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January 27, 2016

The Best Luxury Resort Values in Hawaii

There are so many great resorts in Hawaii, how do you pick one? Hopefully this guide will help you find the best value for your money!

Oahu: The Modern Honolulu

A member of the Ritz Carlton hotel group, The Modern is cosmopolitan and chic, with a splash of Hawaiian whimsy.  It’s luxurious and intimate, yet has all the amenities one expects of a luxury hotel including spa, nightclub, and two pools.  The oceanfront location is close to great beaches, shopping, and restaurants.

If you book an ocean view room through a Ritz Carlton STARS agency, you are automatically upgraded to a Studio Suite if available, which has a king bed, sofa bed, and a private terrace.  And there are no resort fees, even high speed internet is included!
 
Modern rooms at The Modern Honolul
Insider Tip:  Several Daybed Experience Packages are offered which include unlimited use of a daybed for the entire day,a 3-5 course tasting menu, and wine or cocktails.  You can upgrade to add a 30 min couples massage.
Pearl Harbor
Kauai: St. Regis Princeville / Grand Hyatt Resort & Spa

Frankly, there are limited 5 star options on Kauai, so the rates don’t vary dramatically, and they offer the same Virtuoso amenities:  daily breakfast for two, amenity valued at $100, upgrade on arrival if available.  But they offer two different experiences.

The St Regis Princeville is perched on Hanalei Bay, boasting one of the most scenic views in the world, perfect for a romantic getaway.  The north shore is known for its spectacular unspoiled scenery, which is why many movies have been filmed here (and many celebrities have made it their second home).  It also offers some of the best adventure activities and snorkeling on the island.
 
Hanalei Bay
The Grand Hyatt Resort and Spa has a slight edge if traveling with young children, with its lagoon style pool and fun waterslide, plus they will guarantee connecting rooms in advance.  There is plenty of on-property entertainment, and a luau is offered twice a week.   It is not on a swimmable beach, but they have a sandy lagoon, and are only a few minutes from Poipu Beach.  The island’s south shore is a good location in the winter months, as the north shore beaches are not safe for swimming with the high surf. 

Grand Hyatt waterslide
The island is not that big, so no matter where you stay, it’s not a long drive to any activity or attraction

Insider Tip:  Take a snorkeling cruise to the Napali Coast in the morning, then drive up Waimea Canyon in the afternoon to get a birds’ eye view of the same coastline.
 
Napali Coast
Big Island: Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows

This low key resort on a beautiful white sand beach is a lesser known gem, but guests tend to return over and over because of the great service and authentic Hawaiian ambiance.  Rates are some of the best for a resort of this caliber, and Virtuoso clients are upgraded at time of booking if possible, making it an even better deal.  Daily breakfast and $100 resort credit are also included in the Virtuoso amenity package. The resort fee is also one of the most inclusive to be found.
 
One of the nicest Big Island beaches
They recently announced the Bungalow Inclusive Experience which includes accommodations in a 2 bedroom bungalow, private roundtrip airport transfers (or a rental car), daily $500 spa or golf credit, and 3 meals a day for up to six people!  The bungalows are 2,700 sq. ft. including two master bedrooms, wet bar and full kitchen, and a large private outdoor space with jacuzzi and heated swimming pool.
 
Snorkeling with turtles is always a highlight
Insider Tip: Baby turtles are raised in salt water ponds on the property.  If you visit during the Fourth of July holiday, you can watch them be released into the ocean.


Maui: The Fairmont Kea Lani

This is not only the best value on Maui, but possibly the best value in all of Hawaii.  Suites command premium rates at most resorts due to limited availability.  But every room at the Kea Lani is an 800 sq ft one-bedroom suite!  With huge bathrooms, entry foyer for stashing gear, queen size sofa sleeper, wet bar, and spacious lanai, they are perfect for families.  Larger groups or couples traveling together will appreciate the space and privacy of villas near the beach, which have a full kitchen, dining area, and private plunge pool.

Virtuoso guests receive complimentary daily breakfast, $100 spa credit, and upgrade on arrival if available.
 
Two level family pool with water slide
Insider Tip:  If you have young children, book one of the twelve poolside suites which is just steps from the family pool. 

Haleakala
You may be thinking “What about Lanai?”  Well, you really don’t have much choice there, but what a choice it is!  The Four Seasons Manele Bay is re-opening on Feb 1 after a renovation, and they are celebrating with a 4th night free offer and guaranteed upgrade at time of booking (through April 30), exclusive to clients of Four Seasons Preferred Partner agencies. Four Seasons resorts are always a great value, because they include so much in the rates, such as internet, snorkeling gear, and the Kids For All Seasons program.
 
Four Seasons Lanai beach



If you're ready to head to Hawaii then click here!

January 16, 2016

Private Guides - Your Best Travel Investment

On our trip to Italy this summer, I tried out several companies we use for private tours.  My expectations were exceeded, and our experience was so much better than if we had done it alone.

Vatican Museums - The crowds were so overwhelming, I could not imagine visiting without a private guide.  She was able to pull us aside as dozens of large tour groups filed by with headsets on, and then show us something interesting (even for the kids) that everyone else was missing.  
Couldn't even see the pictures when the hall was filled with tour groups
While many people just popped their heads in the papal apartments, we were learning how different Raphael and Michelangelo were both in artistic style and personality. Before entering the Sistine Chapel, we relaxed in the beautiful courtyard as our guided explained what to look for when we got inside.
Prepping for the Sistine Chapel
Pompeii - We took a day trip to Naples from Rome, and I previously wrote about our experience hiring a private driver.  Before we headed off for our drive along the Amalfi coast, he dropped us off for a 2 hour tour of Pompeii with a guide. I had heard it was huge but had no idea until I saw it for myself.  It literally is a city, with block after block of streets that all look alike, and minimal signage. 

The streets go on and on and on...
Most guests take a self-guided tour with headsets, which can run out on the busiest days.  Our guide, who also led school field trips, expertly led us around the site so we could understand what life was like for residents. Often other visitors nearby leaned in to listen, as the stories she told were not found on any signs.
Learning about the "McDonalds" of Pompeii
Tuscany - We explored with our own car most of the time, but one day we had the luxury of a private driver.  Finally my husband and I both got to relax and enjoy the scenery rather than focus on a map and scan for road signs.  
Wouldn't you rather enjoy this view while someone else drives?
We visited a honey farm, a cheese farm, and a winery where we had a wonderful lunch prepared by the owner.  He also took us to the hilltop village of Montalcino so we could see the fort.  He dropped us off outside the castle so we could enjoy the scenery rather than waste time in the car looking for parking.

This Brunello wine came home with us.
Say cheese!
One day we drove ourselves to Volterra, where we met another guide who grew up there.  She showed us around the ancient Etruscan village, and took us to the shop of an alabaster artisan I had met in San Francisco, when his replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa was put on display.
If this looks familiar you may have seen it in a Twilight movie,
this is the home of the Volturi
A master in alabaster
Florence - We day tripped by train from our resort, so our time was limited.  The guide we hired for a city orientation tour met us at the train station, and she took a few minutes to get a feel for how we’d like to spend our time. Since we had seen enough churches and museums, she took us to the food market, which we would have never discovered on our own. 
Before the lunch rush.

Then she led us on a tour of the city, guiding us through side streets so we avoided the worst of the crowds.  She pointed out where Leonardo di Vinci and Michelangelo once stayed, and told the back story on funny signs we saw everywhere. 

Hunting for these signs amused the kids.
We planned to visit the Accademia on our own, so she had done us the favor of reserving our tickets in advance.   She ended our tour at the will call window (which was practically impossible to find unless pointed out), made sure we got in the right line (there were 3 very long ones), and recommended a nearby cafe for lunch.
The original David
When you hire a private guide, you will save time, you will learn more, your kids will have fewer melt downs, and overall you will have a better experience.  Whenever we’ve visited a town or museum on our own, we found ourselves wandering a bit aimlessly. (And in the summer heat, efficiency is key, you want to make every step count!) 

Wish we had a guide at the Colosseum, very few signs here
If you have a special interest in art, history, food, etc., then you’ll really appreciate having a guide who is an expert in that field, rather than taking a generic city tour where the guide is reciting a memorized spiel.

Beautiful Florence, one day is not enough!
You don’t have to hire a guide everywhere you go.  But consider investing some of your travel dollars in locations where a private guide will make the difference between a good vacation, and a great vacation.
Water taxi to the Venice airport, another worthwhile splurge

October 8, 2015

Ten Tips for Driving in Tuscany

After a week of driving all over Tuscany this summer, I compiled this list of tips.  (Kudos to my husband who enjoys the challenge of navigating in a foreign country, can drive a stick shift, and is good at parking in very tight spaces.)

  1. Get an international driver’s license – If stopped without it, you can be fined, or even threatened with confiscation of the car. Note that it must be used with a valid driver’s license from your home country, so don’t leave your US license at home.

    Ready to go!
  2. Consider manual transmission – It can be much less expensive than renting an automatic.  But you need to be very comfortable driving a stick shift, because there are lots of hills.  Add car rental coverage to your travel insurance policy, it’s cheaper than buying the rental company’s insurance.  (You are getting a travel insurance policy, aren’t you??)

    The views are worth the climb!
  3. Look for alternate car pick up locations - If you are not picking up a car on the day you fly in, you don’t have to make a trip back to the airport. Consider taking a train to a town near your final hotel or villa and picking up a car there.  But be sure to book early and check the rental location hours.

    Great place to start the trip.
  4. Take a GPS – Unless you have unlimited data, it’ll get very expensive to rely on your phone.   Some car rental companies, like Auto Europe, offer GPS with their rentals.  We also rented a personal wifi hotspot with unlimited data, so we were able to use both while navigating.  The GPS gave us step by step directions, and the maps app gave us an overview of the area when the GPS directions didn’t seem to make sense and we needed to improvise.

    The scenery goes on and on...
  5. Get a good map – It’s likely you’ll get lost at some point, or run into a dead end, even with a GPS.  A map can help you get back on course, and also it’s easier to ask for help from a non-English speaking local with a map to point to.
    Uh, are we sure we're supposed to turn here?
  6. Preload GPS coordinates – These are especially handy for rural destinations.  To find them, right click on the red pin icon in Google Maps, and select “What’s here.”  A screen will pop up with the GPS coordinates.

    Hidden gem!
  7. Plan your strategy- Review the route in advance, and check the GPS (or your map app) against a physical map so you can get your bearings. By in advance, I mean the night before, not 15 min before you leave. 
    Typical Tuscan "highway"
  8. Search for parking garages or other landmarks - This is often more helpful than just entering the name of a city, which will lead you to the center of town.  For example, there are several ways to approach Siena, and it’s confusing to know which highway exit to take.  We looked up the name of a garage that had plenty of parking and an escalator, and the GPS took us right to it. (However in Pisa, we had a hard time finding the public parking lot and basically stumbled across it by accident.  The best laid plans…)

    We could see dirt in-between the stones
    from the Palio Horse Race a week earlier.
  9. Be prepared for roundabouts – They are not difficult, just different if not used to them. They are well marked, you just have to pay attention to which exit you need. The good news is, if you miss it you can just go around again.
    No pics of roundabouts so will have to
    make do with this view.
  10. Plan for the unexpected - Getting lost is inevitable, but that’s half the fun. Allow plenty of time for your outings so an unplanned detour is a fun adventure rather than source of stress!

Is any trip to Tuscany complete
 without a visit to the Leaning Tower of Pisa?

September 3, 2015

What Not to Do When Visiting the Amalfi Coast

On our trip to Italy this summer, we did not have enough time in our schedule to spend a few nights on the Amalfi Coast, but we did have time for a day trip from Rome.  It's really easy logistically, a little more than one hour train ride.  But the easy logistics end once you get to the Naples train station.

If you do not hire a car and driver/guide to take care of you from the moment you arrive to the moment you depart, you will likely end up regretting it.  This is one place where you simply cannot "wing it."

A few days before our arrival, construction shut down several roads around the train station, causing gridlock in all directions.  As a result, our driver/guide, Gianluca, had to allow an extra hour of driving time on each end of our visit.  (There went two hours out of our day.  First lesson learned, plan for delays.)  But thanks to his insider knowledge of the streets around the train station, he expertly got us out of the city, though at times I did need to shut my eyes.  

The scenery only gets better from here.
Once out of town, we got to relax and enjoy the views of Vesuvius and the coastline as we headed to Pompeii, where he dropped us off to meet our guide.  I have always heard that  the size of the ruins surprises tourists, and yet I was still surprised.  And very happy to have a guide who expertly led us to specific areas to explain daily life in the ancient city in a way that kept my teens engaged. 

Pompeii is so big, it doesn't appear crowded even
during peak season.  Except if following the
people wearing audio headsets.

Block after block of city streets, and few signs
explaining what you see.
Our guide's visual aids helped bring the ruins to life.
After our tour, Gianluca was waiting to whisk us off to Sorrento, his home town.  Since we were behind schedule due to the chaos in Naples and we would soon have hangry kids, he called ahead to a restaurant so that we would be seated and served immediately.  Within 45 min we had ordered, eaten, received our complimentary limoncello shots (another good reason not to drive), and were back out the door.   For anyone who has eaten in a restaurant in Italy, you know what an amazing feat that is!

How could we not order pizza??
Yes four glasses, drinking age limits are loose.
Kids weren't interested so mom & dad got two each!
The next few hours were spent shopping and sightseeing in Sorrento and Positano. There was absolutely no parking, but Gianluca has connections.  He called ahead to have them hold us a spot right in the center of town then we hopped out, had time to stroll, shop, and get limone granitas.
Beautiful ceramics in Sorrento

One of the few flat areas in Positano
After many stairs, we reached the Positano beach

Afterwards we hopped back in the car and enjoyed the stunning scenery while Gianluca dealt with the jam-packed streets, tour buses backing up to negotiate hairpin turns, and motorbikes and pedestrians who seemed to appear out of nowhere.  (I glanced back to see my son grinning ear to ear with his phone held up to the window recording it all.)
Gianluca didn't slow down!

Until we got here
We arrived at the train station with time to spare, bid a fond farewell to Gianluca, and were back in Rome just in time for dinner.

So no matter how experienced a traveler you are, here is my advice if you are considering exploring the Amalfi Coast on your own:  Don't do it!  Whether you arrive by train, plane, or cruise ship, it pays to hire a local expert so you can have a fun and stress-free experience.   And whether you have 4 hours or 4 days, I can work with my local experts to plan a great itinerary maximizing your time in this beautiful area.

Aaaah-malfi, I can't wait to see you again.

August 19, 2015

When in Rome (With Kids)

We started our Italy adventure in Rome. a five night stay at the Westin Excelsior.  This is a Virtuoso hotel located on the Via Veneto, next to the US Embassy.  So my clients receive complimentary daily breakfast for two, upgrade on arrival if available, and a $100 food and beverage credit.  And if you are a Starwood SPG member, you get a discount on lunch and dinner as well.

Deluxe twin room...
...with plenty of space and great A/C
 Here are my top tips when visiting Rome with kids.

* Hire a driver to pick you up at the airport. You've had a long flight, you're tired and hungry, and it's crowded. It's a relief to see someone waiting for you outside customs, who will whisk you to an air conditioned car for the 30+ min drive into the city.

* Take an umbrella stroller which is easy to collapse and carry. Better yet, use a backpack. Many streets are bumpy and difficult to navigate.

It's not fun to schlep a stroller up the Spanish Steps
* It's hot and humid in summer, so always carry a water bottle.  You can fill them at fountains and water spigots around the city. (Yes, it's safe to drink).  Plan to rest in the afternoon at the hotel when temps are highest, then visit piazzas in the evening when it's cooler and kids will be less cranky.

Kids are happy to have water when it's fun to get
* Use the bathroom before going to train station. They are not centrally located and you have to deposit coins to enter.

* A hop on/off bus tour is a great way to get oriented to the city early in your trip.  But don't purchase tickets in advance. All companies stop at the same places and run the same route.  But if there are service problems on a particular line, you might have long waits between buses, or find that some don't even have seats available.  There are "sales reps" at each stop, so try to find out from them if there are any service issues.  We also got off and walked between two stops, just to have an opportunity to explore some small streets far from our hotel, which turned out to have nice shops and cafes.


* Buy Colosseum tickets for the kids, in advance. Though children get free admission to the Colosseum, you have to show their ID, even with pre-purchased tickets.  If you can skip this step, you will truly have"skip the line" access.  Visiting the Roman Forum first? Make sure you know which exit is closest to the Colosseum and allow plenty of time to meet your guide.
  

* Always have some cash on hand. Small cafes and street vendors often don't take credit cards.  And coins are handy for public toilets.

* Book a family-friendly guide for the Vatican Museum. It'll make the experience better for the entire family because the crowds can be overwhelming.  Our guide found a pleasant place for us to sit in the courtyard where she could give us some background information and also explain what we'd see in the Sistine Chapel later, since she wouldn't be allowed to talk in there.  

One of the rare places without crowds in the Vatican
* Note that pasta is "first course." If that's all your kids (or you) order, note that it may come out before the other dishes, and the server may not bring any other food until the pastas is finished!  So if you want a pasta dish to arrive at the same time as everyone else's main entree, ask the server to bring it with the second course (or "with the meat"). When someone only orders one course, servers will often ask when to bring it, but if they look puzzled, just explain what you want.

And antipasta is before the first course.
(Thank goodness for all that walking to burn this off!)
* Let kids burn off steam at Pincio Gardens at the top of the Spanish Steps. You can rent pedal cars, Segways, and surrey bikes, there are vendors selling gelato, drinks and snacks, but most importantly, there's lots of shade! It has sweeping views of the city, and it's a great place to watch the sunset.
Great place to hang out on a summer day.
* Add an extra day in Rome to day trip to the Amalfi Coast.  It's just a one hour train ride, and you can hire a driver guide to pick you up for a full day of sightseeing. (Talk to them about your itinerary before booking the train tickets.) A guide is a must at Pompeii, especially with kids, due to the size.  There aren't many signs so the only alternative is audio headsets, and they can run out in peak periods.  And don't you think your kids have headphones on enough already?

Enjoying the view while someone else
hassles with the driving.
Our guide explains why this is
 the "McDonalds" of Pompeii
I would love to design the perfect Italy itinerary for your family.  Just send an email to suzette@family-treks.com.

Roman Forum