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

July 23, 2015

What I'll Miss Most About Italy

I am on Italy withdrawal after our two week family adventure to Rome, Tuscany, and Venice (including a day trip to Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast).  Here is what I am missing already, in no particular order:

* Steamed milk instead of cold cream served with coffee in the morning and fresh squeezed orange juice as the norm

* Watching artisans work in their studios

* Water fountains everywhere (a real treat coming from drought-stricken California)

* Pasta as first course at lunch AND dinner

* Cheese and Tuscan ham as an acceptable appetizer before the pasta (I have never liked cheese but I learned to love pecorino, especially with the right honey)

* The pleasant surprise of stumbling across a beautiful statue or church while strolling narrow cobblestone streets

Yummy unique pizzas

* Stunning art and architecture

* Lounging around a pool with beautiful views of Tuscan hills, and chatting with families from other parts of Europe. (It's interesting to learn how much is the same no matter what part of the world you are from.)

* Amazing limoncello from the biggest lemons I've ever seen

* And the wine!

Ok, most of these are about food but is that really so surprising? 

Stay tuned for more posts about our amazing Italy adventure.

June 1, 2015

Ten Reasons to Vacation in Puerto Rico

My family vacationed in Puerto Rico several years and loved it. (Read about our trip here.)   We are an active family, and we found plenty to do during our 8 day stay.  

Kayak and snorkel trip
There's even more to love about Puerto Rico now, and here's why you should go.

1. It's exotic but easy.  No passport needed, no international phone calls or data roaming charges, no international calls, no currency exchange or foreign transaction fees

2. Old San Juan is a UNESCO World Heritage site with lots of history and charm, and interesting architecture. And there are two cool forts to explore:  El Morro and San Cristóbal.
El Morro
Old San Juan
3.The food is great, and foodies will especially enjoy the Saborea culinary festival in April.   Rum lovers can visit the Bacardi factory, or attend the Taste of Rum festival in February.

4. It has the world’s longest single line zip line at Taro Verde Eco Park.

Taro Verde zipline

5. There are 5 bioluminescent bays in the world and Puerto RIco has 3 of them.  Our night kayak tour was one of our most memorable activities, ever.

6. El Yunque is the only tropical rainforest in US, with 40 species of plants and trees.  You might even get to spot the rare Puerto Rican parrot, there are only 30 left in the wild.

Rainforest nature trail
The up and coming Santurce neighborhood is drawing crowds to see its vibrant street artThey host an art festival in August.
One of many street murals

8. Camuy River Cave Park is the third largest underground cave system in the world.

9. It has award-winning beaches, some of the most beautiful in the Caribbean, including Flamenco and Palomino Island.  (The latter is a private island available to Las Casitas Village and El Conquistador Resort guests.  Read my trip review here.)  Surfers should head to Sandy Beach in Rincon.
Flamenco Beach
10. There are great luxury resorts, including the Ritz Carlton Reserve Dorado Beach and St. Regis Bahia Beach.   And when I book your stay you get the following exclusive Virtuoso amenities:
Ritz Carlton Dorado Beach 
Upgrade on arrival, subject to availability
Daily full breakfast
$150.00 resort credit
Early check-in/late check-out, subject to availability

St. Regis Bahia Beach
Upgrade on arrival, subject to availability
Daily full breakfast
$100 dining credit
15% off golf and spa services
Early check-in/late check-out, subject to availability

For help with planning a great getaway to Puerto Rico, contact me at suzette@family-treks.com.


May 1, 2015

One of a Kind Family Celebrations

We’re coming up on graduation and wedding season, so today’s post is about celebration trips.  Here are my top suggestions for a one-of-a-kind trip to celebrate a special occasion or milestone birthday or anniversary.
My criteria:
- It’s multi-generational, with accommodations and activities suitable for all ages
- It offers unique and exceptional experiences in the destination
- Meals are included or there is ample onsite dining.  No hassles figuring out what to do for dinner!
- There is a supervised children’s program or ample activities for kids
- It requires minimal advance planning on the travel organizer's part.  Just book it, show up, and have a fantastic time!

Lindblad Expedition Cruise-  No casinos or nightclubs, instead travelers get up close to wilderness and wildlife.  Great destinations for families are Alaska, Baja California, and the Galapagos.  There's hands on learning for everyone, kayaking and snorkeling right off the boat in warm waters, and intimate, personal service since ships have less than 100 passengers, and most less than 70!  There is no minimum age on family sailings, and kids under 18 get $500 off.

Virtuoso amenity:  $25 onboard credit on all sailings, additional credits and exclusive discounts on select sailings.

You won't have this view of glaciers calving
 from a traditional cruise ship.
If they were any closer they'd be swimming with them!
Alaska Wilderness Lodge – This is another trip perfect for outdoor and wildlife enthusiasts, the land version of an expedition cruise.  Expert guides and naturalists lead activities such as hiking, fishing, bear watching, and glacier climbing during the day, and then you have downtime or educational presentations at night.  The type of activities vary greatly by location and time of year, so research is key to find the best fit.  And advance planning is a must, as it’s not uncommon for them to book up a year or more in advance for peak periods.

Wilderness doesn't mean roughing it- fresh crab!
Relaxing after a full day of activity
Caribbean Villa Resort – There are lots of private villas and homes available, but if you book one that’s part of a resort, you get the benefits of both worlds:  the services & amenities of a luxury hotel, plus the space and privacy of a home away from home. It's the perfect compromise if you have some who want to relax beach or poolside, and others who want to be on the go. It’s also a good option for families with very young children. 
5 bedrooms and more available!
Great gathering spaces

Check out:

Round Hill Jamaica – 26 private villas, 100 acres of lush gardens, a pristine crescent beach, and complimentary children’s program starting at age 3

Virtuoso amenities:
Upgrade on arrival, subject to availability
Daily full breakfast, for up to two in room guests
$100 spa credit
Early check-in/late check-out

Private pool (and lawn) with a view
Fun for little ones
Escorted Family Tour – This is a great option if your family wants to see as much as possible in a limited amount of time, but doesn’t want the hassle of managing travel logistics. These small group tours visit popular sights in destinations ranging from national parks to European cities to Africa.  Families get lots of quality time together,  but also get to socialize with other adults and children. (Great for families traveling alone!) Most widely known is Adventures by Disney, but Tauck and A&K also offer family departures.  Active families should check out cycling, hiking or multi-sport trips with Backroads 

Adventures by Disney in the Southwest
Guest or Dude Ranch – What’s the difference?  A very simple distinction is that guest ranches offer ala carte activities and more flexible check in /out dates,  where a dude ranch is all inclusive, generally runs Saturday to Saturday and has scheduled trail rides. But every ranch is unique so again, this is a trip that requires careful research to find the right match. Guests can do as much or as little as they want, so it suits a variety of interests and activity levels. Accommodations range from lodge rooms to large private homes to luxury tents.  And don’t worry about it being too rustic, gourmet dining and other resort-style amenities like a pool and spa are often available.

Heading out on the trail
Learning to rope
Check out:

The Resort at Paws Up – A guest ranch in Montana’s gorgeous Big Sky country, with 28 luxurious vacation homes and 30 luxury tents with private baths and a Camping Butler.

Virtuoso amenities:
Upgrade on arrival, subject to availability
Daily full breakfast, for up to two in room guests
Complimentary round-trip private airport transfers
Early check-in, late check-out, subject to availability
A $300 activity credit
Bottle of wine in room on arrival

Private luxury at Paws Up
Brush Creek Ranch – An all-inclusive luxury dude ranch on 30,000 acres of Rocky Mountain wilderness in Wyoming. Rates include on site activities and trail rides, and the Lil Wranglers program for ages 4-8. Ages 9 and up can participate in most ranch activities.

Virtuoso amenities:
Upgrade on arrival, subject to availability
Daily full breakfast, for up to two in room guests
A complimentary 50-minute massage for up to two people
Choice of complimentary Cattle Drive, Scenic Float, Premium Fly Fishing or Wing Shooting Experience for 2 guests
Early check-in/late check-out

Wyoming scenery
Imagine waking up to this view!
If your group is large enough, you can buy out an entire property or tour. This is the ultimate celebration trip, completely private and customized, something to remember forever!

Are these choices overwhelming?  No worries, just drop me a note at suzette@family-treks.com and I’ll help you design the perfect celebration for your family.