Celebrity Wine Cruise - 4/13 - By, Ann & Lou

Our search for new hotels and travel options began in Paris.  We stayed on the left bank in the St Germain des Pres area near the Ile de la Cite where Notre Dame is located.  Many small hotels which are privately owned belong to the Best Western association and are good choices in Paris.  We stayed at the small simple hotel  Best Western De L’Univers which has a very helpful staff.  Rooms are very small, as are many rooms in Europe, but very clean and neat.  They also do have a larger, very nice room category that would be great for someone who wants something more upscale.  This area allows you to feel like you are in the Paris that you see in pictures or in your mind, with little cafés along the street, small shops and people walking in the streets enjoying life.  If you like to walk, you can walk to the quaint island of Ile St-Louis and on to Notre Dame.  The subway, or Metro, is nearby and local buses are just around the corner.  I always recommend the Hop-on-Hop-off bus tour for first time visitors.  Our hotel recommended a great restaurant in the area the “Roger la Grenouille” or the frog.  The specialty is frog legs (yum).

Near the Louvre in Paris there is a new hotel/apartment that is very nice and will be on our “Top Recommend” list.  This is the Paris Louvre Citidines which just opened their first 5 star properties.  All accommodations are very nice suites with a little kitchen area which includes a small washing machine.  Many have small balconies as a bonus.  These rooms are more for couples than families, however.

Hotel Theresa is a nice boutique hotel choice near the Opera House.  This is on a quiet little street and is clean and neat with a friendly staff.

With all the many museums in Paris you can visit, may I suggest that you don’t miss the l’Orangerie.  You can visit this museum in an hour or longer if you get the head sets and listen to the great descriptions of the paintings found here. The famous Monet’s  “Water Lilies” are interesting on one level, but visit the rest of the museum on the lower level to see wonderful post-impressionist and impressionist art. 

At the head of my list of not-to-be-missed in Paris is the busy “Painters Square” near the Basilique du Sacre-Coeur in Montmartre.  Artists want to draw your picture, but you can also watch painters at work or purchase local art at a reasonable cost.  Most days there are also some street entertainers in the area.

Another fun visit is to one of the 24 “Passages” which are found around the city.  These architecturally interesting “streets” are like very early shopping malls.

For our transportation to and from the hotel we used Paris Lux Shuttle Service which is very good and we will recommend to our clients.  They are reasonable in cost and very dependable.

EasyJet provided their services just as advertised.  It is an inexpensive way to fly from one of the major airports in Paris to Pisa Italy.  We chose to fly to Pisa on our way to Florence for cost savings.  From the Pisa airport you have a choice of taking the bus which is very easy and great if you have luggage that you don’t want to lift on and off the trains.  Both the train and bus are right out the front door of this small airport.  It takes about an hour either way to get to Florence.  Flying into this airport is good for people going to Florence,  anywhere in Tuscany, Cinque Terre, or renting are car and driving anywhere in Italy.  Delta also has a non-stop flight from New York into this airport.

Florence is easy walking town.  You can visit most major sites in 1 or 2 days. Not to be missed is the Lorenzo Market and food market.  The best Gelato is found in the Signora Square.  We chose to take the hop-on hop-off bus tour which cannot go through the old town, but it is good for the areas around Florence.  This is nice but you have to be patient as it takes a little time to get to the interesting areas.  We stayed at the De LaVilla Hotel which has a great location and very comfortable rooms.  I recommend the superior room which is large and lovely.  You can walk to all the important locations from this hotel.  The staff is a little of a mix of very helpful and kind to non-interested and cold.

Tuscany is the magical place that everyone wants to visit, with good reason; the views are beautiful and quintessential Italy.   We had the great pleasure of staying in one of our “Top Recommend” hotel/villa/farms, Castello La Leccia

As we approached, we looked up at the top of a hill and asked our driver what was the beautiful little midieval looking villa or town.  He replied that is your hotel/farm, Castello La Leccia.  We were so excited and even more so when we arrived.  This is a family working farm of vineyards and olive trees along with up-scale accommodations in the family villa.  The villa’s accommodations of only 12 rooms, along with a small chapel, a working winery with a couple of small out buildings, make up this lovely place.  The exterior is that of a medieval village with beautiful gardens and a majestic staircase from the villa to a swimming pool.  Once you enter the villa, the reception area and rooms are very modern with the highest technology very evident.  In wonderful contrast is the 2nd floor of the villa that has maintained the elegance of a fine villa of bygone days.   Here you can relax with grand views of the Tuscan valleys, read a book in the library,  or have a glass of their fine wine and just relax.  The owner, who is very pleasant, is pleased to share his winery experience and wine tasting with guests.  The restaurant service and food is very good and those preparing the meals love to see you enjoying their choices.

We chose to use the services of Tuscany in Tours for driving and sightseeing as well as visiting hotels.  They also provide shore excursion services.  The service is wonderful.  Our driver/guide was Massimo, who speaks perfect English and knows everything about Tuscany.  He takes our clients to the small out of the way wineries and hill towns in addition to the well know tourist areas.  We did take time to go to Siena to see one of my not-to-be-missed, the Duomo and piazza in Siena.  The Duomo is another one of those short, not more than an hour visits.  You can enjoy fine art and interesting architecture.  If you visit, don’t miss the library and use the head phones found around the areas within the church for helpful explanations and descriptions.  Because Tuscany in Tours has special licensing to drive us right to the Duomo or Square it was very easy and saved a lot of walking.

While we did visit a few hotels that we were not as impressed with, the following are some that we can recommend.  Borgo San Luigi is a very nice choice for those that would enjoy the old world Tuscany feel of a property with several different accommodation choices.  The staff is very nice here and some of the rooms have wonderful patios and nice sitting area in your room.  Another recommended property very near San Gimignano is Villa San Pado which also has a really nice spa.  The best choice for rooms is in the older section set in beautiful gardens with very interesting classic Italian rooms.  The restaurant here is large and very good.  Other nearby interesting towns are Certaldo and Voltera.  If clients are driving and want a small, very basic family run hotel,  Le Renaie is a nice choice.  Another nice surprise was the Fattoria Voltrona which is a simple property with very basic rooms, but many things to do on the property including horseback riding.  The staff is very nice and friendly here. This property, like many others, does not have air-conditioning.

 We also visited and had lunch at the very impressive Castel Monastero luxury resort which includes the 2 star Michelin restaurant of Chef Gordon Ramsey. This is old world luxury with great dining and wonderful spa.  If travelers want a special up-scale experience in a former medieval monastery this is a great choice. “WOW,” is the word that comes to mind as you walk around this resort for those with discriminating taste.

All of these hotels/farms/resorts are in the general area of Chianti Tuscany near either San Gimignano or Siena.

From Pisa we took the Ryan air flight to Barcelona; well almost to Barcelona.  The flight is listed as Pisa to Girona (Barcelona) (GRO). In fact, it is about 1 hr 15min to 1 ½ hours from Barcelona.  Taxi from here is about 150euro, and I do not recommend the taxi from here.  However, I do recommend taking the bus that goes from the airport to the city center.

In Barcelona we boarded our cruise ship the Azamara Quest for a very nice cruise of the French Rivera with stop in Provence.  Please refer to Cheryl Blanchard’s very good report of this cruise line and ship.  I find this Azamara cruise ship to be a good choice for people who want a more boutique feel and more inclusions such as tipping and drinks without the expense of the all-suites ships. Azamara is also featuring late night departures and overnight stay which allow you more destination immersion.  I was very pleasant to be able to sleep in a little and still fully experience each port-of-call.  I enjoyed all the stops, but San Tropez was my favorite port, and my favorite shore excursion was to St Paul DeVence, a beautiful medieval walled town with one art shop after another.  I put both of these places on my places not-to- be- missed list.  Cannes is just as you have always heard, one fabulous designer shop after another and everyone watching for the rich and famous along the beach boardwalk.