Blogging my way down the Danube – Budapest day 2

It’s up and at ’em today with a goal of seeing as much as possible. First stop St. Stephen’s Basilica. Located in a very nice area, the church is surrounded by many shops and cafés so after the visit you might want to grab a bite to eat or a glass of wine and enjoy the square.

St Stephens Basilica Budapest

St. Stephen’s is dedicated to the Hungary’s king who was the founder of the Hungarian State. Construction started in 1851 but the church was not dedicated until 1905. During WWII, the church roof, towers and external walls were badly damaged however visitors today will find that even the beautiful mosaics have been successfully restored. Like many churches & Basilica’s in Europe, St. Stephan’s has it’s precious relic. Here (in the chapel) you will find the mummified hand of the church’s patron saint, the first king of Hungary. I’ve seen quite a few mummified parts in my travels but no matter how many, I can’t quite get over the concept – and yes, in every church I do seek them out….go figure!

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If you are ambitious (we were not) you can walk up the 364 steps to the cupula for a panoramic view of the city, or do it the easy way and take one of the 2 elevators – either way, its worth the effort on a clear day.

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St Matthias church on Buda Castle hill

Next stop on our whirlwind tour is Buda Castle. We took public transportation for an easy jog over to that part of town. Located on what is referred to as Castle Hill, the 18th century Buda castle is a 200 room palace built to protect from Mongol and Tartar attacks. The castle was quite damaged in World War II however today many parts of it have been restored and now house the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum. The entire complex is designated a Unesco World Heritage Site and it is worth taking the time to explore.

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An amazing view from Castle hill of the Parliament building on the Danube

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View of Danube from Fisherman’s Bastion on Castle Hill

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Funicular Ride up to the Castle

Take the historic funicular up to the top and be sure to marvel at the views from the top. Stay for a changing of the guards ceremony and be sure to throw a penny in the fountain. While we were exploring a festival was being set up in the castle square and we are glad we hung around until the stalls began to open. This was by far the best Hungarian food ever! The cabbage roll was to die for, the grilled chicken was moist and tasty and sausage….well with a cold Hungarian brew, what could have been better??

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Sue & Ellen enjoy lunch at the Buda Castle

Onward we went – in search of one of the “most scenic tram rides in Europe”. AKA Tram #2, on the Pest side of the river is according to National Geographic, one of the most scenic trams in the world but I think we missed its beauty. Don’t get me wrong, out the river side of the tram there were some very pretty sights – when you could see them. However, the tram is crowded and used for local transportation so if you can get a seat on the scenic side you are lucky…heck that is if you can get a seat at all!

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Tram running in front of Gellert Baths in Budapest

Now a word about this and other trams/public transportation options in Budapest. You must buy a ticket and you MUST validate it upon entering the tram. We bought a 10 pack and got on. One of us validated and the other 2 did not, as our main goal was seeking out a seat. Well it seems that the one who validated did not actually validate the ticket itself but rather the ticket cover….and folks that doesn’t count when the tram police step on board and check your tickets. Let’s just say that the 1 Euro tram ride ticket became about a $35 per person fine – yep, even though we had attempted to validate according to the nice lady checking tickets, we had done so incorrectly and it simply didn’t count! You see, she doesn’t “make the rules, she just follows them” thank you very much and pay on the spot! It did not matter that we had some 8 unused tickets that she could have easily stamped …nope….tourist hand over the money! And so we did….but here is the good news (according to her), we could now ride the tram the rest of the day for free! Well we rode it all right, to where we found a wonderful little wine bar to toast our contribution to Budapest tourism!

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A Souvenir that won’t be soon forgotten!

All in a days fun…and something to talk about for a long time to come!

 

Blogging my way down the Danube – Day 1

Starting in Budapest, Hungary, we made our way down the Danube River on the Uniworld SS Maria Theresa and oh what a time we had.

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We arrived in Budapest a few days earlier and checked into the Boscolo Budapest Autograph Collection Hotel aka the New York Palace Hotel.  This city center hotel is truly an extraordinary experience where historic combines with contemporary comfort. Marble bathrooms, plush bedding, silk wallpaper and Murano chandeliers make you feel as though you are royalty.

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The service is fantastic and a visit to the world-famous New York Café located within the hotel is a must do.
Although tired, we grabbed a bite to eat while we waited for rooms to be ready and then our first stop of the trip was the famous natural hot spring baths. It was a short stroll from the hotel to the underground that took us right to the baths.

Széchenyi thermal bath Budapest

There are many hot mineral bath options in Budapest but we chose to visit Szechenyi Baths. Szechenyi is the largest in Budapest with 15 indoor baths and 3 grand outdoor options. Each pool has a different temperature, our favorite was outdoors pool because of the size and temperature. It was the warmest and together with the sunshine it revitalized our bodies, minds and spirits after that long overseas flight. Onsite, one can also take advantage of steam and sauna cabins, massage therapies and even a beer spa! We rented a cabin which afforded us a private change area and a place to store our things. This experience is highly recommended on your next trip to Budapest, there is just something about floating around in deliciously warm water while surrounded by a Neo-baroque palace!

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Feeling refreshed we headed back to the hotel knowing dinner and bedtime were just a few hours away. Tomorrow was to be a full day of sightseeing….stay tuned!

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Happy GetAway Travelers!

 

Nijmegen huh?

Nijmegen (pronounced nine megan) is the oldest city in the Netherlands and is located just a short distance from the German border.  It was the first city to fall to the Germans in WWII due to its proximity.  In September 1944, resistance troops from Nijmegen were an integral part of Operation Market Garden, the main objective was to prevent the Germans from destroying the bridges so the Allies could invade.  Nijmegen is also one of the warmest cities in the Netherlands and believe it or not, some of the northernmost wineries in the world are found just outside the city.

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But you didn’t decide to read this blog for the history or weather, did you?  So, what’s the deal – why should I visit Nijmegen?  Well that really depends on what your interests are but here are some highlights we enjoyed.  If history is your thing, the Valkhof Museum offers Nijmegen from Roman times to the present.  On my visit, I decided I’d go another route.  On my list was Grote (Great) market; St. Stevenskerk and bell tower, and of course the Brouwer café (brew put) De Hemel.  And if you need the famous pot licker, this is the place to get one!

 

Let’s start with the main square, or the Grote Market.  Nothing really to see inside the buildings but they are wonderful to admire from the outside.  I personally love a city stroll, you can absorb the feel for the town by wandering the streets and admiring the architecture.

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Next up is St. Stevenskerk (church)with its beautiful organs.  St. Stevenskerk, located in the historical city center, was built in the 13th century with additions through the 15th century.  It was hit by bombs during WWII, destroying a large portion of the church.  Thankfully, it was restored in 1969.  When you visit, be sure to check out the monument to Catherine of Bourbon, candelabra, organs and frescos all which date from the 16th, to the 18th century.  Did you catch that I said check out the organs?  St. Stevenskerk has 4 of them, but the one of interest was built by Ludwig Konig.   There are only a few of his organs still left to enjoy.  Organ and music enthusiasts will love its unique sound.

Once you have visited inside, spend the few extra Euro’s and climb the bell tower for a fantastic view of the city from the top.  It is a twisty little climb but so worth it.  There is a gentleman from town at the top who is full of amazing little facts about the church, the town, and the bell tower.  Be artistic and take a picture of the big clock from the tower.  This exercise is well worth your time and effort!

Well, you’ve climbed and now you need a little pick me upper, right?  If so, head over to De Hemel Brouwery (brewery).  Located in a medieval monastery building just a short walk from the church, you will find De Hemel.  It is a restaurant, home brewery, home distillery and even a home roastery.    Something for everyone in your party for sure.  Upstairs you’ll even find a little chocolate shop (open on certain days/times).  Our little gang tried the beer sampler – again something for every taste – and it was well worth it.  There is a lovely little patio of the weather is nice but inside you’ll find all sorts of quirky things….so go inside for sure!

You’ve spent the day in Nijmegen and it’s time to be going but wait…..you need that pot licker right?  Never heard of a pot licker, well I’m about to turn you on to THE most useful kitchen tool ever.  Stop in at the Hema in town (yes, I know you can shop online but its way more fun to visit in person) – go upstairs (same floor as the bathrooms) and look for these handy little gadgets.  They are like 1.75 Euro a piece (way cheap) and they work wonders to “lick” the pots clean.  Think peanut butter jars here…they are like mini squeegee’s.  We bought every last one of them they day we visited and so glad we did.  The following day we saw the exact same items for 5 Euros each…bargain hunting is my game!  And even if you don’t have to rid yourself of a little beer by this time, check out the sign for the bathrooms…worth a good laugh.

Keep traveling….the world is a wonderful place to explore!

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Animal Attraction to Travel

There are a few things in life that I know to be true.  One, I love to travel and two, I love animals.  Almost any destination and certainly almost ever animal (okay spiders and snakes are creepy but I mean like animals not reptiles or insects).  But I digress….

Koala, Churchill Island, Australia

Living in north central Wisconsin we have the usual set of animals (think farm, normal pets and wildlife) but when we travel we are opened to a whole new world of living creatures.  Take for example a trip to Australia.  Here you have an opportunity to get up close and personal with Kangaroo, Wallaby, Wombat and Tasmanian Devil.  How cool is that!  Some of these animals you’ll be lucky enough to see in the wild but not the Tasmanian Devi.  The Devil is an endangered species due to a cancerous facial tumor that has affected 30- 50% of the wild population.  But have no fear, nearby Hobart is the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary.    Visiting this sanctuary will allow you hands on contact with several native Australian animals.  You can feed kangaroos, pet wombats and koala and observe the cute little Tasmanian Devil.  Our visit to the sanctuary was a highlight for this traveling animal lover.

I know what you are thinking, well sure there are cool animals in Australia but that is a long trip and I can’t go that far.  Have no fear, cool animals are everywhere you just have to look.  Let’s take the good old USA for example.  A trip to Alaska in the summer will provide you with an opportunity to see humpback whales feeding in the kelp rich waters.  And yes, a humpback whale is a mammal so thus does not fall in the creepy category 😊 Now the very best way to see whales (all types in AK) is a small craft tour (boats that hold 18 – 36 people max).  When choosing your tour company also be sure the boats are safe for those magnificent creatures you have come to see (no dangerous propellers).

Faerie Penguins, Churchill Island, Australia

What about the Polar bear, I mean the kind that live outside the zoo?  Wouldn’t it be cool to see them fishing for salmon out of a river?  A trip to Alaska, Canada, Norway, Russia or Greenland will provide you with the opportunity to see these at animals in the wild.   Of course, you aren’t just going to happen upon them, you’ll need a guided expedition or tour to give you the best chance of watching them in their natural habitat.  From Fairbanks you can take a tour mid Aug – late Step (side note, due to global warming it is expected that the polar bear could become extinct in the years to come).   This one is still on my bucket list!

Bear at Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau Alaska

Still too exotic you say.  Well as I said earlier, I love animal, pretty much any.  In particular though I happen to covet my Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier, Fergus.  And yes, I look for his kin just about everywhere I go.  I’ve seen them in France, Holland and Ireland, just to mention a few.  And each time I come upon one I smile and feel love.

Fergus – Our Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier

So, pick your favorite animals and travel!  You’ll be surprised to see so many along the way.

Honfleur, France – Little Surprises

Sometimes the most unknown cities and towns along an itinerary can hold wonderful surprises.  A few years ago, we took a river boat cruise from Paris to Normandy.  We chose it because of the wonderful history associated with the itinerary and of course because it was an easy fly in and out of Paris.  It was so wonderful in fact that we are scheduled to do it again in 2019.

Now prior to that first trip I had never heard of the town of Honfleur and I didn’t research much about it either.  So, when we arrived in port I was understandably   overwhelmed by the quaint beauty of this little port town.  The harbor was filled with boats, the buildings around the port were brightly colored and it just felt homey.  Maybe that sounds a bit corny but the town was something right out of a picture.  As a matter of fact, come to find out Honfleur was painted by many famous artists like Boudin and Monet.  Certainly, this is a photographer’s mecca!

We took a guided tour of the town and the standout thing to see was of course, the church.  I must laugh when I write that because if you knew my husband, you would know that we have been in thousands of churches around the globe.  All I can say is, well, It’s his thing.  I’m pretty sure we have at least 2 zillion (okay maybe not quite) photos of every church wall, gargoyle, crypt, bell tower……etc. in Europe.  So, as I said, of course the highlight for him was…the church.  Sainte Catherine’s church, is a bit different from many we’ve visited, ornate in a simple sort of way and certainly not plastered with oodles of ornate gold.  Nope, it is simply the largest church in France that has been made from wood and it has a separate bell tower just opposite the church entry, above the bell ringers house.  Guests to Honfleur can visit the church for free!  Let’s face it, can’t get better than that.

Now if you were an astute reader you know the church was Paul’s thing….so what flipped my lid in Honfleur?  I already told you the port setting itself was amazing to look at but there was one thing that really caught my eye.  As we were wandering the streets…there it was…in the window of a little shop…. the purse of my dreams.  Now I’m not a girly girl, and I typically buy a purse only when the last one is too embarrassing to carry. But this beauty was something I just had to have…and yes, I paid through the nose for it and I didn’t care.   And lest you think purses are my thing…guess again (hint, look at the purse).  So, there it was, in the window of the little shop in Honfleur, France and I had to have it!

You see, sometimes little stops along the itinerary deliver such wonderful surprises and make the whole trip something you’ll remember.  You just never know until you go…. happy travels!


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Versailles – Take a Tour or Go it Alone?

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The palace of Versailles, located just outside Paris and listed as a World Heritage Site, was the seat of the government of Louis XIV.  This marvelous palace and gardens should certainly be on your must see list while in France.  The big question however is how to see it?

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Well to answer that question, first consider that the Palace contains 2,300 room and more than 3 million people visit annually.  Then consider your motivation for visiting, are you a wanderer who enjoys the sites without too much detail or are you a history buff where the story is important.

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There are so many options to choose from – anywhere from going it alone with your audio guide (comes with the admission ticket) to a private guided tour.  When choosing also consider what parts of the palace will be included (Palace, Estate of Trianon, Gardens and Parks, Musical Fountain Show and Musical Gardens and/or the Coach Gallery) in relationship to how much time you want to spend.

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Here are a few tips that will make your visit more pleasurable.

  • This place is huge and can’t be done in just one hour.
  • Regardless of what way you wish to tour Versaillas, be sure you have purchased your ticket prior to your arrival otherwise you’ll spend a good part of your allotted time just standing in line for a ticket.
  • Plan a minimum of 4 hrs.
  • Wear good walking shoes.
  • Eat a good breakfast or lunch before you arrive. Just the scores of people are enough irritation you don’t need hangry to rear its ugly head too.
  • Make sure your tour offers headsets, with the crowd it is essential for hearing your guide.

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Now for my personal (any travel professional) opinion, take a tour that offers skip the line and a small group format and access to the secret rooms – it will be well worth the money!

Whenever you go, enjoy your visit, it is a marvelous Palace.  Au revior for now.

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San Sebastián Gastronomic Clubs

What first pops into your mind when you hear San Sebastián, Spain?  Is it the beautiful seaside beach or maybe the wonderful restaurant opportunities within this Basque city?  These two things after all are what why scores of people flock to visit this region of Spain – I mean just think about a day at the beach followed by an evening of the pintxos (small tapas like food available at almost every bar in San Sebastian) or dining at one of the 16 Michelin Star restaurants.  That alone makes me want to go back!

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Ah, but have you heard about the gastronomic clubs or societies?  In San Sebastian, these gastronomic clubs have been around since the 1800’s and today there are approximately 119 in existence in the city (over 600 in the entire Basque region).  These clubs were initially established as a place of refuge for men – a place for them to socialize and cook away from the women at home who were the “boss”.  Today, many of the clubs are still men only and it is not uncommon to find clubs with over 100 members.

To visit, you must have an invitation or be brought by a member.   Well visit I must – I just had to see what they were all about!  In September, I visited San Sebastián and made it a point to book a visit to Los Corcones gastronomic club.  This club has a professional chef (all clubs cook together, but not all have a member who is an actual chef) so I knew I was in for a treat.

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Together with 3 friends, we met the chef and started our walk-through Mercado de la Bretxa, the 150 year old market that was bursting with sights and smells you can only imagine.  Here Bendur, our chef went about choosing items that he would cook during our visit to his club.  He shared samples of his favorite ham and other specialties as we shopped.

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Then it was just a short walk until we arrived at what looked from the outside like any ordinary stone building – that was until he pointed out the club sign announcing our arrival.  The Sociedad Cultural Musical Benefica “Los Corcones”, with its 2-blue fish logo (and yes this club even has a band!).

As he opened the door, I was immediately in love with the quaint set of rooms and old country style kitchen (but with some heavy-duty ovens) and checkerboard tableclothes.  I could not wait for the gastronomical experience I was about to have.  He put us to work preparing the plate of tapas and pintxos – oh did you think this was a sit and be served sort of visit – heck NO! 6-20170911_055746

Up first was a sampling of Spanish cheese, olives, sausage and of course a sardine or two (enough food really for 20 people).  When the sampling began, we sat around a table and talked about his club, the food and the traditions…and somehow the 4 of us polished off a majority of that food.  We felt the pride he had for his country, his food and his club.  Now this is the way to really experience another countries culture.9-20170911_072455

Just when we thought we could not eat or drink anymore and the real cooking began!  We were served some traditional Basque seafood dishes and yes, I must say, they were tasty!   This visit to a private gastronomical club was one of the best foodie experiences I have ever had.  We left with a true understanding of the culture by way of not only the food but through the opportunity to dine with the chef.  It was a truly amazing experience which I encourage you to try.

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Traditions, Traditions, Traditions!

Christmas is upon us and that means traditions.  What are your holiday traditions?  When did they first start, did you create new ones when you left your childhood home or did you carry on those of your parents and grandparents?  Well I did a little research about the origin of some of our Christmas traditions and I have to admit, I learned a few things….

Do you send Christmas cards as a part of your tradition?  We still do.  As a matter of fact, we send both personal Christmas cards and cards to our clients on behalf of our Travel Agency.  Did you know that the first Christmas card was sent in 1843?  Many people today have given up this tradition but we still love to both send and receive a card at Christmas.  We write a somewhat witty Christmas letter (haha, at least we think its witty) to send to our friends and family each year.  I am the author and Paul is the decorator, putting photos on the letter from our years activities.  I don’t think it is a tradition our children will carry on.

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What about the Christmas wreath?  When I was growing up we harvested the pine branches to make our own wreath which my parents always hung on the front door.  It was typically decorated with a bow, some pine cones and perhaps some red berries.  But where did that tradition come from?  Well since you asked…. Since the Roman times the wreath has been a symbol of power and strength.  Kings and Emperors wore them as crowns.  To Christians the wreath symbolizes tenacity and everlasting life.  Now I can’t honestly say I’ve ever thought of the wreath in that regard, nope just always thought it was pretty.  How simple we are 😊.  Today we buy our wreath from the local boy scout troop, and we hang it on the front of the house, just like my parents did.

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Mistletoe, hmmm, now that is an odd one.  I mean think about it.  The mistletoe is basically a parasitic plant that attaches to a tree and sucks nutrients from the trunk.  What is romantic about that? Yet mistletoe as a tradition has been traced back to ancient Greece (not as in kissing under it) where it was said to have been carried as a golden bough by Aeneas, the ancestor of the Romans.  In other pre-Christian cultures mistletoe was believed to carry the male essence and by extension, romance, fertility and vitality.  It was hung in homes because it was believed to protect from fire and lightning (again not for kissing under).  So, where the heck did the kissing under it come from?  Well truth be known, no one knows.  The first kiss under the mistletoe was recorded in the 16th century in England.  I’m thinking some young squire had a little too much grog and grabbed the first pretty girl he could find and gave her a kiss and it just so happened to be under the mistletoe!  So do you hang one?  And really how many kisses do you get?  I don’t know about your house but we don’t hang one, unless you count our mistletoad (green frog dressed in English finery holding a sprig) because after all, its cold and flu season and no sense sharing with just anyone who walks in the door!

And with that, we’ll leave you to your Christmas traditions, where ever they came from.  Enjoy your Christmas holiday and best wishes for the New Year!

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Free Dining or Free Drinks. Hmm…which to chose?

Being offered a “free” dining or beverage package seems to the be sign of the times today in ocean cruising bookings.  Every cruise line has its own twist on the perks offered but these two are always in the mix of offerings.

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So, which do you choose?  You love to eat and…. okay you like to consume adult beverages too, thus the dilemma exists.

Now, my first recommendation is talk to your travel professional because all “free” perks are not created equally.  For example, some lines charge service fees associated with their “free” while others do not.  Most lines have a dollar limit to drinks available using the perk and the big difference is how they handle those drinks that hop over that limit.  For example, let’s assume your drink limit is $13 but you really want to try that $16 martini.  On some lines, you would pay only the $3 extra, on other lines you would not be able to use the beverage package and be charged the full $16.   Note from one wine snob to another:  Serious wine drinkers (those who won’t drink the house wine at a bar and who don’t drink much in the way of other alcohol) should think twice about the “free” beverage package because it isn’t likely to have wines that will make you happy.  You, may want to consider choosing the free dining perk and then buying your own wine package.

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Dining packages are no different, you really have to do the math regarding which perk will be best.  Example:  you are on a 7-day cruise, your perk is 3 nights in a specialty restaurant, on board credit, free wifi or the beverage package.  What is the value of those 3 nights dining?  Let’s say the price is $35 per visit to the specialty restaurant x 3 = $105 but the onboard credit is $150 per person…..which is better?

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Remember a particular cruise line can only speak to and only wants to sell you their product, they cannot offer you a side by side comparison like a travel professional.  We can help sort all that out and can search across all cruise lines for the best perk offering out there.

And on that note:  Cheers and Bon Appétit1-Celebrity Century 3-20-2010 10-19-42 PM