FAB lodges to stay at in South Africa!

I had the pleasure of staying at Lion Sands / Narina Lodge and visiting their other lodges, Tinga Lodge, River Lodge and Ivory Lodge, and they are all gorgeous. Fab food and service, great game viewing and guides, comfy surroundings, what more can you ask for on safari?

EXCLUSIVE BOTSWANA SAFARI PICS!

TOP GOLF DESTINATIONS

Casa de Campo and Tortuga Bay

Your choice of two beautiful Dominican Republic resorts with amazing golf

Royal Caribbean’s new mega-ship ANTHEM of the SEAS

IMG_3531Megaships are usually not my own personal thing, but I wanted to check out  Anthem of the Seas, since  it is a brand new ship that is sailing out of Cape Liberty, NJ which means  NO FLYING for my East Coast clients!  That is a huge selling point in my book!

It’s a sister ship to the Quantum of the Seas, and it’s actually not as ginormous as I thought–guest capacity is 4,180 passengers, so it is not in the same class as the true mega ships like RCI’s Allure of the Seas (5,494 passengers!).

This looks to be a fun ship for all ages, but especially for families.  LOTS to do–The SeaPlex multistory sports complex is pretty impressive, with its changeable surface, so you can ride bumper cars one night, ice skate the next and maybe even roller derby. Or–just shoot hoops.

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The second story  SeaPlex has Xbox stations, foosball tables, air hockey, pool, ping pong and lots of other games set amidst comfy chair and couches.  And, there’s a DJ!

Outside, there’s the usual RCI Rock climbing wall (which seemed a little small for this size ship),  plus 4 outdoor pools, the FlowRider Surf Simulator and something new called RipChord by iFly, which is simulated sky diving.  And of course, the North Star, the capsule that can take 14 passengers up for a 360 view of the ship and sea.

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Here’s one of the pools:

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The main theater is running ‘We Will Rock You”, but there is also something called Music Hall that features live music, and also Two70, a multistory area that features comfy seating while watching Cirque Du Soleil-type aerial  shows (and an ice bar!), all complimentary.  Below is a not-very-good pic of Two70–

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Transformative Venues

There are over 20 restaurants, several are complimentary and the others are specialty that require an upcharge, like the Chef’s Table and Wonderland.  There is NO main dining room on this ship–Royal Caribbean has instead provided 4 smaller dining venues that have different themes to replace the one main dining room.  It’s nice to have additional choices that are still comp.  here are some dining room pics:

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And the Vintages Wine Bar:IMG_3474

Here is a  pic of Wonderland, a new specialty restaurant with an Alice in Wonderland theme:

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There is also the passenger favorite Bionic Bar, where you order on an iPad and two robots mix your drinks (but deliver in paper cups, bummer).IMG_3490IMG_3491

We toured several staterooms but very quickly, as paying passengers were actually embarking to go on a 10 day Caribbean cruise.  This ship has several Loft Suite categories, and they are stunning:

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A regular Veranda Stateroom looks like this:

And here is a peek at one of their interior staterooms with a “virtual” balcony (which is a live webcam shot  from outside the ship).  Nice techno innovation.  Really looks like a window!IMG_3413

There is a large spa onboard, fitness center, casino and some upscale shops including Coach and Tiffany.   And of course, there are plenty of kid clubs (organized by age) to keep your children busy, including a roomy Teen Club.

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The Anthem sails to Bermuda all summer long, and you can park your car right at the Cape Liberty terminal and get right onboard.   It’s a great option for multi-generational family trips  and people who like to have a lot of activity options.  You can do do as much–or as little–as you like.  No dounbt all those loyal RCI passengers will love this new baby!

 

Long Layover at Heathrow? Here’s an idea….

Africa2015 593Recently I had a 7 hour layover in Heathrow…..ugh…..what to do?   With the dollar still relatively weak against the pound, shopping for hours on end, even duty-free,  was out of the question.  So, I decided to get out of the airport and into the English countryside, for a visit to the town of Windsor and Windsor Castle.  Great move.

I enlisted the help of Luxury Vacations UK, a Virtuoso supplier, and I was met by my own car and driver at LHR and whisked away.  Windsor is a quaint little town about 25 minutes away from LHR that you can easily walk about, and Eton is also not that far away.  My Blue Badge guide John was incredibly knowledgeable about the history of Windsor and of course Windsor Castle.  The Queen was actually in residence while I was there, and her car was parked under a car port, evidently near her personal apartments.  All info courtesy of Mr. John.

Windsor Castle is the official residence of The Queen of England, and the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world!  No, the Queen does not live in Buckingham Palace, that’s her workplace; it  is commonly referred to by the British royal family as “The Office”.  Windsor Castle is home.  It was built in the 11th century after the Norman Conquest and still looks rock solid.

The Castle is quite large and you need at least 2 hours to visit.  You can just walk the grounds, or also go inside and tour the State Apartments, which I did.  These are incredibly lavish and formal rooms that are still used for state functions and dinners.  For me, the most fascinating thing on view is Queen Mary’s dollhouse, built in the 1920’s.  It’s big, occupying half a room, and remarkable in its detail and finishing.  Everything in it is a copy of the real thing, and it has operating elevators and fully functional lighting and plumbing.  It took 1,500 craftsmen over 3 years to build.   Well-known writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote special miniature books that were specially bound for the dollhouse library, and famous painters painted miniatures for its walls.  There are even real gem replicas of the Crown Jewels in a strong room.

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The Castle is known for its collection of armor, and they have quite a collection of items such as various weapons and revolvers from the Battle of Waterloo.  They even have the bullet that killed Lord Nelson on display, as well as uniforms of Napoleon Bonaparte.

St. George’s Chapel is also on the premises, which is considered one of the best examples of Gothic architecture in Great Britain.  At least 10 monarchs are buried there, including that lecher Henry VIII.

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And of course, there’s a super gift shop on premises as well.

My guide John and I took some time in the village of Windsor to have a cup of tea and some scones with clotted cream before we headed back to Heathrow and Terminal 5.

If visiting the castle isn’t your thing, I can also recommend a luxurious hotel and spa that is nearby, where you can have a nice lunch,  a massage or a lovely afternoon tea before heading  back to the airport.  Why waste all your time in the airport when you can get some fresh air, exercise and awesome sightseeing in between flights?

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NEW–CRYSTAL RIVER CRUISES!

The award-winning Crystal Cruise line is expanding into the hot river cruise market!

The Crystal Mozart, the first of 5 cutting-edge brand new builds, will debut in July 2016 with a 10 day itinerary on the Danube.  The other ships, all names after classical music composers, will arrive in 2017.

This can be a game changer for the river cruise industry.  Crystal knows how to do luxury, and they are already a very well-known entity.  I think they can really raise the bar in this market segment.

Their river cruise ships  will be all-inclusive and will  offer all-suite accommodations  with butler service for every category–a very nice touch.  They will also offer complimentary eBikes ashore, unique shore excursions and more overnights in port.

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Crystal River Cruises

  • Exceptionally designed all-suite butler-serviced river yachts accommodating either 84, 110 or 160 discerning guests, depending on ship and waterway selected, with some of the largest suites of any river vessels
  • Extraordinary personal attention and service with the highest staff-to-guest ratio in all of European river cruising
  • Crystal’s signature cuisine prepared by European sourced and trained chefs, served in multiple, open-seating venues
  • TechnoGym-equipped fitness centers, dedicated yoga areas and massage services
  • The most generous roster of all-inclusive amenities among all river cruise lines including:
    • Gratuities for all shipboard staff throughout the River Yachts
    • All meals included, featuring Crystal’s innovative and acclaimed six-star cuisine, highlighted by regional specialties
    • Unlimited bottled water and premium beverages including champagne, fine wine and spirits throughout the River Yachts
    • All soft drinks, beer and bottled water in-suite
    • 24-hour self-service pantry featuring specialty coffees, teas, wines and nonalcoholic beverages
    • 24-hour room service
    • 24-hour Wi-Fi access with complimentary Internet of 60 minutes per person, per day
    • State-of-the-art interactive TV system including in-suite movies on demand and extensive music library(via satellite)
    • Onboard entertainment and enrichment programs
    • Daily yoga and fitness classes
    • Daily choice of electronic international newspapers
    • Self-service guest laundry
    • Choice of complimentary curated Crystal Adventures® shore excursions in every port
    • Complimentary culinary experience at highly renowned local establishments
    • Complimentary airport transfers to/from river yacht to airport

Aboard the first river-yacht vessel, Crystal Mozart, your all-inclusive cruise-only fares begin at just $3,435 per person for a 10-day round-trip Vienna sailing.   CALL US IF INTERESTED!! Crystal_River_Cruises_Yacht_(ArtistConcept)

Congratulations to our newly-engaged clients!

engagedcuracao (2)Congratulations to April and Wade, who got engaged in truly romantic style on a  sunny Curacao getaway last week.  We are thrilled for you and looking forward to planning your destination wedding!

NCL ESCAPE Review

escapeThe 4,248 passenger Escape, the newest ship of Norwegian Cruise Lines, entered service last week and I was on the 3 night ship inaugural sailing.  Here’s my impression of this new mega-ship.

It’s a party ship with a lot to offer;  no wonder  Pitbull is the godfather of this rockin’ ship!

Escape will sail year-round from Miami to the Caribbean and Florida and the Bahamas.  This particular 3 nighter had one port day in Nassau, Bahamas, so there was plenty of time

to check out the ship itself.

Embarkation was a real bear–we waited in line for 1 hour and 45 minutes.  Yes, you read that right.  Not a pleasant way to start your cruise, and I hope NCL does something about this because it seems to be the norm.  Once onboard, it was smooth sailing.

I had a spa mini-suite on Deck 15, and it had the biggest bathroom I’ve seen in a long while, outside of suites.  It had one large oblong sink that functioned as two sinks, and 2 of us could actually stand in there together.  Check it out:

bathroomshowerThe shower is also a “spa” shower with a very fancy rainshower head, an adjusting  handheld showerhead as well as 6 side jets.  Toiletries were Bulgari.  However–who knows what’s in those dispensers for shampoo and body/hand soap.  Makes you feel like you’re at your local gym.  Not luxurious!

The cabin itself is a little snug moving around the bed corners, but there is really nice storage detail all about the room and in the bathroom, very cleverly designed.  Beds are high enough to fit your suitcases underneath.  Lots of closet space, both  hanging and shelves.

The TV is at an odd position in relation to the bed, if that is important to you.  Better to watch TV on the sofa instead of the bed.  Free TV options are pretty poor–they didn’t even have CNN!

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The great thing about the spa rooms is that you have unlimited access to the spa thermal area, which includes a nice hydrotherapy pool, heated loungers, various showers, steam rooms, sauna, a salt room and a snow room.  Maybe my expectations were too high, because it does not snow in the snow room.  It’s your basic cold/ice room, with frost on the walls.  Someone in NCL Marketing had fun  naming that but their cleverness gets the best of them because they oversell it.  It’s also quite small.  The ice room at Grand Velas Riviera Maya beats this by a mile!

Here’s a shot of the hydrotherapy pool area:

hydroarea2The ship itself is huge and has a lot to offer in the way of entertainment.  We saw After Midnight–a Duke Ellington Cotton-Club-style musical review that was terrific, as well as Million Dollar Quartet (True tale of the one night Sun Records session with Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis), which was also terrific.  Probably best live entertainment I’ve seen on a ship.  Both of these shows were on Broadway.  They also have a supper club ($30 surcharge) that includes dinner and a show “The Brat Pack” which is an in the round 80’s Breakfast-Club show.  This was ALOT of fun and worth the extra money, even if the dinner food was ho-hum (isn’t dinner theater food always kinda gross?).  It’s a three course dinner, no choices.  Appetizer trio was plated–tomato caprese, crab salad and a salmon thing.  Dinner was large battered prawns and braised short ribs, and dessert was a chocolate s’more mousse (which sounds better than it tasted).

Entrance to Supper Club:

supperclubWe didn’t even get to the Headliners Comedy Club (always long line to get in) or Howl with the Moon, the dueling piano bar that is so popular.  I’m not a gambler, but there’s a pretty good size casino onboard as well.

Here are some shots from around the ship:

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Atrium views

There is a main pool area (incredibly crowded) and a really fun looking kids Aqua Park:

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There is also a large Kids Club as well as a Teen Club called Entourage, as well as a large separate Game room.

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The ROPES/ZIPLINING Course–very popular with kids AND adults!

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The food was surprisingly good–one night we ate in the  Manhattan Room (featuring live jazz) and we had fabulous  pistachio crème brulee for dessert.   Another night we went to Savor, and paid upcharges to have prime rib and a whole Maine lobster.  We were warned that they are made-to-order and would take an extra 20 minutes or so.  They did take extra time, but that lobster was served hot and steamed perfectly with drawn butter.  Not the usual dry and rubbery lobster you may get on a mega ship.  Worth the extra $19.95.  The prime rib was also excellent.  The Taste and Savor dining rooms are pretty classy looking with a nice clean modern design.

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The casual Jimmy Buffet Margaritaville is comp.  Am I going to wait over an hour for a cheeseburger in paradise?  Ummm–NO.

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There are plenty of bars–even a craft beer bar and a wine cellar bar– and lounges, and plenty of specialty restaurants.  NCL is doing a little experiment on this ship–rather than charging a flat upcharge to dine in a specialty restaurant like the Latin American Bayamo, Italian La Cucina, French Le Bistro, Cagney’s Steakhouse, Sushi Bar, Pinchos Tapas Bar and more, they are charging a la carte pricing.  Your read that right.  I am very curious if NCL will keep with this pricing business model.

The Wine Bar

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Bayamo

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Le Bistro

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La Cucina

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Cagney’s Steakhouse

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Pinchos Tapas Bar and the Sushi Bar (separate areas!)

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There is some shiopping onboard, although the Carolina Herrera Store and the Lacoste store were always empty when I walked by.

The best $15 day pass you will ever buy is to the Vibe Beach Club–limited to 100 guests per day, it’s up on Deck 19 and requires card key access.  Once there, you have a not-too-hot Jacuzzi hot tub that seats 8, comfy padded lounge chairs and day beds, your own bar, restrooms and lounge sitting area.  Also shaded areas too.    While there is no pool, there is the hot tub, an outdoor shower and a cool (literally) misting area with two lounge chairs in it.  If you want to get away from the madness of the main pool, this is your ticket!

If you want the adult party area, go up to Spice H2O–an 18+ area that has hot tubs, a huge movie screen, a bar and plenty of lounges and seating.  Nice place to have a drink at sunset, turns into an outdoor dance club at night until the wee hours.

View from Spice H2O on Deck 18 leaving the Bahamas

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Lastly–a few notes about The Haven, NCL’s ship-within-a ship exclusive card key access area.  This is for those guests who want all the amenities of a large mega ship, but do not want to deal with lines, crowds or the hoi polloi.   Haven guests are up on Decks 16,17 and 18.  The staterooms are all suites and villas, and The Haven has its own concierge, pool courtyard, lounge, bar, restaurant and even sun deck.  Haven guests can eat or drink anywhere on the ship, but when they want to get away from the other 4,000 passengers, this is their enclave. It’s beautiful and not crowded, but comes with a price tag to match.  My thoughts–if you want this level of exclusivity, service and space why not just cruise with Crystal, Silversea, Seabourne, Regent?

Here are some pics of The Haven:

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My bottom line:

The NCL Escape is a fun party ship that offers a lot.  It’s great for families, groups  and fun-loving couples and singles.  The entertainment on board is first rate.  I liked it more than I expected I would, but as with cruising in general, you have to go in with the right expectations.  The times when everyone is doing something at the same time–embarkation, muster drill, leaving for shore excursions, going to the pool–you really feel that it’s a big ship and there are ALOT of people on board.  You will dip into your pocket to go to specialty restaurants, but that’s with all mass market ships these days.  But you can have fun here, and that’s what it’s all about.  Bon Voyage!

Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, VA–a Virtuoso property

exteriorToday, my colleague Holly and I took a little road trip out to Middleburg, VA to check out The Salamander Resort & Spa.  The Salamander opened 2 years ago, and it was a brand new build by owner  Sheila Johnson, who ordered custom made materials and artwork to realize her vision.  And what a vision it is!

This is a fabulous place for a romantic couples weekend, a girls spa getaway and even a family reunion.

The first thing you notice about The Salamander is its unique positioning–you can walk to it from the middle of the quaint and lovely town of Middleburg, filled with antique shops and boutiques.  Middleburg, VA is only one hour outside of Washington DC and has long been known as horse country, but now it is also known as the epicenter of Virginia wine country.    There are many vineyards in the local area, some national award-winning.  And at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Middleburg is incredibly scenic.

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The Salamander occupies  300 acres, most of which are park preserve.  There are miles of hiking trails right on property.   There is a large equestrian center onsite with 9 horses that are available for trail riding.  There is an outdoor family pool, and several fire pit areas.  And staying on trend, they offer falconry and as of next Spring, beekeeping facilities.

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There are plenty of activities available:

  • Riding lessons / trail rides at the Equestrian Center with 22 stalls, a riding arena and scenic trails
  • Miles of walking and biking trails
  • Nature-based activities including bird watching and a sustainable garden
  • Exclusive golf privileges at nearby Creighton Farms featuring a Jack Nicklaus Signature Course
  • Bocce, croquet, putting green and other lawn games
  • Children’s Program
  • TreeTop Zip Tour on 22 acres with 5 ziplines
  • 2 Tennis courts with outdoor pool complex
  • The  Library has a wide collection of current and historic books available, as well as board games and quiet areas
  • Tours of 50 Virginia wineries within 60 minutes of the resort
  • Over 400 annual equestrian-related activities, including steeplechases, polo events, and some of the country’s most celebrated horse shows
  • Shopping and dining in the historic village of Middleburg
  • Historic area tours including Journey Through Hallowed Ground

There is also a 23,000 square foot spa with 14 treatment rooms, featuring Ahava, Caudalie, Natura Bisse and Alchemie of Switzerland products.  Treatments reflect the local wine culture and include “Crushed Cabernet” body scrub and Vinotherapie facials.  The spa has a gorgeous outdoor heated pool which is open all year round, surrounded by cushy loungers.  The fitness center has an indoor pool and features yoga and Pilates classes.

 

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There are 2 restaurants on site,  as well as a wine bar, billiards room and a state-of-the-art  Cooking Studio that features guest chefs.   Here’s a sample  of some upcoming offerings:

Game Day Gourmet

Holiday Cocktails

Healthy Holiday Desserts

Holiday Pies

Gingerbread House Making

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The resort has 168 rooms and suites, and the standard room is over 500 square feet, with a King bed and small sectional sofa, work station, table and chairs and a lux marble bathroom with double vanities and a gorgeous free standing tub.

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There is so much to do here and I like that it’s large, but not too large.  The Salamander has extensive conference facilities as well, and they are in a separate wing of the resort so if you are a leisure guest, you would never know that a conference might be taking place.

Lastly, The Salamander  has 6 cars that will drive you on a comp basis within a 5 mile radius, which is a nice touch.

I really liked what I saw and experienced today, and will be putting together special Spa and Wine Tasting Packages, so check back on the Special Offers page very soon!