TALES of a Traveler
Settle in and stay for a while. May you be inspired for your next adventure.
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I love all things Disney, and souvenirs are no exception! Just the mention of the word and I envision myself browsing gift shops looking for the perfect item to bring home. However, while many trinkets call my name, I buy very few things at the parks. Instead, my favorite souvenirs are free ... or should I say, included.
You see, my favorite Disney souvenirs are character photos.
One very magical aspect of our trips to Disney is saying hello to Mickey and his pals. Over the years, we have met hundreds of friends, in many variations of costumes. In the process, we have created precious memories with conversations had, the antics that took place, and the mishaps that occurred. (Yes, Donald, we know you didn't mean to poke MJ in the eye!)
It's National Travel Agent Day! For me, that means many emails from various suppliers, expressing gratitude for the work that I do. I am thankful to be part of such a dynamic industry, doing a job that I love and look forward to daily. I truly believe I have the best career in the world. However, as I reflect on my business, I realize that many people still don't really understand my role as a travel planner. As such, here are 5 things your travel agent wants you to know.
1. My Services are Complimentary Yes, free. No charges, no service fees, no hidden costs. I have tried and tried again to make this known, telling anyone who will listen, posting it on social media, etc. Yet, not a week goes by when someone doesn't comment that they thought I charge a fee. Or, sometimes I'm in dialogue with a potential client and she asks me when I will be sending my bill. Friends, suppliers pay me to help you. I don't charge a cent.
While I have been privileged to explore many places, there is much more of the world that my heart longs to see. I venture to say I'm not alone. Most people I know have a list of places they'd like to visit, and experiences they'd like to have, but they aren't quite sure how to afford it. Today, I'd like to encourage you that it may be more doable than you think, by offering 10 simple ways to save for vacation. These aren't magic money makers, but a way of looking at your life and refocusing your priorities.
People could easily look at me and say, "Of course you can travel a lot, that's your JOB!" While that is true, it still requires resources, and a focused effort on my part to save what we need. My husband has a fabulous job, and I contribute with my business. However, we live in San Jose, which Business Insider calculated to be the 6th most expensive place to live in the world. Therefore, while we are financially stable by all definitions, we don't have excess cash to throw around. We make choices in our everyday lives which allow us to take some incredible trips. By sharing some of my strategies with you, I hope you'll be encouraged that you, too, can save up for that dream trip.
Let's face it: as parents of little ones, a vacation sounds completely magical. An opportunity to get away from the normal routine and escape the responsibilities of home for a few days would be delightful. The thought of it is enough to carry us through those sleepless nights or toddler tantrum episodes. That is, the THEORY of family travel sounds wonderful. Reality, however, may seem a bit daunting. After all, there's so much gear. And unpredictable schedules. And eating habits. And mood swings. Need I go on?
Today, I'd like to encourage you that enjoyable vacations ARE possible for parents with little ones. All it takes is some good decision making and adequate planning. To help set you in the right direction, I have a few helpful hints and tips to share.
Without further ado...how to travel with little ones and LIKE it:
Location, Location, Location
Yes, I recommend you choose one, and only one. (Two at the most, if you are feeling ambitious!) With so much gear to haul, and settling in to occur, you don't want to spend multiple days packing and unpacking. That's more time spent working and less time enjoying your destination.
If you had asked me 12 years ago whether or not I am a "cruise type" I would have given a resounding "No!!" After all, I don't like crowds or feeling cooped up, and I get wretchedly seasick. Then, a good deal on a Disney Cruise enticed me to give it a try. Since then, I have been hooked, cruising a dozen times, becoming a travel agent, and passing the cruising bug on to fellow travelers.
When sharing my passion for cruising, the question I get asked the most frequently is, "So, why do you like cruising so much?" A truly simple question, with many answers. In response, here are the top 10 reasons why I LOVE cruising...(in no particular order).
10. Seeing a variety of places, while only having to pack and unpack once. Packing isn't fun, and items never seem to fit back in a suitcase quite the same when moving from location to location. The fact that I can enjoy time in a fabulous destination, go have dinner and enjoy some evening entertainment, then wake up the next day in a completely different destination is irresistible.
I shared with you a little bit about my whale wishes in my last post. Given my enthusiasm, it may surprise you that we did not pre-book a whale watching excursion on our Alaskan cruise.
While whale watching has been on my bucket list, we live one hour from Monterey Bay, and have plenty of opportunities for whale watching in our normal, every day lives. Therefore, as I perused excursion options, I felt it more important to get out to Mendenhall Glacier. After all, many clients go to see this wonder of nature, and I felt I should, too. However, not wanting to miss out on an adventure, we selected a river rafting trip that took us out to the glacier, then continued on exploring the beautiful areas around Juneau. I don’t really like water in the face, and I have a bit of a bad back, but the trip seemed to be the perfect fit. It wouldn’t be TOO rough for me, and I could suck up my dislike of water in order to experience The Last Frontier.
It was a relief to feel some warmth as we left the ship today in Tortola. The skies made us believe it could be a bit chilly out. We asked directions, and headed for Speedy’s ferry service. It was a 10 minute walk to the pier and we were on the ferry by 8:50. The 9 o’clock ferry was the second of the day, but the first that cruise passengers could catch. We were pleased to get seats up on top, to keep seasickness at bay. Soon we were on our way, enjoying the breeze and chatting with other ferry passengers on the half hour ride to Virgin Gorda.
Once ashore on Virgin Gorda, we hopped on a safari cab and drove the 10 minutes to the top of the baths. As we began our trek to the beach, we were awed by the beauty in less than 20 steps. The dirt path down to the shore is overgrown with trees, creating an open tunnel that transformed us to another time and place. We stopped for multiple photos, then finally made it to the bottom, where we were awed once again by nature. In front of us, the tree tunnel opened onto a beautiful turquoise beach enclosed by enormous rocks, and powdery tan sand. Absolutely beautiful!!! Then, our adventure really began.
Not content to just sit on the first beach we came to, we took the path to the left. Squeezing between two huge boulders, we began an unforgettable journey. You see, the huge boulders create natural caves, where the water ebbs and flows based on the tides. To wind your way through them, you must squeeze through rocks (sometimes almost on hands and knees!), climb boulders, and wade through the water. Each corner and crevice seemed to hold a new and greater beauty (as well as opportunity for slipping). Since we were on the early ferry, we were virtually alone on our trek, allowing us to soak in the magnificence at our own pace, capturing gorgeous moments on camera.
We continued to the end of the path, past Devil’s Bay and onto Stony Beach. There, we sat down to just soak it all in, admiring a gorgeous view…khaki sand, turquoise water, majestic grey rocks and stark white boats beyond the buoys. Ah, just fabulous! We made the decision at that point to stay and linger for a few hours, making note of when to catch the ferry back to Tortola. Dave and Susan hopped in the water, and beckoned for Scott and I to join them. At last I caved, and enjoyed some time in the bay.
Following our swim, we decided to trek back just a bit farther. A kind islander told us that the end of the trail is the furthest tip of the island, and the point where the Caribbean meets the Atlantic. Dave and I strolled out there, again awed by it all. All alone, on the tip of the island, we were able to truly enjoy the crashing of the waves, the serenity of the sea, and the magic of the moment. We managed to get a little rock climbing in, too. Awesome!
Soon it was time to start heading back to catch the cab, to get on the 2:45 ferry. Winding our way back through the baths, we were struck by how many people were there. With many places only allowing people to flow one way, it was a bit congested. This made us thankful that we had experienced the setting before the crowds arrived. While the pictures are fabulous, they will never do the baths justice. If you ever have the opportunity, you really need to see them for yourself…they will not disappoint you!
As I type this, we are pulling out of port from St. Thomas, an island in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Based on what I had read about St. Thomas, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it. It is the most visited cruise port in the Caribbean, and tends to be quite crowded, so that is the tidbit that stuck in my mind. However, leaving this evening, my opinion has changed.
We headed off the ship about 9:45, to quickly find our first photo op of the day. On the rocks around Crown Bay, where we docked, rested scores of iguanas. They were quite charming sunbathing on their rocks, staring at us. Such cooperative photo subjects! At 9:58 we were sitting on a safari taxi ready for the half hour drive to Magen’s Bay. Now, if you know me, you know I’m not particularly a beach person. So, there must have been a very good reason to pay to get out to that part of the island. You see, Magen’s Bay has been declared one of the best beaches in the world by National Geographic magazine, as well as being listed in the book “1000 Places to See Before You Die”. Being the list girl I am, I decided it was worth the trek.
Greetings from beautiful San Juan, Puerto Rico! Upon arrival in San Juan, a cab carried us to our hotel – La Concha Renaissance. The front desk upgraded to suites at check in, so we’re enjoying some extra space this evening. The hotel is beautiful, with a lovely enclosed courtyard, ocean vistas, and fountains throughout. It makes us wish we had snuck away to La Isla Encanta a day sooner, to have more time to enjoy the ambiance.
After refreshing from our red-eye flight, we headed off to Viejo San Juan. Dropped off by the Cristobal Colon statue, we lunched outside near the plaza. Soaking up the ocean breeze and tropical music, we slowly slipped into vacation mode. It was a long, leisurely lunch. Dave and I shared some grilled chicken and beef, as well as fried plantains. Yummy!
Our day in Antigua started bright and early, as Disney Cruise line opened their 2013 sailings on the Magic and Wonder. Since I had reservations to make for a client, I got up in time to have breakfast, confirm cell phone coverage, and be off the ship in time to call at 9am. Much stress went into that phone call, as we had a segway tour scheduled at 10:10. I had to finish the call in time! After an hour on hold, I started to give up hope of getting through, but decided to not hang up until I absolutely had to. Right before our guide appeared, a very nice rep at DCL picked up the line. I was able to confirm the necessary bookings before heading off on our adventure. What a relief!
We walked with our guide to our rendezvous point, where we were joined with other Segweyans. (Our name for the rest of the day). We hopped in a shuttle and drove out to our training facility. Just arriving at the facility was exciting, as the adjacent beach was stunning. With the sand, the palm trees and the color of the water, I will forever call it “Corona Beach”, as it looked like a Corona beer commercial. Honest!
I have to say that my only regret of our entire Mediterranean Cruise has to do with Monte Carlo. Reading about the ultra-wealthy city, it did not seem like a place with much to see or explore. As a result, we did not get off of the ship until 9am , despite anchoring at 6. In hindsight, I wish we would have disembarked earlier. We ended up falling in love with the beauty and tranquility of this tiny treasure.
Once tendering ashore, we oohed and aahed as we passed dozens of beautiful yachts. From the ship, they didn't look so big compared to the Ruby Princess. However, once we were standing next to them we realized how large some of them were. As we ventured through the harbor area, we spied the Palace atop the hill, our first destination. Beginning our trek up the steps built into the mountain, we were transported away to a whole different world. The views were beautiful, with greenery, the harbor and the buildings of Monaco creating a beautiful scene.
Today was day 3 of our Italy trifecta, our final day in this lovely country. Again, we were met at the pier at 8am by Euan, our driver from Your Tour in Italy. The drive in to Florence took a good hour and a half, during which we enjoyed the varying scenery of the countryside. Euan narrated a bit for us, allowing us to imagine how much more beautiful it would be in the summer when the many sunflowers are in bloom, or in the fall when the grape leaves are turning colors. It was a fine view today, just not quite like the many paintings you see of the region with their gorgeous colors and multitude of flower blooms.
Arriving in the city , it was impressive to see the old Roman walls, as well as one of the remaining city gates (there were originally 12). We went up onto a hill where we were able to look out onto the city and get a feel for her layout, as well as take some beautiful photos.
Down the hill we went to visit our first site, the church of Santa Croce. The white exterior of the building is rich in detail, and quite beautiful. It was refreshing to walk inside and see a church not quite so ornately decorated as those at the Vatican. Still beautiful, but in a more subdued manner. We perused the building that also serves as an important memorial site for important Italians. Here we viewed the tributes to Michelangelo, DaVinci, Machiavelli, Fermi and more. Outside, in the piazza, we checked out a few vendors selling purses, as Florence is known for her leather goods. I found a purse I really liked, but being the first stop of the day I decided not to get it.
We had a reservation to enter the Accademia and view the statue of David at noon. However, Euan thought that perhaps he could get us in a little early, so we went there next. The line was hideously long, so we were thankful once again to be in the special line for tour guides. Euan went in to get our tickets, and within 10 minutes we were inside the building. (A couple eating dinner near us this evening said that they went and there was a 4 hour wait, so they skipped it. Wow!)
My hubby and I are not art aficionados, but try to see the big, well known pieces when we travel. Therefore, we skimmed the galleries in the Accademia, checking out a few pieces here and there as they appealed to us. I must admit that it was inspiring to see Michelangelo’s unfinished servants. They are figures that are half carved out of stone, incomplete and with excess marble remaining. They really spoke to me about the amazing process creating a sculpture is. If I tried to do it, I would start with a huge block and end up with something the size of a pea, never able to get it quite right.
I have to say that nothing prepared me for the reality of seeing the statue of David before me. When we turned the corner, saw the huge likeness above the crowd, the light shining down from the skylight overhead, it was breathtaking. You see, in pictures and books, there is just nothing to show the perspective of how large it is. Also, when we got up close to the statue, the amount of detail was amazing. To see veins in his hands, and dimples in his elbows, there is the sense that Michelangelo brought David to life in stone. He is incredibly realistic and beautiful.
In fact, David so incredible, that everything else in the museum paled in comparison. We strolled through a few of the galleries, but could not take our minds off the beauty of David. Before we left, we lingered a little longer to just reflect on and enjoy this incredible piece of art. No trip to Florence is complete without visiting David in the Accademia.
The Piazza Del Duomo was our next stop, home to the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore. It is the fourth largest church in the world (we’ve been to 3 of the 4 now), and is quite famous for its dome. The outside is quite unique, as it is made of pink, white and green marble. The detail is exquisite, with each marble panel having its own intricate design. There is also the baptistry, with its famous bronze and gold doors, which Michelangelo called the gates to Paradise. We went inside for a few minutes, to see the famed interior of the dome.
Our group followed the street a bit further down, passing through the courtyard of the Uffizi gallery and to the edge of the Arno River. We strolled along the river and across the Ponte Vecchio, an old bridge lined with exquisite jewelry shops. There is a great history to the bridge, and we were happy to traverse it, just to say we did. We then recrossed the river and worked our way back to our meeting point.
To end our day, we rubbed the boar statue’s nose. Legend says this means we'll return to Florence again, and we do hope that to be true.
We met Aldo at the port at 7:45. He is the owner of Your Tour in Italy, the company we also used yesterday for Naples. He whisked us away for our 1.25 hour drive into Rome. As we traveled, we told him how much we enjoyed Adriano yesterday, and relayed our experiences to him. In turn, he filled us in on the history of Rome, and all that we had in store.
As we drew nearer the city, history began to come alive. We passed through beautiful countryside, and then the old city walls began to appear. We crossed through them into the heart of the ancient city, where we made our first stop at the Colosseum. With such a full day ahead of us, we debated about whether or not to actually enter this ancient site. We decided to go for it, so we made a very daring dash across the insanely busy street. (Imagine in your mind a super-speed game of Frogger.) If we weren’t awake before, the adrenaline rush from that mad dash did the trick!
Today found us back in Italy, which felt like being welcomed home by an old friend. We arrived in Naples bright and early, ready for our day on the Amalfi Coast. Our driver, Adriano, met us at the port and whisked us away for an unforgettable day. We immediately liked Adriano. He was very animated and funny as he shared with us the history of the area. With a great sense of humor, the more we reacted to his stories the more he opened up and shared.
We left the city of Naples and drove up the Amalfi Coast toward the town of Sorrento. I sat in the very front, hoping to stave off car sickness from the windy roads. It worked well, and every time I’d start to feel a bit queasy we’d pull over to look down from the cliffs at the beautiful scenery.
The all clear was given to depart the ship in Mykonos at 11:50 am, and we were some of the first people off of the ship. We hopped onto the complimentary shuttle waiting to take us the 1.2 miles into town. I had read that you could walk it, but I wouldn’t personally recommend doing so, as there is no sidewalk and the roads are narrow. Instead, our shuttle dropped us off 3 minutes later at the edge of Chora town.
We walked along the water to the shops lining the street, the vendors ready to sell us their goods. This included fishermen with their catches of fresh octopus. We cut back into the side alleys of the town, meandering among the white buildings with blue shutters and doors. It is a virtual maze off of the main street, a place to just roam in no particular direction and see where one comes out. We especially enjoyed the simple beauty of the various tiny churches scattered throughout the town. So different than the magnificent cathedrals and basilicas seen earlier on our voyage, but equally beautiful. No wonder they are a hallmark of Mykonos' beauty!
Today brought us to Istanbul, our first “Do it yourself” port. We disembarked the ship at 8 am and intended on catching the tram up to the Sultanahmet area. However, the crowds and congestion were unnerving so we opted to take a taxi instead. That was our first adventure of the day. Our taxi driver was very nice, but caused us to catch our breath a few times as we skirted past trucks and oncoming cars. I’m so glad he lived up to the city’s reputation of crazy driving, and even more glad that we arrived in one piece.
The wake up call at 6 am was a little tough to take this morning. However, the excitement of our journey to Ephesus eased the pain a bit. The Ruby Princess pulled in to port at 6:57 am, right on schedule, and we promptly disembarked to greet our tour guide from Hello Ephesus. We immediately took a liking to Bulent, aka Bill, as he was funny, knowledgeable, and looked remarkably like John Locke. (A character from my favorite TV show of all time, LOST.)
As we drove out to the ruins, about 25 minutes away, Bill filled us in on the history of Turkey and all that we would be seeing out in Ephesus. It was fascinating to hear his account of the many civilizations and cultures that have shaped his country over the centuries. I noticed the countryside as we drove, feeling very much at home amid the citrus trees and farmland of the region.
After 2 days at sea, we docked in the port of Piraeus at 8:55 this morning. We disembarked shortly thereafter and met up with our tour mates in the port arrival hall. We located our driver outside, and were a wee bit concerned as he was not too personable. However, shortly thereafter, our guide, Voula, arrived and kicked things into gear. She was a small woman, with a huge passion for her country and it’s history. The whole drive in to Athens she narrated the history of Greece in general, and Athens in particular. It was like a whole history lesson for dummies, in just 30 minutes. Amazing!
Today we set out for our last adventure in Venice….a visit to St. Mark’s Square and Doge's Palace. We wandered the back streets for about 45 minutes, again oohing and ahhing over the window displays we passed. Then, as we turned a corner, we knew we were in St. Mark’s Square by the mass of people we encountered. Talk about a sea of humanity!
Exquisite, Enthralling Doge's Palace
We wove through to get to our first destination, Doge’s Palace, where we checked in about 20 minutes early for our “Secret Itineraries” Tour. Tickets in hand, we entered the courtyard, and took a step back in time to Venice’s great past. We marveled at the architecture, and took the few minutes before our tour to take some lovely group shots in the majestic setting.
I must start my post about Venice with a confession: I have never held Italy in high regard. Why not? Well, when I was 13, I went to Europe with a marching band. We spent 17 days on a whirlwind tour of 8 different countries. When it came to Italy, I only remembered some rude men looking me up and down, saying “Ah, American”. Apparently that made a strong impression on me, as it overshadowed all other memories of that country. Now, today, 23 years later, I have finally changed my mind.
Lisa is the travel loving, animal adoring, Mickey Mouse hugging owner of Dreams Delivered Travel.