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June 30, 2014

New Destinations for Adventurous Families

One of the most common requests I get is to suggest a vacation destination that has lots of outdoor activity and adventure.  Getting outside, being active, and seeing lots of wildlife seems to make everyone happy.  I know that formula works for my family!
 

So here are some vacation destinations you might not think of right of right away, which are great for the active family.   There is something for every age on this list, and several which are perfect for a multi-generational group.

PUERTO RICO – This gorgeous Caribbean island offers a wealth of activities, from cultural sites to impressive national parks.  Some of my favorites:  kayaking in a bioluminescent bay, hiking in El Yunque rainforest, and snorkeling in Culebra’s Luis Peña Channel Natural Reserve.   You can also visit Rio Camuy Cave Park or check out Rincon, one of the Caribbean’s top surfing destinations.  The bonus: no passport needed!
 
Culebra kayak and snorkel excursion
Hiking in El Yunque
SWITZERLAND – While known as a great destination for hiking and spectacular alpine scenery, there are quite a few other activities for adventure seekers.  The Bernese Oberland offers bungee jumping off a canyon wall into glacial gorge, or even out of a gondola suspended over a lake.  And there’s whitewater rafting and canyoning for all ability levels, some routes including high rappels, water slides, and zip lines.


Canyon water slides
Matterhorn hiking
EXPEDITION CRUISE – Don’t skip this paragraph because you saw the word “cruise.”  I’m not talking about a 2000-3000 passenger vessel that offers midnight buffets and Vegas-style shows.  These are small ships, often with fewer than 100 passengers, that focus on the destination and the activities, not onboard entertainment.  Their small size allows you to get up close and personal with wildlife and scenery in destinations like the Galapagos Islands, Alaska, Antarctica, South America, and Asia.   And they have a fleet of kayaks and zodiacs for even closer exploration (plus snorkeling gear where suitable).

Galapagos with Lindblad Expeditions

ARCTIC CANADA –   Been there, done that?  Now this is a list of activities that you will be hard pressed to find anywhere else: kayaking with narwhals, hiking in Inuit territory, hot air ballooning between icebergs, polar bear safaris.  You’ll have cocktail party bragging rights for many years to come!
 
Polar Bear Viewing with
Natural Habitat Adventures 
Note that even places that are not normally considered “active” destinations have fun adventures, you just have to know where to look.  For example, companies like Butterfield & Robinson and Backroads offer cycling, hiking, and multisport tours in many European countries.  If you don't want to cycle or hike for a whole week, I can arrange just a day or tour of outdoor activity, such as cycling in The Hague or rock climbing and a high ropes course in the Dolomites.


Backroads in France
San Juan Islands
For some inspiration on where to go for you next outdoor adventure, check out the 2014 Virtuoso VAST catalog. That should spark your imagination!

June 13, 2014

A Perfect Girls' Getaway Weekend at the Ritz Carlton Lake Tahoe

I recently spent a glorious weekend at Lake Tahoe with 4 girlfriends to celebrate my 50th birthday.  Over the past 5 years, we've traveled to various destinations to help each other celebrate this milestone event.  We've had some really fun adventures, which have all been unique, and that will be the subject of a future post.  But today my blog is all about ME!

For my birthday celebration, I wanted to relax, be pampered, spend quality time with my friends, and not have to travel too far from our home in San Jose, CA.  And I didn’t want to have to dress up!  So the obvious choice was a place I’ve been wanting to get back to for several years:   the Ritz Carlton at Lake Tahoe.  I love being in the Sierra Nevadas, so its location right on the mountain at Northstar ski resort is ideal, summer or winter.

The view from our balcony
Our accommodations were a one bedroom suite connected to a guest room with 2 queen beds.   Not only did we have a large shared living room with plenty of seating, and a fireplace in each room, but we had 3 full bathrooms!  Now that's a nice setup for a group of girls, we were wondering if we were ever going to want to leave the suite!

Living room with sofabed

Master bedroom, plenty of room to add a rollaway.
What did we do on our girls' weekend?

* We ate.  We tried all the on-site dining options, including the signature restaurant Manzanita, Café Blue which serves casual ‘to go’ fare, and the Backyard BBQ on the patio which served huge portions of pulled pork, ribs, and baked beans. Our culinary adventures also included a tour of the kitchen led by the pastry chef, which was very interesting.  We got some great cooking tips from the staff, and also saw preparations for a wedding that evening.  We were very impressed to learn that everything at the resort is made on-site.  They even have a sourdough starter mix from 1997, used to make wonderful bread with a bubbly crust.

Chef picking herbs

The kitchen tour

Fresh baked bread.  The sourdough starter
creates the bubbles in the loaves on the top shelf.
* We got some exercise. Exercise classes and use of the fitness center are included in the resort fee (yoga classes for a small fee), so we had some early morning workouts and then also went for a hike right from the resort patio to a pretty lake.  I generally prefer to work out outside, but looking out at the trees from the gym was the next best thing.  If we had arrived a week later, the lifts to the top of the mountain would have been running for mountain bikers and hikers.

Pretty view from the fitness center

Sawmill Lake
* We partied a little. Truckee is just a 10 min drive away, but there are taxi services so nobody has to be a designated driver.  “Downtown” is only a couple blocks long, but it has quite a few restaurants and bars, some more upscale with live music, and some more of a “local watering hole” featuring karaoke. I won’t go into any more detail about where we spent most of our time. (What happens in Truckee stays in Truckee!)

Birthday dinner with a view in Truckee
* We got pampered a lot. Whether sitting by the main pool or the fire pit on the terrace, we always had staff checking on us to see if we needed drinks (grapefruit margaritas, yum!) or a snack, or even a pool noodle!  The resort fee included access to the beautiful spa amenities, including sauna, steam room and outdoor adults-only pool.  I loved swimming and relaxing under the pine trees!

A great place to have s'mores.

It's not a girls' trip without plenty of People magazines.

The peaceful adult pool next to the spa

I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate my special day.  While there are many luxury hotels to choose from in northern California, few are in such a beautiful and peaceful setting.   And the alpine-inspired décor and artwork create a homey but luxurious feeling. It is truly one of the most relaxing places I’ve stayed, and the ideal place to hang out and enjoy the company of good friends.

The "Living Room"
Some of the fun artwork.  Do you see the song lyrics?

If you’re looking for a great place for a girls’ (or guys’) getaway, give me a call. If I book your stay at the Ritz Carlton Lake Tahoe, you’ll receive daily breakfast for free and an upgrade, if available. And I guarantee you my wonderful contacts at the resort will make you feel like VIP’s the whole time!

Happy birthday to me!

May 21, 2014

Maui Travel Tip: What to Know About Haleakala

One of the most interesting places to visit on Maui is Haleakala, the 10,023 ft. volcano which makes up the east side of the island.  There are two facts that surprise many visitors:  it is not a dormant volcano, it just doesn’t erupt very often, only every 200-500 years.  (The last one was 200-250 years ago.) And the moonlike depression in the center is not a true crater; it’s simply a product of erosion.  But everyone refers to it as a crater because that’s so much easier to say!
The moon or Maui?
Astronauts actually did lunar landing training here.
Haleakala is not a quick side trip to be checked out on a whim.   The drive one way takes 2-3 hours depending where you start, and the last hour is spent on 25 miles of twisting road and switchbacks.  It’s not a difficult drive, as the road is wide, paved, and well-marked.  And the views are spectacular.  But you have to take your time, and watch for cyclists.  Anyone prone to car sickness might want to give it a second thought.

Here we go!
One of the straighter sections
And you need to know what to expect.  Here are few tips before you head up to the summit:

Bring your own food and drink – It’s at least an hour drive back down the mountain to get to any restaurants or other services. 

Prepare for high wind – I suggest women bring a scarf they can tie around their chin, especially if they have long hair that will poke them in the eye or get stuck in their mouth.  A knit cap works if it fits securely.  Even a hat with a chin strap can get pulled off easily in the strong gusts.

Wishing I had a scarf right now!
Wear sunscreen – The sun’s rays are especially damaging in the thin atmosphere.

Bring layers to keep warm, and raingear or a water repellant jacket – It can be hot & sunny at sea level but wet & misty at the summit.  Even if it’s a clear day, the temperatures are much lower and the wind makes it feel much colder.

Bring binoculars – You will have panoramic views of the entire island, and can even see all the way to the Big Island on a clear day.

Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa in the distance
Watch the time if heading out on a trail into the crater - Distances are deceiving because of the lack of perspective, and a landmark may be much farther away than it appears.  Also remember that it will take twice as long to climb back up as it does to go down, and it will feel more strenuous due to the elevation.   Once the sun goes below the rim to cast shadows, temperatures drop very quickly, so don’t head out too late in the day.  (This one I can vouch for from experience!)
The trails down there are much further away than they look!
If you want a truly memorable experience, watch the sunrise from the summit.  This takes an especially hardy traveler, as you have get up insanely early while on vacation, and withstand temperatures that can dip below freezing.  But it’s worth one of the most beautiful and unique sunrises you will ever see.  And to add to the adventure, ride back down on a bike with one of the tour companies!

Sunrise circa 1988. I don't expect it's changed much.
A van full of thrill-seekers parked at the summit.
A nice stop on the way back to sea level is Grandma’s Coffee House, a family-owned business that has been roasting coffee on the premises for four generations.  It’s small and simple, but the food is good and reasonably priced, including  large sandwiches, homemade desserts, banana bread, and of course, excellent coffee.

Lots of Grandma's pies in that case
For helping planning a fun and memorable trip to Maui, contact me at suzette@family-treks.com.

May 8, 2014

The Fairmont Kea Lani - A Little Slice of Heaven on Maui

Kea Lani means “white heaven,” and it doesn’t take long to see how perfect this name is for one of my favorite resorts on Maui.  Whenever I walk into the Fairmont Kea Lani’s beautiful lobby, the Mediterranean style architecture and expansive, lush landscaping makes me feel like I’ve just entered paradise.
 
Aaahh!
Here are some of the other reasons I, and many of my clients, love the Kea Lani:

It’s the best suite value on the island.  All the accommodations are800 sq ft one bedroom suites, and the starting price point is comparable to standard rooms at other hotels.  Other properties have a limited number of suites so they charge premium rates.  The entry foyer and bathroom are also very spacious, so there's plenty of space to store bags, snorkel gear, etc.
One Bedroom Suite (king or two queens plus sofabed)
Spacious lanai with views of Molokini and Kahoolawai
It’s in a quiet but convenient location. Wailea is a serene, country club setting, with much less traffic than Kaanapali or Lahaina, but there are still many restaurants and shops just a few minutes away.  A stroll along the oceanfront pathway leads to other resorts, offering lots of dining options in walking distance.  In Kihei, just 10 min away, is a shopping center with a full size grocery store and Hilo Hattie's. 
 
Oceanfront lawn
It’s elegant but laid back.  Everyone can feel at home at the Kea Lani.  Service and accommodations are five star, but nobody is pretentious.

It works for everyone.  There are 3 swimming areas to accommodate all ages: an adults only pool, a two level family pool with water slide and swim-up bar, and a wading pool for little ones.  There are plenty of public spaces, so families can feel comfortable letting their kids play on the lawn and in the pool, while couples can find a quiet spot to relax (including a hidden hot tub).
 
Family pool, water slide, swim-up bar & grill
Adult pool
Lots of lawn with ocean views,
 plenty of chairs for everyone
It has a great beach. The beautiful crescent beach is public, like all beaches in Hawaii, but since there is no public parking nearby, it gets little use by non-hotel guests.  There is good snorkeling right off-shore, and it’s common to see turtles.
 
Polo Beach
Complimentary outrigger canoe experience
Oh, those villas! If you want more space and some of the conveniences of home, like a private plunge pool, full kitchen and washer and dryer, then book a 2 or 3 bedroom villa.  There is a large lawn in front, with plenty of space for kids to run around, and the beach is a just a few steps beyond.  They are perfect for larger families, multi-generational groups, or couples traveling together.
 
Oceanview villas
Villa living room and kitchen
Villa plunge pool

(You can read a testimonial from one of my clients in the the April issue of Virtuoso Traveler.)

Here’s how you can get even more value at the Fairmont Kea Lani:

Register for a Fairmont President’s Club number.  There is no charge, and you get extra benefits including free high speed internet (an upgrade to business premium at the Kea Lani), discounts in the spa and store, complimentary use of bikes, and in-room delivery of Reebok shoes and apparel, yoga mats, and stretch bands.

Let me book your stay so you receive Virtuoso amenities.
 These include daily breakfast for two, an upgrade on arrival (based on availability), and a welcome gift valued at $100.  Plus my fantastic contacts at the resort will personally take care of your reservation, and ensure you have a great suite.
Buffet breakfast
For help planning your Hawaii vacation, contact me at suzette@family-treks.com.

Another day in heaven ends

April 14, 2014

New Orleans' Hidden Luxury Hotel

I recently visited New Orleans for the first time, and I had some trepidation because of its rowdy reputation.  On top of that, my friends and I were staying in a hotel right on Bourbon St, yikes!

But I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.  When I walked into the Royal Sonesta Resort, it was like entering an oasis.  The lobby is impressive with large floral arrangements, interesting artwork, and traditional French Quarter architectural features.  On site there is a coffee shop, a jazz bar, a well-known restaurant, an oyster bar, and a pretty outdoor terrace with fountain.  An outdoor pool with a bar and spa cabanas is sequestered in the center of the hotel, a nice amenity year-round.

There were four of us celebrating a friend’s birthday, so we booked a split level suite, which turned out to be the perfect set up.  It had a spacious living room on the first level, with both a double and single sofa bed, and a spiral staircase led upstairs to a bedroom with a queen bed and bathroom.   There are only eight of these suites, some of which are located poolside, so they can book up early.

Royal Sonesta Split Level Suite - Living Room
Royal Sonesta Split Level Suite - Bedroom
Our suite opened to a shared patio area with covered tables, and despite having lively Bourbon St just on the other side of the wall, it was amazingly quiet.   Service was very good, everything we asked for was delivered promptly:  extra towels, extra blow dryer, even middle of the night pizza.  The hotel also has an exclusive Club Level on the 7th floor which serves breakfast, cocktails, and hors d'oeuvres.

Patio outside our suite
The location was excellent, with Canal St. only 2 blocks away, and Jackson Square and the waterfront an easy 10 minute walk.

For those who want to be close, but not right on, Bourbon St, Canal Street is lined with  many hotel options, including the regal Ritz Carlton New Orleans, which I also toured.

Like many hotels in the French Quarter, the hotel is quite large, taking up almost a whole block with its 527 rooms and suites.  The first three 3 floors used to be a department store, and a beautiful fountain outside the spa on the ground floor is a leftover from that era.
 
Fountain outside the spa
There are several public spaces, including a former “smoking lounge" with sofas and game tables,  a pretty outdoor courtyard with wrought iron furniture, and gaslight lamps, and the Davenport Lounge, named in honor of headliner Jeremy Davenport who has performed there for many years.  The dining room opens to this lounge, so guests can have a supper club experience.
Former smoking lounge off the lobby
The Davenport Lounge
I was first shown the 2800 sq. ft. Ritz Carlton suite, which had traditional décor with muted wall colors, ornate drapery, and wainscoting.   It was recently renovated, and a pool table was added.   It has hardwood and tile flooring, a full kitchen, living room with fireplace, and a large outdoor terrace with panoramic views overlooking the French Quarter, all the way to the river.

The Ritz Carlton Suite
Canal St view from the private terrace
Standard rooms and suites also have traditional décor with richly colored bedding. All suites have sofa beds, so they can accommodate a family of four if the children are young, and rollaways are also available.  French doors separate the bedroom and living room giving parents their privacy.
Standard room at the Ritz Carlton New Orleans 
One Bedroom Suite
If families want connecting rooms, there are 38 available in various configurations.  Some rooms have connecting doors, but many are set up as a “lock off suite” - separate rooms that share a foyer with a master door that can be locked off from the hallway.  There is even one suite that connects to 2 king rooms to create a 3 bedroom suite.

So I've talked about two very large hotels, neither of which are hard to miss.  So where is this "hidden hotel?" 

Well, it's inside the Ritz Carlton! Their Club Level is not just a dedicated floor, it is a “hotel within a hotel."  Club guests have to check in at the main lobby, but from that point on they never have to enter the main hotel as they have their own elevator and private drive. It's completely exclusive, offering guests an intimate and personalized boutique hotel experience combined with the amenities of a full size hotel.

The décor is distinctly different, with more neutral colors and wood floors, to give the feel of being in a Southern home. (In order to prevent scratches, rollaways are not allowed in these rooms, but they have air mattresses which are fun for kids. They fell like they are camping!) 

Club room at the Ritz Carlton New Orleans
The Club Lounge was very spacious, with multiple rooms and plenty of seating.  In addition to the usual food spread, there was a 24 hour “grab and go” station which is great for those always hungry kids.

The Club Lounge
Grab N Go Station in the Club Lounge
So if you want to experience Ritz Carlton service and luxury, but don’t want the "big hotel" feeling, then a Club room is the perfect solution!

While Bourbon Street does not exactly cater to children, the rest of the city offers family friendly activities, and the concierge can provide a “Top 10 List.”  The hotel provides POLO Kits (Protect Our Little Ones) which include outlet covers, infant/toddler bath amenities, and (if needed) a forehead thermometer strip, and parents can also request  cribs, pack & plays, infant bath tubs, humidifiers, a diaper pail,  microwave and mini-refrigerator.  

And of course, my clients receive exclusive Ritz Carlton STARS amenities, which include daily breakfast, a welcome gift, and upgrade on arrival if available.

If you’d like more information about planning a trip to New Orleans, or cruising from there, just send me a note at suzette@family-treks.com.

Cruise ship in port