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Tuesday
Nov112014

Paradise Discovered: St. Thomas

Feb 2014

Paradise Discovered

St. Thomas and St. Johns Cruz Bay, Cinnamon Bay Virgin Islands

When we landed from JFK into the St. Thomas Airport and arrived at the beautiful newly renovated Marriott on the ocean we knew that this trip to Paradise was going to be a dream come true. The lobby of our hotel The Frenchmen’s Reef was spectacular. In every direction there were Terraces and verandas overlooking the harbor, affinity pools, sunsets, and a reception desk that offered anything from sailing to island excursions, harbor tours, parasailing and dinner reservations.

We started in with dinner a Pina Colada and cold beers at their poolside restaurant looking over the bay.  (Photo of girl taking sunset pic) Look to the east and the view was the beach and the Havana Blue Restaurant, An elegantly designed open air space of candle light tables. The lighting in the room was a reflective sea of ocean blue with billowing white drapes that drew you out to the sea. We had dinner here on the last day of our vacation very nice. We were there as a family because it had been ten years since our last trio to in Maui, Hawaii together.  The best day we had as a family was our trip on the ferry from Red Hook to Cruz Bay about a 20 min ride. In the harbor of Cruz Bay there were many restaurants and shoppes with treasures from all over the world. 

Here we took an open air Island Taxi to Cinnamon Bay, National Park.  The water is an aqua shade of blue and there is a large reef for snorkeling with equipment available. They also rent kayaks, stand-up Boards with paddles, sunfish sail boats and catamarans. There is also a campground with tent platforms, bathrooms, and showers for those who want to stay on the island in the natural surroundings and save money. While we were swimming in the bay a large Clipper Ship sailed into the harbor. (See Pic of Clipper Ship)

 

Back on St. Thomas later in the week my husband and I took a water taxi into town for lunch and shopping. We decided on the Calypso a Mediterranean Restaurant. It was a very hot day 85 degrees so we cooled off with their frozen drink Kahlua and vanilla ice cream. Our son decided to take a scuba dive refresher course with some other vacationers. When they were on the real dive a large nurse shark was sleeping on the bottom and woke up. The shark swam right towards him and scared him so that he was breathing too fast and used up most of his air so the Dive Master brought him to the surface.  One of the divers caught it all on a video camera and sent him a copy to show friends.

One of our favorite places we had for a romantic and delicious dinner was “Room with a View”

On St. Thomas at “Blue Bird’s Castle”.  You enter a room with about 12 tables with linen covers on them you notice very large glass ceiling to floor windows with a spectacular view of the lights of Charlotte Amalie Harbor. The dinners we had were amazing a delicious Seafood Bouillabaisse and perfectly prepared filet.  The whole place was intimate and charming and made us feel part of the island and it’s appeal.

 

The Marriott was great at having entertaining shows for its guests. A crowd favorite was the outdoor Parrot Show where everyone had a chance to hold a Parrot. They roller-skated and played basketball and sang for everyone. The kids and adults loved the show, which was very cool to watch.

The flight to JFK airport to St. Thomas was very comfortable at about 3.5 hrs. With the latest technology on board you are able to watch just about and TV, Video, Movie or News Program

which makes the trip fly by.  They have good meal and snack choices and offer the best customer service.  We traveled on Delta Airlines and it was about $330 each way in February 2014.

I would highly recommend these islands for a vacation you will want to return to every year.

You won’t be disappointed.

 St. Thomas

By Sandra Ward  


US Virgin Islands Territory Facts

General Information

  • Official Language: English
  • Approximately 4,600 hotel rooms

 Geography

  • Located in the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean (between the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea). For a location map, please see Virgin Islands maps
  • Comprised of approximately 50 islands and cays (pronounced "keys"), the largest of which are , and
  • Honeymoon Beach.

Temperature and Time

  • Average temperatures range from 77°F in the winter and 82°F in the summer
  • Atlantic Standard Time zone, one hour ahead of Eastern Standard Time (except during daylight savings time)

Ethnic Background

  • The majority of present-day indigenous people are West Indian of African descent
  • Tiano and Carib Indians inhabited these islands for nearly 3,000 years, but most were killed off during European occupation
  • Today's native populations include people from Europe, North America, India, the Middle East and the Orient

Government

  • Constitution of the Territory: the 1954 Revised Organic Act of the Virgin Islands, amended in 1968-1972
  • Three branches: executive, legislative and judicial
  • Political parties: Democratic Party of the Virgin Islands, Independent Citizen's Movement, and the Progressive Republican Party of the Virgin Islands

Foods

  • Johnny cake (fried dough)
  • Pates (fried or baked turnover filled with seafood, chicken or beef)
  • Kallaloo (stew of spinach, okra and seafood)
  • Fresh local fish (steamed or fried)
  • Fungi (cornmeal blended with okra similar to polenta)
  • Conch (pronounced "conk," seafood from mussel family made into fritters or steamed)
  • Bush Tea (herbal tea steeped from aromatic leaves of plants indigenous to the Virgin Islands)
Monday
Nov102014

Costa Rica Crazy!

There wasn't much we didn't like, we really enjoyed having our own tour guide and when we were with others, it was a small group, not a huge tour bus.  Also, we couldn't stop raving about the fresh food & the coconuts right off the beach.  Incredible trip!

We went over our price point a little, but to be honest, it was so worth it.

This trip was a trip of a lifetime.  It was our extended honeymoon in Costa Rica and we loved every minute of it!  My wife and I enjoyed a few days in Arenal.  We zip-lined, rappelled, and rode horseback all before lunch.  In the afternoon, we did white water tubing and spent the evening in the natural hot springs.  Talk about an adventure-packed day!  After our time in Arenal, we spent 5 days in Tamarindo on the Pacific Coast and it was incredible.  The resort has everything you want, but we enjoy getting out and meeting the locals and enjoying their food rather than the steakhouse or franchise type feel of some restaurants.  I highly recommend a small restaurant called Fiesta Del Mar.  The food was incredible!  We can't thank Vagabond enough for taking the time to sit with us and hear our desires for the trip.  To be honest, we couldn't have done this without them and at the same time, it felt like we went on our own and not with a huge tour group, which we greatly appreciated.  Much love and gratitude!

Brad and Bryanna

Monday
Oct272014

London, Liverpool, Glasgow

Dear Sally

 

Safely back in the land of snow (next weekend?)

 

Great time. London is very hectic. The hotel prices are out of sight. Very european-type tiny room...lobby the size of a closet.

 

A little stressful until one figures out the tube and the trains. Plus finding the actual departure sites for the tours...not actually at the tube stations. But we weren't late for anything!

 

Tube turned out to be alot like the Paris underground...a very economical way to get around.

 

Train rides were very nice and Liverpool was very nice. We opted for a tour of John and Paul's homes with the National Trust. Bought it at the LP train station as we got in. Very worthwhile. Then we did the museum deal at the Albert dock. Hotel was American style...larger room and lobby.

 

Glasgow was even better. Shoppers delight. All the food was good, even the haggis. Jury's Inn is top drawer. The staff helped me find the adddress of my grandfather's birth and of course we went by.

 

We opted for take a tour to Stirling Castle instead of going to Edinburgh. Castle is fabulous, but most of the reason was because we took a 30 minute bus ride from Stirling to Alva, and looked up the house my grandmother was born in. Knocked but no one was home.

 

USAir couldn't leave well enough alone and when we arrived back in Phillie found our flight to SYR had been canceled. Got to sit around for 6 more hours. I finally got around to emailing them about a refund of the amount we had to spend on clothes after 3 days in our travel garb. Do you have any experience in this routine?    

 

Doug

Tuesday
Oct142014

Gate 1 Danube River Cruise

1.  Personnel.

Gate 1 staff are very friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable.  We enjoyed talking with them all through the trip.  All staff included - food prep crew, maids, wait staff, ship crew, tour managers; all were polite, upbeat, and energetic.  Captain does a great job going through 25 or so locks on the Danube without incident.

Tour guides were generally good although one of the other groups had one guide who was rude. (Gate 1 breaks up passengers into Red, Green, and Yellow groups with a tour manager for each group).  In our Green group most guides were energetic, polite and knowledgeable.  Our guide to Szentendre was pleasant just not very good.

Our tour manager in Budapest at the Hilton was very good.  Pleasant and went out of her way to be helpful.

 

2.  Danube river.

Danube river is green, not blue.  In fact, in some spots it's plain old brown. :-)        

River is becoming crowded but Gate 1 emphasis on prompt returns to the ship enabled them to minimize down time waiting at locks so they could stay on schedule.  At 40 minutes minimum per lock, if you aren’t the first ship going through, you'll have a long wait.  Don't know how much longer Gate 1 or any river cruise company will be able to stay on schedule with so many locks.  Will probably have to shorten trips eventually.  Upshot is that now is the time to take a river cruise before that happens.

First time through a lock is interesting; the whole upper deck was crowded.  After 25 times through locks, not so interesting anymore.

3.  Ports.

Nuremburg port is a work in progress.   Away from the city; requires a bus ride into town.  Nothing there at the dock but a small snack shop.  Does have a nice wide trail for walking or biking. 

Regensburg port is good; can walk directly into town although with increasing number of ships, will have to walk quite a ways if your ship is last one in.

Didn't get to see Aschach or Passau towns since we took the tour of Salzburg but port access was good for both.

Melk port - Good.  Can walk to the abbey and into town easily; wish we had had more time here.

The port in Vienna is terrible.  Very narrow overcrowded roads to go from the ship to town.  Not easy.  Can't imagine even a taxi getting there quickly.  Tour bus drivers really earn their money.

Budapest.  Great port.  Right beside main part of town on the Pest side.  Walk a short ways and you are in town or can stroll along the Danube a long way.

4.  Food.  We never had a bad meal on the ship.  Many different breads; all good.

Breakfast had a wide variety and food was fresh.  Although they take special requests such as omelets, they can be pretty slow or forget about them.

Lunch.  Good lunches; lots of variety and featured a sandwich if you didn't want an entrée.  Always had fresh garden salads.

For dinner, between the four of us we pretty much ordered most of the entrées.  All were good although portion sizes were a little small at times for the main meal but they offered larger portions to anyone who asked.  We had double chocolate cake one night for example.  There are about 5 courses to every dinner so we never went away hungry.  Entrées were "locally inspired" and generally reflected the area we were passing through.

Dinners did not include standards like Wiener Schnitzel on the ship although the lunch time meal as part of the Salzburg trip included Wiener Schnitzel.

Breakfast was included at the Hilton for the 2 day extension in Budapest.  Very good breakfast; in some ways, even better than the ship.  We ate dinner two nights in Pest.  Both restaurants were recommended by the tour guide and were a short walk from the Hilton.  Both meals were excellent and did not cost any more than in the States, unlike most European cities we have visited where prices are much higher.

5. Scenery. 

Danube River.  With the exception of the 1 hour or so cruise through the Wachau Valley, the scenery is mostly flat with only an occasional sight to see.  Very green countryside and not nearly as many towns as we might have expected to see; also few factories or other large industry.  Pleasant to sit up on deck when the weather is nice but we only had two days without rain.  At this time of the year (early October), not really a problem.  Only rained hard a few short bursts so we were able to take all tours.  The weather did make for some dull photos unfortunately but that is beyond Gate 1's control obviously.

Towns.  Generally all of the towns were very pretty with lots of photo ops.  Vienna not quite as easy to find things to see as say, Rome or London, but still enjoyable.  The Pest side of Budapest is easy to walk around although there can be long distances between things to see.  You can get a little lost but ultimately you just have to find the river and reorient.  Would really like to have a good explanation of the subway or bus system while on the ship.  We just did not stay in any town, including Budapest, long enough to give them a try.

 

6. Lounge.  Gate 1 uses the lounge for group announcements, the crew show, and other big entertainment like the Budapest opera singers.  Unfortunately, the lounge is too small by about 10 people.  It needs to be bigger.  Many times felt jammed in.  And when they give talks like the one on the Hapsburg family, the talk itself is good but the position of the projector is terrible; only a few folks can easily see the screen and only about half of the lounge can be used for talks.  Chairs are comfortable overall but the stools at the bar are terrible.

 

7. Snacks.  Gate 1 keeps a jar of cookies on the level up above the registration area.  Also has tea and coffee as well as fresh fruit.  Would like some variety in the cookies or some other snack but the cookies were good and addictive.  Would also like regular decaf tea in addition to the herbal offerings.  In the afternoon there was cake served in the lounge which was good and at night there was a late night snack.  Only ate that once; Hungarian Goulash, which was good.

 

8.  Tours.  Very good overall with the few exceptions noted above for guides.  Generally kept tours short and used the Whisper system so hearing was easy once you got the things working.  Then had some free time but we noted that we didn't really have as much free time as on bus tours; probably because of the need to get the ship moving to the next stop or the long distances between ports on this cruise.

 

9.  Rooms. 

Ship.  We had a level B room; 195 square feet.  There are only six of them on the ship and they are really nice.  Prefer the larger space (most cabins have 165 square feet) over other amenities like balconies.

There were two large closets in the room plus some drawer space.  There was more room to stow our clothes than in most hotels or even villa bedrooms we have stayed in.  Suitcases can fit under the bed out of the way.  Bathrooms are small but one person can get to the sink while the other is showering.

Bed was two beds side-by-side and the bed covers are therefore, separate for the two beds except for the bedspread.  View from the window was good until we got into port.  The down-side to the level B rooms is that they are under the gangplank.  So, half the time all you can see while in port is the wall of the dock, depending upon which side of the ship is against the dock.  It is also a unique experience to open up the curtain and see the wall of the lock a few inches from the window.  Rooms include a 115 volt outlet in the living area and one in the bathroom for razors.  The ship also provides a hair dryer and allows you to control the temperature in your room (good features).

Hilton Hotel West End (Pest).  Nice room; large by European standards; more like USA rooms.  Not as much closet and drawer space as the ship but we were only there two nights.

 

10.  Post cards.  The ship only carries German air mail stamps.  The post cards therefore must be mailed while the ship is in Germany.  Can't mail a post card with a German stamp from Austria or Hungary for example.  Buying a stamp at the Hilton in Budapest was a nuisance.  The Hilton would not take Euros and a stamp was 500 Hungarian Forints; roughly two dollars.  Had to get change before I could buy stamps; also because the desk clerk didn't seem to know how to charge the stamps to the room account.  In the shopping mall next to the Hilton, Chase bank wouldn't exchange Euros for Forints even though they had a big sign showing all the exchange rates.  Just one of traveling's quirks I guess.  A definite positive to Germany was that post cards arrived back in the States within a few days; well before we got home.

On other European trips, post cards did not arrive back home for several weeks after we had already gotten back home.  So, crew and the German postal system deserve an "Attaboy".

11.  Currency.  Germany and Austria take Euros but Hungary uses Forints; about 250 Forints to the dollar.  In general, never seemed to have any change in sufficient amounts for tips or things like stamps.  Should have paid more attention to the line in the pre-trip package about bringing $100 (or more) in $1 USA bills.  Tour guides and drivers accepted them as well as many stores.  And with about 7 tour guides and at least as many drivers, there was always a need for more change and on many occasions, we never had time to go to a bank for change.  ATMs only give out big denominations - the ATMs gave 50 Euro bills for example, so would have to buy something or go to a bank to get small change.  Credit cards with chips - our credit card worked great everywhere.  But they never asked for a pin; maybe because of the chip?  ATM debit card worked fine; just use the pin same as in the USA.

12. Airline. 

We flew Delta over and KLM home.  We are really getting tired of Delta putting us in different locations even though we book well in advance of the flight.  Normal complaints about aircraft - cramped and the service carts are always in the aisle when you need to use the lavatory.  But the movie selection was exceptional and the earphones worked which made the 9 hour flight more tolerable.  Food on the cross-Atlantic flight was good; not exceptional but not bad.

Budapest airport.  No one prepared us for the absolute zoo of the airport.  What a mess.  We had a 6:10 A. M. flight and we spent over an hour and a half going through check-in and security.  Everyone just jams into the single short section of roped-off area because there are no obvious lines.

No one tells you that you have to use one of the electronic terminals first before going to the counter...  Wasn't even obvious which counter was for KLM; we initially were in the Lufthansa line. 

Amsterdam - connecting flight.  On the way home you have to line up at the gate for a security check, even though we had already gone through security in Budapest.  We were wondering why the boarding pass showed boarding starting an hour and a half prior to the flight.  Then we saw the line at the gate.  Difficult to imagine going through the security gate an hour and a half before flight time and sitting on the plane all that time.

But...that's air travel.

JFK.  Don't look for plain ordinary potato chips at the international terminal.  They don't have them.       :-)

 

13. Summary.  Gate 1 did a great job overall; room for improvement but worth the money.  The weather was adequate and not a single one of our 5 flights was delayed.  We managed to deal with the few problems like the Budapest airport.  So, overall the trip was very nice.  Enjoyed it a lot.

 

David and Melissa Harrah

Monday
Oct132014

AAH... Assisi and Rome

Did the destinations meet your expectations?: Yes How so?: Exceeded expectations.  Awesome hotels and location.  Beautiful Assisi!

Do you feel that Vagabond Tour and Travel helped you to fully prepare for your trip?: YES!  Very pleased with Vagabond.  Hope to plan another trip again some time.

What could we have done better?: I would suggest longer times between plane connections...at least 2 hours...especially for rookie overseas travelers.  We missed a flight coming home because the time was too short.  Lines for customs was long!!!   Being a first time overseas traveler I was not aware how imp. it is to have plenty of time between connections.   But on the  other hand...waiting in Toronto for 7 hours before a 9 hour flight overseas was wayyyyy too long!  Next time I would be more fussy about the flight plan.

What was your favorite part of the trip?: I loved Assisi and want to go back.  Beautiful.  Especially loved our personal guide which we were able to connect with from your reference to Anne.  Marco was exceptional and I would highly recommend him if anyone is looking for a personal guide in Assisi.

Super knowledgeable and so personable.  Outstanding service!  He even gave us an extra hour of time.

Hotels in Rome and Assisi were excellent!!!!  Within walking distance to almost everything.

Tell us more! : Roma Termini was a bit overwhelming for our first visit being that we weren't with a tour group.  I found it difficult to find the train that would take us to Assisi and info centers and help are lacking for foreigners.  The local police actually helped us with our connection after we missed the first train scrambling through the massive terminal.

We climbed to the top of St Peter's Dome!!!  WOW!!!

Capri is paradise.  Very happy we took the day trip even though free time on the island was minimal.  The chair lift to the top of the island gave us breathtaking views/photos.

Your suggestions for cash on hand vs credit card use was spot on!  Great advice.

Pre-arranged tours of the Vatican and Ancient Rome were both very good!  Glad we did that!

The vacation/trip was a dream come true!  I felt very prepared was and thoroughly pleased with everything Vagabond did for us.  Thank you for all you did and I can't wait to plan the next adventure!

Sue M

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