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!




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:


Atrium views

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





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


gameroom gameroom2 gameroom4


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


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.


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


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

















Le Bistro








La Cucina








Cagney’s Steakhouse








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


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

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:





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.




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.







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.




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



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.





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!





OCTOBER 2015 newsletter and special offers


October 2015–Special Offers & Travel News

Hi all:October has brought around some great last-minute offers for those of you with flexibility!  And the dollar is still strong against the euro:  as of this writing 1E = $1.14.  And Africa is still a tremendous value, particularly South Africa!  1 $USD  = 13 Rand, unbelievable.  And with good deals on air out there–such as British Airways Business Class RT Wash DC  to Barcelona in mid-June 2016 for $1500 USD, October is a great time to be thinking about and even booking your travel for 2016.  See below for something that might strike your fancy!

Visit Our Website

30th Anniversary of Out of Africa30th Anniversary of Out of Africa

This seven-time Academy Award Winner enthralled all of us with its depiction of the true love story between Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton set amidst the timeless beauty of Kenya.

And now Virtuoso supplier A&K is offering a very special Out of Africa experience for our clients!  10 days in Kenya and Tanzania, including a visit to Karen Blixen’s house and museum via vintage car, a picnic on the very location site featured in the movie poster shown here, a photo op with the biplane movie prop and a visit to Finch Hatton’s grave, along with safari game drives and first class accommodations.  From $9,999 pp. land only.


CRUISE NEWS & PROMOTIONSThere are expiration dates on all of these so call me for details.

AMA Waterways:  FREE AIR for the last 2015 sailings and early 2016 sailings, plus significant savings on  staterooms.  CALL ME for details if interested.  Ama will have 2 brand new ships in 2016 that will feature connecting staterooms and 350 sq ft suites,  and a brand new “Taste of Bordeaux” itinerary that I am ready to go on myself:)

CRYSTAL CRUISES POP UP SALE:  Save $300 per person in Veranda category and receive $100 spa credit per stateroom.

OCEANIA:  November 1, 2016 sailing will be hosted  by legendary chef Jacques Pepin and will feature special menus, excursions and culinary classes.  From Venice to Rome, from $3,899 pp including air!   Cruiser Foodies, this one’s for you!

REGENT:  $200 shipboard credit for any booking until 10/31/15 in honor of “Plan a Cruise” month

SEABOURNE:  2016 Europe on sale, free Verandah Suite upgrade, reduced deposits, must be booked by 11/15/15.

WINDSTAR:  Save up to 60& off cruisefares and get 2 FREE hotel nights pre-post cruise on select departures!

UNIWORLD:  $200 shipboard credit for any 2016 booking as our exclusive Virtuoso amenity!


MANDARIN ORIENTAL HOTELS:  Stay 3, get 1 Night FREE promotion from 1/4/16 to 4/3/16.  Must be booked by 11/15.

Stay at participating hotels for 4 nights or more and get treated to afternoon tea on us!  Includes The Goring, The Milestone, The Ritz, Rosewood London and more.

ST. REGIS ASPEN:  4th night free until 12/20!

SALAMANDER in Middleburg, VA: 3rd night FREE promo until 11/24/15.  Check out our website next week as I will be touring this new resort and posting pics on my Travel Blog.  Seems like a great option for a couples long weekend or Girls Getaway.


Some Final ThoughtsSome Final Thoughts–

  • The good old USA has plenty to see!  Every year I have clients go on a Tauck National Parks tour, such as America’s Canyonlands, and they rave about it.  Tauck has expanded their Parks itineraries for 2016 and  have Ken Burns tours as well.
  • The Rocky Mountaineer is a luxury train through the Pacific Northwest and also the Canadian Rockies that people are also crazy about.
  • There are wonderful family-friendly resorts and romantic boutique properties throughout the US that will surprise and delight you.  I will be visiting Salamander next week, down in Middleburg VA so check out our website in the Travel Blog section as I will write a review and post some pics.

I have a lot of travel coming up in Nov/Dec and will be posting on the website and in various social media so look out for me!  Updates on Disney World, South Beach, the brand new NCL megaship ESCAPE, and a flying safari through Botswana are all on the way.

As always, we are ready for all your luxury travel  planning needs.

Enjoy the cool crisp weather of October!


Denise Burcksen| LUXURY TRAVEL ADVENTURES | 301-217-0027 | |

Luxury Travel Adventures September 2015 News & Special Offers

I’m settling back into a routine after several weeks of travel, including our annual Virtuoso global conference. I had almost 400 meetings with hotels, tour operators and suppliers from all over the world! So in this newsletter I will provide my takeaway of trends in travel, as well as the best offers out there right now.

I am headed to site inspections at Disney World & South Beach in Nov, and then a flying safari through Botswana with a quick Christmas stop in London so let me know if you have any questions about these specific destinations. I hope this inspires you to travel more in 2016 and beyond!

Lastly–we just went live with our newly re-designed website.

Please take a look! It’s now full screen and mobile friendly.

Travel Trends from Virtuoso Travel Week

travel weekVirtuoso’s “Top 10 Destinations” for 2015 based on bookings:

  1. Italy
  2. Mexico
  3. UK
  4. South Africa
  5. Australia
  6. New Zealand
  7. France
  8. China
  9. Germany
  10. Canada–the fastest growing destination!

More interestingly, here’s the Virtuoso “Hot 10”–the ones to watch as bookings are on the rise:

  1. Vietnam
  2. India
  3. French Polynesia & Fiji
  4. Spain
  5. Argentina
  6. Canada
  7. US Virgin ISlands
  8. Peru
  9. Costa Rica
  10. The Netherlands

And here’s my two cents: Ireland is having a moment! I expect to book more Ireland business in 2016 due to a favorable Euro but also because of the warm and friendly people and beautiful countryside that clients always rave about! And, Ashford Castle in County Mayo won HOTEL of the YEAR!



And we can provide you with some wonderful extra benefits if you want to stay a night or few! Check it out:

BEST CULINARY EXPERIENCE: Epicure at Le Bristol in Paris

BEST SPA: The Dolder Grand Spa in Zurich

BEST FAMILY PROGRAMS: Four Seasons Resort, Orlando at Walt Disney World

BEST AIRLINE: Emirates (flies out of Dulles)

BEST TOURISM BOARD (for engagement): New Zealand




BEST CRUISE LINE: Crystal Cruises

All earned their accolades!

Girlfriend Getaways


I met with many small boutique hotels and spas at Travel Week, and all are right here in the USA. Some are even all-inclusive, such as Miraval and Lake Austin Spa Resort. Yes, that’s right–Austin, TX!

There are a handful of really nice places in Cape Cod that I would also recommend. We can provide additional amenities and benefits–like spa credits– that you can only get from us!

  • Inn by the Sea in Maine
  • The Ocean House in Rhode Island
  • Chatham Bars Inn in Chatham MA
  • Blantyre in the Berkshires, looks just like an English manor house

And if you want a warmer climate, this is a favorite of our staff: – The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island, near Charleston SC.

For Golfers:
Rosewood Tuckers Point in Bermuda–great rates in low season!

For Tennis Players:
Boca Raton Resort & Club Waldorf Astoria–Jimmy Connors is their new tennis pro. Really.

For Skiers:
The Sebastian in Vail

For Foodies:
Blackberry Farm in TN. WOW.

For Wine Lovers:
The Carneros Inn, CA

For “GLAMPERS” (you know who you are:) )
The Resort at Paws Up
The Ranch at Rock Creek, both in Montana

Call me if interested in putting together a girl getaway!

Best Hotel Offers

There are several high value Free Night offers out there and you can only get them from us!

  • St. Regis Aspen: 4th night free
  • Salamander Resort: 3rd night free. This is right in Middleburg, VA!
  • Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort in Fiji: Provides a personal nanny for each child guest, included in rate!
  • The Lanesborough in London: 93 rooms and every one gets its own butler!

Best Cruise Offers

  • WINDSTAR CRUISES: FLASH SALE right now until Sept 17th with insanely low fares. How low? $1299 to $2009 per person for sailings that usually cost $3,599 to $7,599 pp! Mediterranean and French Polynesia included thru end of year.
  • REGENT SEVEN SEAS: Just lowered fares on 23 cruises and is still offering $499 Biz Class Air upgrade on 23 sailings. Inquire for specifics.
  • UNIWORLD RIVER CRUISES: $200 shipboard credit plus fruit basket on ANY Uniworld cruise you book with us!
  • SPRING BREAK 2016: I have group space blocked on 2 sailings during MCPS Spring Break. For those who do not want to drive, I can offer NCL BREAKAWAY 3/27- 4/3 Round trip from NYC to Florida and the Bahamas with $50 shipboard credit and great pricing on mini-suites! Also have blocked space on Celebrity REFLECTION 3/26-4/2 RT Miami to Western Caribbean. Great pricing on Balconies and Sunset Verandas PLUS $50 credit, martini or wine tasting and chocolate-covered strawberries for everyone!

Call me if interested.

Top Industry News

  • CRYSTAL CRUISES is getting a lot of new ships! New ocean ships, yachts and even river cruise ships. And, Crystal will have two private jetliners for trips around the world. Millions+ infusion of cash investment from their owners, Genting Hong Kong. Look for new ships in 2017, with sales opening on 12/1/15.
  • The brand new Viking ocean ship STAR is an absolute stunner and a game changer for Viking. Getting RAVE reviews. Sold out for the rest of 2015 but selling 2016 and beyond.
  • Regent Seven Seas new ship EXPLORER launches Summer 2016 and is promising to be absolutely spectacular, and with the most expensive suite at sea. Pictures of the ship so far are incredible. PLUSH.
  • For East Coast cruisers, there will soon be a new game in town: Royal Caribbean’s brand new ANTHEM OF THE SEAS will be arriving in its year round home Cape Liberty NJ in Nov 2015.
  • Norwegian’s brand new build ESCAPE will be arriving in Miami in Nov 2015 (I will be sailing the pre-inaugural and will report on it).
  • CUBA is still not really open for business outside of scheduled group tours. Will have to wait a little longer for truly independent travel.

Don’t hesitate to call us for more information at 301-217-0027. We are here to help!

The Hotel Hershey: The Sweetest Place on Earth?


Swimming with Whale Sharks in Mexico July 2015

whalesharkcloseup How is this for a close-up?

We went swimming with whale sharks off the coast of Isla Mujeres this past July, and it was an amazing experience.  Two days before I had swam with a dolphin at Xel-Ha, and it was a totally different experience.    Swimming with the 17-yr old male dolphin was great fun, but in a controlled environment.  We were in a penned lagoon with the dolphin’s trainer.  Swimming with the whale sharks was in open water about one hour off the coast, and though we did have a professional diver/guide accompany us, these gentle giants are not trained animals!  Not much is known about whale sharks…..they come to Isla Mujeres for only 3 months of the year, June through September, to feed off the plankton and krill.  They are solitary, even though there were lots in the area we were diving in.  So we jumped in, only two at a time with our guide, to swim alongside the shark.   Most were about 25-30 feet long–approximately the size of a school bus!  The whale sharks could care less about humans–they glide along very close to the surface,  keeping their giant mouths open to filter all the plankton.  They look like giant catfish, but make no mistake that they are sharks, as their dorsal fins cut through the blue water.  You can get so close to them that you can almost touch them, and you have to make sure to stay out of the way of their huge swishing tail.   A real sea safari experience I heartily recommend!


Swimming with Dolphins at Xel-Ha

Swimming with dolphinsSwimming with dolphins is on everyone’s bucket list, isn’t it?  We had the opportunity to swim with a 17 year old male rescue dolphin named Kaleche at Xel-Ha, and it lived up to all our expectations, and more.

We were a small group–only 6 people total–with a trainer and the dolphin.  At first, the trainer had Kaleche just swim around us to get used to our group.  Then we were taught  several hand signals that Kaleche understands, and before we knew it he was playing ‘Ring around the Rosie’ and splashing us.

48814-49The highlight for most was swimming with Kaleche while holding his dorsal fin, as you can Chelsea doing in the picture above.   We each got about a 10 yard ride, after which we gave the hand signal and Kaleche actually “stood up” and gave us his side fins to “dance” with.  One more hand signal, and he very gently gave us a peck on the cheek.

The trainer told us that dolphins enjoy physical contact ( just not around their face), and Kaleche certainly seemed to.  His skin was very smooth, not rough as I expected.  I was surprised at how fast and gracefully he swam, with hardly any motion.  It is easy to see why everyone loves dolphins!