Category Archives: Travel

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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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

Christmas is coming

Thanksgiving is over, the turkey’s been eaten.  So now what?  Well let’s see you could do the normal stuff like put up a tree, spend a bunch of money on stuff your family really doesn’t need and bake till you back breaks…..or, you could try something completely different.  Something you’ll remember and talk about for years to come.

What is it you ask?  A Christmas market river cruise through wonderfully decorated European towns.  Also known as Christkendlmarkt or Marche’ de Noel, Christmas markets are essential street markets that occur during the 4 weeks of Advent.  These markets go back to the late Middle Ages in German speaking parts of Europe and regions of France and are traditionally held in the town squares.  They offer open air stalls with local crafts, food and music.

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Did I just hear the men readers all just groan?  Hold on, seriously this experience has been both mine and my husband’s favorite vacation of all times. What could be better, a floating luxury hotel with all you can eat, drink and take in (Uniworld all-inclusive river cruising is our favorite)?  Well now that you asked, yes, the cruise part is wonderful but he Christmas market part is fantastic!

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Breathe easy, this is not your US craft fair with stampeding women, it is open air, relaxed wandering through stalls while the sights and smells of the market surround you.  Each town decorates differently so every stop is unique and beautiful.

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Imagine strolling with your best friend, arm in arm, Christmas music playing in the background.  Taking in the smell of local food specialties cooking (think giant wok sized pans making potato pancakes or salmon roasting on cedar planks over open flames) sampling as you go.  Stop and admire the handcrafted cuckoo clocks and nativity sets or try on hand spun hats and scarves. Or buddy up to the locals in the ice skating barn and learn why they love this time of year.  And don’t forget you are doing this all the while sipping on a cup of hot gluhwein (mulled wine with flavors of citrus and warm spices).  What could be more wonderful than that?

I promise, this is just the thing for renewing your Christmas joy.   So, skip Black Friday and Cyber Monday (remember no one wants that new set of towels, bedroom slippers, or socks and underwear) and try something different.  You’ll be thrilled you did!!

Even if you don’t own a garden

Tom Thumb, Green Thumb all I know is I’m all thumbs when it comes to gardening.  In my house I have exactly 2 plants…that are still alive.  I’ve been told it is impossible to kill a Christmas cactus…well I’ve just completed losing #4.  Out back I have a “garden” and I use that term very loosely since we refer to it as the weed bed.  So, I’d be the last person in the world you’d expect to want to visit the famous Keukenhof gardens in Holland.  Yet somehow it was on my bucket list – go figure!

So, this spring we set off with a few great friends to visit the Netherlands (okay so we got the men to go because we included Belgium and you all know how good their beer is) and on the itinerary was a visit to the famous Keukenhof gardens.  Keukenhof gardens is open only mid-March to Mid-May and our trip was timed right for the tulips to be in bloom.  We had to decide, full day or half day visit….OMG, we did the full day and still did not see everything so if you are even in that quandary….go full day for sure.

Miles and miles of tulips (well 32 hectares to be exact), every shape and color you can imagine.  Throw in some daffodils and hyacinth and you have a color mania of flowers.  But it’s not all just flowers, there are activities in the park like boat rides, cycle paths, fun signs and wooden shoes to put your face and feet into for that ultimate photo op.  Definitely climb the windmill to get a bird’s eye view of the vast tulip gardens.  If you are taking the kids, then be sure to download the treasure hunt before you go.

Ah yes, a full day at Keukenhof gardens will inspire you…I promise.  How do I know this you ask….well I left the gardens that day 300 or so tulip bulbs heavier (or shall I say $300 or so lighter since the tulips were to be shipped to the US in the fall).  Yes, me the ultimate weed bed owner left the proud owner of lots of tulip bulbs without one single plan for what I’d do with them.

They arrived this fall and I am happy to say they are all planted into a brand new flower garden…now we just wait till spring.  I’ll keep you posted but in the meantime, put Keukenhof gardens on your bucket list, you won’t be sorry.  It was beautiful!

What I did on my sun & sand vacation

Remember when you’d return to school after summer break and the teacher would assign the dreaded “what I did on my summer break” essay?  I mean, growing up in small town Wisconsin, did they really think we did something worth writing about?

I’m older now but that same question still haunts me each and every time I return from a sun/sand vacation to Mexico, Jamaica or the Dominican Republic.  Seriously, um…it was hot and sunny and all inclusive.  Need I really say more!  Yet people always ask and somehow I seem to feel obligated to elaborate… here goes.

Unlimited food, unlimited beverages, super bright sun, wonderfully cool air conditioning, afternoon naps and a few great books.  Need I really say more?

Sure there is beach volleyball, pool games, aerobics, yoga, snorkeling and excursions if someone is so inclined but for me a beach chair, book and sunscreen are all I really want or need.

That is the beauty of a beach vacation.  One can do as little or as much as one wants, be waited upon or go jogging on the beach, catch up on that elusive thing called relaxation or play hard.  The all-inclusive beach sun/sand vacation has something for everyone.

Some of the great places we’ve found particularly wonderful recently are:  Secrets Cap Cana and Breathless Riviera Maya.  Here’s my travel professional opinion:

  • Beaches – Secrets Cap Cana
  • Food – Breathless Riviera Maya
  • Room – Secrets if you are more modest, Breathless if you are there with someone special and want to spice things up a bit
  • Service – top notch at both places
  • Pools – both have a quieter pool and a more active pool so it’s a toss-up

Secrets Cap Cana

Breathless Punta Cana