore excursions offered are somewhat unique.  You are not required to take the shore excursions except on Tuesday & Thursday. Several of the guests were upwards of 70 years old and Venice was having a heat wave with 90 degree temps, so many stayed back on the ship.

The walking tours were a bit long for the older folks.  In Verona we walked about ½ mile (perhaps more) to get to the motor coach.  Uniworld taxied some of the handicapped folks to the motor coach.

Day 1-Embarkation in Venice

Included Tour to the Glass Blowing Factory in the afternoon.

Day 2- Venice Walking Tour with a visit to Doges Palace or Alternate  Gentle Walking Tour

Optional tour (at cost) Venetian Painters:  Scuola Grande di San Rocco & Frari Church (55 Euro)

Exclusive Evening visit to Saint Marc’s Basilica.

This was a very unique opportunity (my favorite) to visit the Basilica and hear a lecture with just our group.  No one else was there! 

The tour begins with a water taxi taking us from our port to St. Marks’s Square.  We had a short walking tour of the square and then ushered into the Church where we were given a tour.  The Church dates back to 828.  We were given an informative lecture on the history of the Basilica as well as the story of St. Mark.

St. Mark’s remains were taken from their resting place and moved to the Basilica where they rest at the base of the alter.  We were shown the treasury located on a swivel behind the alter.  This is not shown to the general public. 

The art and tile in the Basilica are breathtaking and the experience was very unique.

Be wary of pick pockets in Italy.  In addition, there are many gentlemen offering roses to the ladies.  They tell you they are free…but, then chase you down for money.

We were given the opportunity to stay in Venice to shop/walk around, but, most everyone chose to go back to the ship.

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Day 3- Excursion to Padua with a visit to Saint Anthony’s Basilica.

The ship did not have authority to take passengers across the Adriatic Sea, so this excursion was a requirement as everyone had to disembark.

The drive to Padua was about 90 minutes.  It was extremely hot this day so there weren’t many visitors on the streets or at Saint Marc’s Basilica.  Padua is an extremely religious town and one of the oldest in Northern Italy. 

The quaint streets around the Basilica are lined with religious trinkets and paraphernalia.

It is also a University town, so there were many students milling about.  We visited Saint Anthony’s Basilica which was comprised of the church, gardens and school.  We had some free time to explore the city with its narrow roads (very easy to get lost).

Shopping in the main square consisted of Luxury Brand name stores (Gucci, Prada, etc.) but, more economical stores could be found along the narrow streets.  We had difficulty finding shops that were open as most shops close in the afternoons and open again in the late afternoon/early evening.

When visiting Churches in Europe, remember to cover your shoulders (scarf) and no shorts or skirt above the knees.

We were late for the Welcome Reception Dinner because the driver couldn’t find the ship. (See my note below on ship placement).

Day 4- Day on your own in Polesella

The walk into town was about 10 minutes.  It is a very small village with lovely homes, gardens and shops.  The two most notable structures were the Commune Polesella and the American Disco J.

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Day 5- The ship did not have authority to take passengers across the Adriatic Sea, so an excursion was a requirement as everyone had to disembark.

Excursion to Ravenna visiting the Byzantine Mosaics or Excursion to Chioggia with seafood lunch

Chioggia (also know at Little Venice) is extremely charming.  If you look at pictures of this town you would swear you were in Venice.  The drive by motor coach took about an hour.  We were dropped within the walled city of the 6th century town.  We arrived just as they were closing up the street markets.  We had only about 60 minutes to shop…wish we had more!  The prices at the market were extraordinary. 

Dresses for 10-20 Euro, Blouses & Skirts for 8-12 Euro, Purses for 8 Euro, Scarves for 1-3 Euro.  You could find pretty much anything you were looking for at this market.  The walk was about 1 mile from the city walls to the water. 

The market closed up by 12:30pm and everything was cleaned from the streets and everything closed.   We had lunch at a lovely seaside restaurant.  We would have enjoyed it a bit better had it not been so hot.  There was no airflow and we were all melting.  We met our ship about 1 mile from the town.

Day 6- Excursion to Verona

Walking tour of the Historic center of Verona with a visit to Juliet’s Balcony. 

The walled city of Verona sits on the Adige River and is very beautiful and more quaint (in my opinion) than Venice.  Verona has its own coliseum dating back to 30AD.

Similar to Venice you will find high end shopping as well as small markets for the usual Italian souvenirs.

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Afternoon optional tour (at cost)-Winery tour with lunch and wine tasting (85 Euro)

The drive to Valpolicella was gorgeous as we passed by vineyards built into the rolling hills.  The Serego Alighieri Estate was about an hour drive. We were able to sample ½ dozen cheeses with honey & preserves, salad, bread and olives.

For lunch we had risotto soaked in wine and cake for dessert.  Each course was served with their three regional wines.  Afterwards we were able to purchase wine, preserves and honey.  The wine cost was reasonable.  The tour itself a was a bit overpriced at 85Euro.

Day 7- Excursion to the market in Venice or day on your own.

We shopped the very busy streets of Venice and took a Gondola Ride. The cost was 80 Euro for 6 people. 

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Afternoon optional Tour (at cost)-Venetian Painters at the Accademia (45Euro)

WHAT SETS UNIWORLD APART FROM OTHER RIVER CRUISE LINES:

  • Expertise
  • Service
  • Luxurious ships uniquely designed
  • Culinary experience
  • Choice of itineraries
  • Truly All Inclusive

OTHER NOTEWORTHY MENTIONS:

  • Uniworld offers Nordic walking sticks and bicycles.
  • They had a wellness program on board.  You could sign up for massage or private yoga classes (at a cost).  The prices were very reasonable compared to 5 star hotel or other cruise lines.
  • Uniworld does not make announcements over the intercom or ring a bell for dinner.  It’s a very quiet, relaxing environment.
  • Key cards are wrapped in leather and service as your room key and embarkation/disembarkation car (Very simple to use.)
  • There is an internet station onboard with two laptops.
  • On the days we were forced to disembark, lunch vouchers were issued for the guests.
  • Lectures and briefings were offered almost daily in the afternoon.
  • Laminated recipe cards featuring the entrée, appetizer or dessert for the evening are delivered to your cabin.

IMPORTANT NOTE:

Ship docking assignments are requested by the cruise line two years in advance.  They never know where the ship will be docked.  In some cases dock changes are made in as little as 2 days prior to embarkation. I received a dock change in my email just a few days before sailing.  If you have clients arriving a few days prior to sailing, be sure to let them know to watch their email for changes.

Learn more about Fox World Travel River Cruises or European Travel Destinations online or call a travel specialist at 888-369-8785.

 

 

 

 

 

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St Maarten: Small in Size but Huge in Charm

Debbi Haney of Fox World Travel recently had the opportunity to explore the delightful charm of St Maarten.  Hear what she has to say about this captivating trip!

st maarten

I accompanied a group of 20 for a week in St Maarten…..Ahhh St Maarten, small in size (just 37 square miles) but huge in charm!

We received a champagne-welcome-greeting upon arrival and although we were booked as a group, our rooms were assigned scattered throughout the resort.  This actually turned out to be a good thing because I had booked the entry-level rooms, yet just 3 couples (including myself) ended up in the entry-level rooms and everybody else got an upgrade.

Sonesta Maho Room

Pool/Ocean View Room

Rooms were large and décor was typical Caribbean with soft pastels.  Equipped with all of the amenities you would expect of a 4-Star resort including the in-room safe, stocked mini bar, iron/ironing board, hair dryer and bathroom amenities replenished when needed.  Balconies were furnished with a table and chairs with various views of the resort, pool areas, and beach.  Despite the fact that this was an older hotel, the resort over-all was in good condition and grounds and public areas were well-kept.  The hotel is located adjacent to the Maho Village which is comprised of many shops, bars, and the island’s largest casino.

Sonesta Maho

Sonesta Maho Beach Resort

One of the few all-inclusive resorts in St Maarten, this resort is the largest and offered four dining options, including one buffet and three a’ la carte restaurants.   Not a lot of variety here and it was the same day after day.  Much of the same could be said for dinner, but the added wood-fire pizzeria in the evening was wonderful!  The Ascot Pub and Sports Bar featured the normal burger and fries and other sandwiches befitting of a Sports Bar.  Evenings here, offered up live music a couple of nights throughout the week and seem to draw both locals and hotel guests.  The Palms Grill provided soups, salads, burgers, fish ‘n chips and ice cream.  Food here during daytime hours was quite good.  Karaoke was the entertainment until 11:00 p.m. for two nights but this bar/restaurant closed about 6:00 p.m. for the rest of the days during the week.  The Point Restaurant was the “Fine Dining” venue.  The same menu was presented on a daily basis with four main entrée choices including soup/salad, breads, and dessert.

 The Point Resteraunt Sonesta MahoThe Point Restaurant

Pizzaria

Pizzeria

The lobby bar featured Karaoke twice a week.  Another night a desert bar and champagne bar were set up in the lobby with Gold and Silver Mimes, as the entertainment.  A beach party and barbecue were scheduled for one of the nights but the only open bar during that time was in the lobby and it appeared that this activity was featured more for families with children, which included games and toasting marshmallows.

The Sonesta Maho Beach is located about 20 minutes from Phillipsburg (the Capitol) where it’s sister hotel, Sonesta Great Bay is located.  The hotels share exchange privileges but transportation is on your own.  The Sonesta Great Bay is a much smaller resort but appeared to be much more modern.  Just one pool (no swim-up bar) but the span of beach located directly in front of the hotel was an excellent swimming and sunning area.  We took advantage of the main buffet for lunch one day and the food offered here was great.  Just a 10-minute walk from Phillipsburg, The Sonesta Great Bay is convenient to a variety of shopping and restaurants.

We quickly learned that public transportation is abundant and inexpensive.  You can travel via public bus the entire Dutch Side of the island for $2.00.  Public bus stops are all over and the wait is about 5-10 minutes.  The buses are 8-passenger vans and if there are few occupants the bus driver will also serve as a tour guide.  The bus drivers have signs posted on their dash boards for the stops that it will make but if you have the time, it doesn’t really matter which bus you take because eventually it will go to your area.  They all take the same routes.  There is a roundabout which is the switch to get over to the French side of the island and it will cost another $2.00.  The bus system on the French side works the same way as the Dutch side.  Eventually you can get to Orient Beach and eventually you will be able to get back.  Because the island is only 37 square miles you are never really too far from anything the island has to offer.  There is not as much shopping on the French side but shops tend to be more upscale than on the Dutch side.  There is an abundance of fine dining, and many more of the upscale resorts are also located on the French side.

st maarten

St. Maarten Bay

We ventured off of our resort for 3 of the days to explore St Maarten and quickly discovered the beauty and charm that attracts so many visitors.  The people are so friendly offering assistance and suggestions at every opportunity offered to them.  There is a sense of security in feeling safe to independently sight see and the island is so beautiful.  Full day excursions are available to Anguilla & St Barth’s as well as any other activity you can imagine. This is one destination that I would re-think the all-inclusive program.  Food and drink prices are not much different than at home,  and because there is such an abundance of options for dining on the island,  coupled with the ease of transportation, why restrict yourselves to just your resort.  All things considered, St Maarten is a great vacation destination, offering more than other Caribbean destinations, if you are willing to spend a bit more money.

 

For more information visit Fox World Travel.

Some photos courtesy of http://www.sonesta.com

 

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Adventures in Abu Dhabi

Sande from our Business Travel Division recently had the opportunity to travel to Abu Dhabi with Fox World Travel where she had some adventures that she will never forget!

Day 1 - Our trip started from Chicago O’Hare where we boarded the nonstop Etihad flight to Abu Dhabi.  Aboard our inbound flight to AD the flight was not very full and there were many open seats.  The flight over was 13 ½ hours and like many international flights, dinner was served soon after take-off and then dimmed lights so you could try to sleep for the remainder of the flight. Each seat is equipped with its own entertainment system so you could watch never ending movies, TV shows or play games during the flight.

Landing in Abu Dhabi we cleared customs/immigration in no time. What a beautiful airport!  While at the airport I changed some money to the Emirati Dirham. $100USD  = 349AED  We did not have a transfer to the airport pre-arranged and just took a taxi. They are plentiful and not at all overwhelming like in some cities. In each taxi they have a small screen that lists the price, mileage, and drivers name among other things which we found very convenient.

We stayed at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr. Upon check in we upgraded to the Gold Level which was on the 7th floor, and offered breakfast daily, lunch snacks, evening canapés and happy hour. So it did turn out to be well worth the money.   Our room faced the Sheik Zayed Mosque with floor to ceiling windows. What an incredible view.

Fairmont Bab Al Bahr

Day 2 - Our first full day we had a scheduled city tour booked with Transpire Holidays.  First stop on the tour was the Sheik Zayed Mosque. What a breathtaking structure! It was a sunny day, 99% of the days are sunny and the whiteness of it nearly blinds you when you are walking around the outdoor parts of the building. Visitors to the building are required to wear proper attire for entrance. Women must have their heads covered along with long sleeves and long skirts or pants. If you are not dressed correctly they do have garments that you can wear. Men are requested to wear long pants and long sleeve shirts but they do allow them to wear short sleeved shirts into the building. Before entering you also must take off your shoes.

Located in the mosque is the world’s largest rug/carpet made by an Iranian carpet company it weighs between 35-48 tons. The chandeliers look like small space ships made up of beautiful colors which are actually Swarovski crystals. Brilliant white marble floors and walls with brightly colored inlaid tiles creating flowering vines climb upward. The mosque can hold up to 40,000 people for worship.

Next on our stop was the Emirates Palace, a 7 star resort that looks more like a palace than a hotel. Walking into the hotel the fragrance of incense fills the air.  Stores boast labels such as Rolex and Louis Vuitton and they even have an ATM that dispenses gold ingots if you feel the need to buy something.

Continuing on, we stopped at Heritage Village located at the end of the Abu Dhabi Corniche. This is an open museum showing the past way of life before big oil changed the countries landscape. They have many exhibits and handcraft presentations that you can look and get up close to. Some of their exhibits include their Bedouin tents in the desert and old fire arms that were used.

After the village we followed the Corniche down along the water. The Corniche is a big walkway along the water with parks, beaches, water fountains, restaurants and cafes, a nice place to spend a few hours or all day. Our last few stops of the day were at the markets. We went thru the fish, fruits and vegetables markets. Afterwards our guide took us back to our hotel where we went and relaxed a bit by the pool before dinner.

Day 3 - After our breakfast we relaxed by the pool for a short time. We then went exploring a nearby indoor Souk (shopping area) that was just a short walk from our hotel. The Souk had several shops and small cafés nothing much for souvenirs though.  In the afternoon we were picked up at our hotel in a 4×4 Land Rover for our Desert Safari. We were joined by a family of 4 from Dublin that were also staying at the Fairmont. The drive out to the starting area took about 30 minutes or so and we stopped at a gas station where we met up with some other 4×4’s. When stopped it is interesting as they all pop their hoods in order for the engine’s to cool off. Not really sure how they can cool off when it is 105 degrees out. It is a beautiful feeling with the breeze blowing and the dry, warm air surrounding you. So totally different than what we are used to back home.

Driving off road the drivers all stop to let air out of their tires before driving out in the dunes. There are dunes for as far as you can see with some car tracks going up the sides of them. I must say I was not at all ready for what followed the extreme driving up and down the dunes was amazing and incredibly scary. Sand flew over the Land Rover while sliding sideways down the dune. We stopped to watch other Land Rovers doing the same path that we just traveled which was really amazing to see. After about the second time of stopping to watch I realized that I should have taken a Dramamine before starting this adventure. After racing thru the dunes we stopped at a camel farm before stopping for dinner at a campsite in the desert. The campsite was a big area surrounded by small tents. In the middle area there were short tables with cushions spread out for seating. During dinner they had a belly dancer for entertainment. Dinner was a barbeque buffet with salads, grilled meats, hummus and flat bread. We returned back to the hotel at about 10pm.

Day 4 - The following day we had a lounging day. After breakfast we went to the pool to swim and hang out for a while and later went exploring. We walked down to the Shangri La Hotel that was next door and also the Traders which is part of the Shangri La. This afternoon we were picked up at the hotel for our transfer to the marina area where we boarded a dinner Dhow cruise that sailed along the coast. Since this was there slow season there wasn’t very many onboard the cruise. The boat was two floors so the main floor is where you had your dinner and the upper floor is where you sat out to enjoy the view. The city lights were spectacular. After the cruise our driver was waiting for us to take us back to the hotel.

Day 5 - This morning we enjoyed an early breakfast and took a taxi to the airport. Taxi costs are quite reasonable; our trip to the airport was about $15USD. We had checked in for our return flight at the hotel and printed our boarding pass to speed up the process so that there would be shopping time at the airport. No such luck. Check in for our return took longer than anticipated because you clear US customs and Immigration at the Abu Dhabi airport. It was very nice to arrive back into Chicago and not have to go thru any formalities and just collect your bag and be on your way. The return flight was uneventful and we were both able to get some sleep.

Always glad to be home safe and sound after another adventure.

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Mediterranean Magic

Jody from our Vacations Division recently went on a 7-day Mediterranean Aegean Cruise with Princess Cruise Line. Hear all about Jody’s experience:

Day1- Frankfurt, Germany- We arrived at the Frankfurt airport and discovered that we had an 8 hour layover so we decided to take the train to Frankfurt. This was a super easy, inexpensive option to spend some time outside of the airport. All you have to do is exit the airport, purchase your train tickets at the kiosk right at the station for 8 Euro round trip and 20 minutes later you are in Frankfurt city center where you can shop, dine or grab a fun German beer….we did all 3!! On the return trip back to the airport and entering customs is a breeze. I would highly recommend this to anyone with a long layover in Frankfurt.

We arrived in Venice at 11:30pm and chose the Best Western Titian Inn which is an airport hotel. They offer complimentary airport shuttle which was very convenient at midnight. The hotel is simple and clean which is all we were looking for and includes a wonderful daily breakfast. We decided to stay here for our 3 nights as it was most convenient for our itinerary for the week.

Day 2- Venice, Murano and Burano- We purchased round trip bus tickets from the front desk for 9 Euro round trip per person. The bus stop is about 3 blocks away and very convenient. It takes about 20 minutes to get to the island with about 7 stops along the way and you stay on the same bus the entire time… very simply and efficient!

Many people ask me where my favorite place to travel is and after walking over my first bridge in Venice….this is my favorite place. Every corner you turn is a new adventure whether it leads you to the smells of a bakery, the clanging of wine or the beauty of the floral boxes hanging out of someone’s window. I couldn’t keep the smile off of my face and will never be able to explain the peace in my heart.

Italy - Venice 5

 

Since we were here for 2 full days we decided to take a 4 hour tour and visit the islands of Murano and Burano for 32 Euro per person. I would highly recommend this as an option. In Murano you will see a glass blowing demonstration and it’s amazing how they can create a sculpture of a glass horse in just five minutes. Murano was nice in the sense to say that you saw it but Burano was a place that I would go back and spend the night. Burano is known for their lace and the town square is quaint, friendly and colorful. Each house or building is painted in a different color and it just makes you smile to be there. It’s a simple water taxi away for my next visit to this area.

Day 3-Venice- We got lost in the streets of Venice and had a blast doing it! We found some of the best food, drinks, and shopping off the beaten path. It’s easy to get lost but just as easy to find your way out as the signs either direct you to the Rialto Bridge (center of the city), San Marco Square (waterfront) or the bus/train station which leads you out of the city. We opted to purchase a gondola ride from one of the gondoliers outside of the busy area of San Marco square. The price was the same at 80 Euro per person but the ride was longer and quieter as you weren’t fighting for space in the canals with the other gondoliers. In the San Marco square area you will find lines waiting for the gondola ride due to the cruise ships in port. Share with your clients to enrich their experience and to reserve this ride. We grabbed a couple of glasses of wine and enjoyed the peaceful canals of Venice.

Italy - Gondala 2

Day 4- Regal Princess Cruise- This was the maiden voyage of the Regal Princess and home to us for the next 8 days. The ship is new, clean with ample staffing and service. More about the ship to come.

Day 5- at Sea- Some of the things that sets this ship apart from some of the others that I’ve experienced is the fitness facilities. They offer a ton of classes (surcharge for most) such as Zumba, Pilates, PX90, Yoga, Kettle bell class, and state of the art equipment. The classes were always full convincing me that people will pay the extra for fitness. On deck 18 they have the outside jogging track that includes equipment on the deck for ab work. The ship also has an outdoor theatre which they play movies or videos all day long starting at noon. This was a big hit as this area was always filled with passengers. If you wanted to find peace and quiet, they did offer an adult only pool area that you could get away from the busy pools and noise.

Day 6- Corfu, Greece-Set up on the hillside the size of Alabama. While there are many tour options of churches and palaces we opted to venture on our own and stroll through the city to get to know the locals. We visited with one very friendly local who shared with us Kum Kouat Liquor. This is a citrus fruit that only grows in Corfu and has the consistency and size of a prune without the pit. While we didn’t really enjoy the fruit, we did enjoy the flavor of the liquor. We also sampled Ouzo which is clear licorice flavored liquor. The ship offered bus transfers to town for 1.5 Euro one way per person. The streets are filled with vendors and shops with much of the local wares of rugs, linens and pottery. Once outside the city center you will find the amazing views from this cliff top village.

Old Fortress-Corfu

Day 7- at Sea- my observation with the Regal Princess and many other cruise lines are the surcharges for dining, fitness, spa, etc. You have 13 different dining options with 6 of those having surcharges of $20-$25 per person some of which are a Seafood/Sushi Bar, Crab Shack and Gelato restaurants. They were most often empty from what I observed. They do offer an all-inclusive drink package which we did take advantage of. The cost is $49 per person/per day and includes the 15% gratuity. Anything that you can sip is included, even the specialty coffees. You also get 40% off of your bottle of wine with dinner if you opt for this instead of a glass of wine.

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Day 8- Istanbul, Turkey- Holy People (both figuratively and literally!). Over 13 million people in Istanbul and I think they were all out shopping at the Bazaar this day. We did not do any guided tour; however we did take the bus transfer to the famous Grand Bazaar which is a maze of 4,000 shops, cafes and restaurants. This is market type shopping in which you can negotiate pricing for souvenirs, carpet, clothing, jewelry, etc. We ended up taking a hop on/hop off bus for 3 hours which I would recommend as this will give you the most freedom and flexibility while still learning about the sites as you will have headsets that you can listen to pre-recorded facts about the history and highlights. The cost is 16 Euro per person for 1.5 hours and 18 Euro for 3 hours. You can also choose a 24 hour or 48 hour ticket which is nice; especially if you are Istanbul for more than the 24 hours. We stopped at the famous Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia.

Day 9- Istanbul, Turkey- The ship is docked on one side of the Straits of Bosphorus and the previous day we went to the “touristy” side and today we decided to visit the “local” side and absolutely loved it. We hiked up the hillside (about 1 mile) and as you crest to the top it leads you to this incredible square with a huge park, restaurants, shopping, a mosque and less people. We had a wonderful lunch of beef, chicken and pork Kebabs along with the local beer called Efes Pilsener and just sat at the outside café for people viewing. By visiting both sides of the straits, I feel that I got a great overview of the area and could accommodate the interests of any traveler.

Day 10- Mykonos, Greece- Well, I started this trip with my new favorite spot being Venice and ended my trip with another new favorite spot of Mykonos. It is literally a picture out of Mamma Mia with the white stone buildings and colorful shutters and doors. The colors arranged from pink to green to blue to purple and you couldn’t feel anything but happy. The streets are narrow and winding and house all sorts of shops and restaurants with every turn being as colorful as the last. Mykonos has a very cosmopolitan and chic feel to it. A nice walk up the hill you can visit an old church and see views of the various windmills in the area. The coastline has over 20 accessible beaches, some of which are clothing optional! You can easily rent a 4-wheeler or a car if you wanted to explore the island on your own for the day. Otherwise the boardwalk overlooking Tourlos Bay is very active and picturesque with a great stop for an ice cream treat!

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To learn more about Fox World Travels Mediterranean Cruises click here.

 

 

 

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Shades of Kilimanjaro

Recently Glen from our Business Travel Division was able to check one thing off of his bucket list as a retirement gift to himself; an African Safari.

I went on a 7 day Safari from United Travel Group with Fox World Travel. The tour offered stays at three different lodges, throughout Kenya. We flew Delta and departed Outagamie County Regional Airport on Sunday May 4th at 10:30am and arrived in Nairobi on Monday May 5th at 8:30pm. The flight was long, however, I would soon find out it was more than worth it.

The Destination Management Company that was used in Kenya was Pollman’s Tours & Safaris. They took us to the Safari Park Hotel which would be our overnight hotel in Nairobi. This was not a hotel but a 64 acre resort about 30 minutes from the airport. It had a full health club, swimming pool, tennis courts, three bars and a restaurant. Unfortunately it was 10:00pm and we would be leaving at 7:00am the next morning to begin our adventure. Our room had an outdoor deck, a sitting parlor, a bedroom and two bathrooms. Extremely nice!! The next morning we enjoyed a buffet breakfast and all meals were included in the tour price.

Safari Park Hotel Birds Eye Safari Park Hotel

Soon after, we met the other people joining us on the Safari. There would be a total of eight of us. After a brief overview of what we will experience throughout the week we were introduced to our tour guide, Daniel, who would be with us the entire time. We had two vehicles, four people in each vehicle. The Masai Mara, our first destination is approximately 280 Kilometers (174 miles) west of Nairobi and is a 5-6 hour drive. The main highways are packed with traffic so travel was slow, the side roads….well we simply wouldn’t consider them roads.

We arrived at the lodge around 1:30pm and were given a quick briefing on the lodge and then we were escorted to our rooms. This lodge, to conserve on energy, turns off the electricity and hot water during parts of the day and evening. The lodge serves lunch from 12:30 – 2:30 which we thought would be a buffet, but to our surprise we had a four course menu provided where we could choose to have soup, salad and choice of three different entrees and desert. We had buffets at breakfast, each lunch and dinner would be ordered off of a menu. The food and presentation was fabulous at each lodge.

We left for the Masai Mara reserve for our first game drive which was incredible; we saw many zebras, giraffes, wildebeest, gazelles, elephants. Not just one here and one there but herds of them. Daniel, our guide, did an excellent job of getting close and in positions with good camera angles. We were back to the lodge by 7:00pm and dinner was from 7:30pm – 9:30pm and it was as delicious as lunch!

african safari 1The next day we had a game drive in the morning and in the afternoon. Towards the end of the morning drive we were taken to a Masai village. These tribesman wear bright red and blue garments draped around their bodies. We were met by the chiefs’ son and he explained their traditions and showed us around the village. Their homes are made of sticks, straw and cow dung. They did a traditional dance for us and then we were sort of separated into groups and taken into their “homes” which was no larger than my office. Here is where they tried to sell us their wares.

We had some free time before our afternoon game drive so we lounged by the pool and enjoyed the weather and our new found friends. Our afternoon game drive was very successful, we saw lions, both male and female, and we had a cheetah pass right in front of our vehicle! He also saw herds of elephants and Ostrich. You cannot imagine how close we were to these animals. It was incredible.

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On day 5 it was time to head towards Lake Nakuru National Park where we stayed for one night at the Lake Nakuru Lodge. This area is famous for Flamingos….by the thousands! The drive from Masai Mara to Lake Nakuru was particularly rutted, what we were on could not possibly be considered “roads”. Once we arrived it was off to lunch immediately and then a game drive at 4:00pm.

On day 6 the first order of business was a boat ride on Lake Naivasha. This was really a swamp and we saw tons of different cranes, African fish eagles, and hippos… huge hippos! After a 90 minute boat ride we continued on to Amboselli National Park at the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The route from Lake Nakuru to Amboselli was thru Nairobi. We stopped in Nairobi for lunch at a posh hotel in their restaurant and once again a four course meal for lunch. Had you been blindfolded, you would have thought you might be in New York.

On day 7 we woke up and as luck would have it Mt. Kilimanjaro was shrouded in clouds. After breakfast we headed out on our game drive. Amboselli is the land of the elephant and did we see elephants. We were very lucky to see a herd of 25 elephants playing in deep ponds, spraying themselves and each other with water. Our guide told us to take a picture, he said, “you don’t often see this”. We also saw hyena, jackal and more wildebeest and zebra. We ended the game drive with a bush lunch. There is an area with a large tent and we had lunch in the park. We were expecting a picnic type lunch; no way, once again a four course meal served on china sitting at tables.

On our final day we got up and headed for breakfast and we had a pleasant surprise. The clouds had moved on and there was Mt. Kilimanjaro in its glory! It was very impressive and quite a site to see.

After breakfast Daniel took us back to Nairobi and brought us to the Pollman’s office where we were met by the person who gave us our initial briefing at the Safari Park Hotel. We said our good-byes to Daniel and now Leah would serve as our guide for our final day in Kenya, as our flight home did not depart until 10:30pm. We began by eating at an outdoor café for lunch, went to the Karen Blixen Museum and finally, the Giraffe Center where the Rothschild Giraffe are being bred and then reintroduced into the wild.

Our last event in Kenya was dinner at the famous Carnivore restaurant. This is a fixed menu restaurant and the draw is they have chefs walking around the restaurant with different meats on huge skewers. They stop at your table and carve some meat on your plate. Beyond the traditional chicken and beef they also have an assortment of exotic meats. On our evening it was ostrich meat balls and alligator. This is a fun place and a good way to end the week long adventure.

I cannot put into words how awesome this trip was. Truly a trip of a lifetime and it exceeded everyone’s expectations. Our tour guide was fantastic; he was very knowledgeable and worked very hard to find animals and get us in good spots for photos. The only caution I would mention is the driving; the roads in many places are simply not roads and if you are highly susceptible to motion sickness you would have a problem.

The lodging was very nice; each property had a swimming pool and bars. The one thing to be aware of is to conserve energy many turn off electricity and hot water during certain times of the day. A flashlight is a must for those midnight trips to the restroom.

Learn more about our African Destination Travel here.

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