Our Tips and Trips
Europe - Land & Cruise Report
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.
Upon arrival to San Francisco, we were picked up in a Limo to be taken to our hotel. I was talking with the driver as I took in all the scenery on our way to the hotel. I asked the Limo driver if we could stop at a store before he dropped us off. A few minutes later he asked me if the Safeway would be alright. I said that would be better than the un safeway…I thought he was asking about which way to drive us to the Hyatt, I didn’t realize the Safeway was a store!! =)
The Hyatt at Fisherman’s Warf was in an excellent location & close to shopping, food, and attractions. I thought the rooms at the hotel were a good size and clean which one would expect from a Hyatt. They also had a bar and restaurant on site which made it very convenient. We were able to walk from the hotel to many different tourist attractions. I thought San Francisco was a nice destination and was pleasantly surprised at how nice the locals were. We also did a Grayline city tour while we were there. There was a ton of history & information given on the tour. We stopped at several key San Francisco tourist spots including driving over the Golden Gate Bridge and then stopped for pictures. I would recommend that tour, as well as the Alcatraz tour which we didn’t have time to see this time.
I liked the Carnival Splendor’s décor. There was a lot of pink, and I just love pink. The dinning rooms had a lot of pink, but there were other common areas like the theater, cigar bar, library which had less pink. My favorite spot on the ship was of course the disco. There were many different age ranges in the disco and they played mostly hip hop music which seemed to be enjoyed by all ages. If hip hop wasn’t your type of music there was a piano bar right across the hall. I thought all the staff was very kind and if you even looked like you needed something they would ask if there was anything you needed. The food was very good. There were many different choices including a 24 Pizzeria. In the main dining room at the end of your meals all the wait staff does a theme dance which is fun and entertaining. I thought the nightly entertaining was good. They provided fun things to do by the pool for the wacky fun seekers. There is a retractable roof over the pool as well as a huge TV screen there so you can enjoyed that area even if does rain a little. The cabin was an inside cabin with all the basics. I do think staying in an inside cabin will help me to upgrade clients who think it’s just a spot to sleep. The biggest thing that bugged me about it was that you have no way of telling what time it is in the morning. Its pitch black in your cabin so you have no concept of what time it is, as well as how you should dress for the weather because you can’t see anything. I did enjoy the cruise and would not hesitate to send qualified clients of all ages on Carnival. =)
In 2007 I fulfilled the dream of a lifetime and spent the month of April in Paris. Paris is the perfect destination for people interested in art, architecture, history, fashion, shopping, food and wine, and romance, just to name a few. I have visited Paris about a dozen times, in every season, and I can assure you that Paris never disappoints- Paris in real life is just like it is in the movies, only more so!
Whoever is telling you the French are unfriendly doesn’t know the same Parisian I have met. They are not as loud or smiley as Americans, but they are not unfriendly. I only speak about ten words in French, but I find that with a smile and a willingness to experience another culture I get along just fine. And it is easy to get around in Paris. You can buy a Metro pass, which allows unlimited use for a specified number of days, or you can purchase a carnet of ten tickets at a reduced price. I can teach anyone how to use the subway system in about five minutes flat.
Paris is not just for museum-goers, but I must admit I do love the art. The Musee d’Orsay, which houses the impressionists and post-impressionists, is my favorite museum, but there are at least seven or eight other museums I love, too. If you are an art lover the Museum Pass is a great bargain that admits you to tons of venues, and you don’t wait in line. Don’t forget the street artists, who will gladly sell you their latest masterpieces or sketch your portrait to take home as a souvenir.
There are about five different ways to do Paris, and all have their advantages:
- Cruisers can visit Paris for a day on a shore excursion. It is like an amuse bouche- just a small taste of the city. The problem is that you usually have to choose between Paris and the Beaches of Normandy which is not an easy choice.
- First timers who are a bit nervous in foreign countries might like an escorted tour. All of the worry and planning is done by someone else; all you have to do is show up. A big advantage of tours is that the guide is explaining what you are seeing and putting it in a historical and cultural perspective. Another bonus is the other travelers you meet. My husband and I still travel with a couple we met on tour in 1996.
- River cruising is my new favorite way to travel. Cruise boats dock on the Seine right in Paris. River cruising offers many of the same advantages as an escorted tour. However, you tend to eat on the boat which is a shame in Paris. My husband contends you can’t get bad food in Paris. If your river cruise starts or ends in Paris, it is easy to add days in the City of Lights on to your vacation.
- For those of you who want a little more freedom to do your own thing, a city stay might be a good idea. This usually includes your airfare, transfers, a hotel, and a city tour. Then you pick and choose from the excursions that appeal to you on an ala carte basis with the help of a “travel concierge” or just explore on your own.
- FITs or foreign independent travel is for those wanting the most autonomy. Your travel agent will help you reserve transportation, accommodations, day tours and passes, but then you are on your own. In my experience, at a minimum you should do a half day city tour- you get the lay of the land, the city is put in a historic perspective, you can check a number of “must sees” off your list, and it helps you decide what places you want to revisit in depth. This can be a great way to travel if it suits your personality and temperament.
There is so much to do and see in Paris and the areas around it that I never run out of things to do, but I have to admit that I am easily amused. I love to sit at outdoor cafés, wander down the Rue Montorgueil with its tiny specialty shops and street musicians, and just ride buses through the endless neighborhoods. If Paris sounds like your kind of city, let one of our knowledgeable travel agents help you plan the Parisian Holiday that best suits you. And be sure to stop by my desk in the front of the office so I can teach you how the Metro works.
Emilia Romagna & Le Marche
This area of Italy can be reached by air to Bologna and/or Ancona. It is not heavily traveled by Americans but instead it is where the Italians and other Europeans will go, especially in the summer, on the shores of the Adriatic. The shore side town of Cattolica is similar to our vacation spots in Florida etc.
The history of this area is very interesting and goes back to the Byzantine era and beyond. The town of Rimini is chock full of Roman history and a recent discovery (when a tree got uprooted) was of a Roman doctor's home complete with his instruments that had many doctors and museum workers intrigued as to what they may have been used for. They (the town of Rimini) built a museum right over the site so that it can be further preserved and enjoyed by all.
We traveled up into the mountains to the separate country of San Marino and had a wonderful time at the Ferrari museum there. Our guide spoke better English than most Americans and did she know her cars! The men especially enjoyed this stop. We then went to a castle where they believe Dante's "Inferno" was partially based.
We then went further south, beyond Ancona to the areas of Pesaro & Urbino , and stayed in a wonderful medieval castle "Castello de Montegridolfo". All the rooms were different and very charming. During the day we went off sightseeing in the area and all during these days we ate the most wonderful food.
Further south still in an area around Ascoli Piceno, we stayed the last two nights in a Palace still owned by the Princess Panichi, the "Borgo Storico Seghetti Panichi". She even had dinner with us and actually got up and got more food for our table. We had a magnificent suite with two beds in the sitting area and then into our bedroom that was huge! We also visited another Palace in the area.
These castles and palaces would be great for small groups or families. There are all kinds of sports in the area depending on the season. I would imagine that most Americans if they were to go, would want to go in the late spring or fall. I got the idea that the summer is very busy and with all the beautiful beaches here in America, there is no need to go to Europe.
I have a great deal of literature on the area.
This past October I had the opportunity to travel to an area, that up until twenty years ago, was closed to normal tourists since 1939! I flew into Bucharest, Romania and was impressed at what had been accomplished in 20 years. Still visible were some of the horrible things that Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife had done to the city of Bucharest and the country as a whole (ex. horrible orphanages). I took the side trip offered to Transylvania (part of Romania) and went to a castle supposedly where Dracula was held prisoner. It was up in the mountains and it had snowed the night before, what a beautiful area.
After two days in Bucharest, it was time to get on the Uniworld Duchess. Very nice boat with wonderful crew and they took care of me for the next 10 days. The food was way too good but I managed not to gain weight but had to give up the wonderful desserts! The cabin was spacious enough and the bathroom was adequate. The Australians were the majority on this cruise and they did the full four weeks and continued past Vienna up to Passau, then the Main River and to the Rhine to finish their cruise in Amsterdam.
The boat crossed the Danube from the Romania shore to the Bulgarian shore and from there the buses took us to the Black Sea. It was quite stormy that day so the scheduled trip out to sea was cancelled and instead a short trip on the inland waterway which still managed to get a few people feeling queasy. A great lunch was served at one of the local restaurants and then to a museum that formerly was a French boarding school for girls.
The Bulgarians were very gracious and very proud of what they have accomplished since the end of the Iron Curtain. The boat continued up the Danube to Serbia and Croatia where remnants for their struggle is still evident. There were still fields in Croatia that had land mines not yet discovered, scary! Uniworld had arranged for the guests onboard to visit a typical family in Croatia and the family I went to served lunch and most everything served was grown in their own back yard including live stock.
Back onboard, the boat continued up the Danube to my favorite city, Budapest! The boat got in after dark and the captain cruised on past the landing spot so that we could get a look at the city with all the lights etc. It was magical to say the least. The next day there was a tour of the city and then into the country side to see a farm where horses similar to the Lippanzer Stallions are trained. It was very impressive.
The next stop was Bratislava in Slovakia and again very impressed with this city that saw so much history of fighting in the past forty years. From there the boat headed to Vienna.
Magical city but no so much so in the RAIN!!! St Stephen’s was dry and as beautiful as ever.