Robert Q Travel Byron's Blog

It may not be the most joyful travel experience you have in Northern France, but for families of veterans, and any grateful citizen, a visit to the World War 2 Landing Beaches in Normandy creates a lifetime of memories.
BestTrip.TV journeyed to the shores on a stormy English Channel to remember the brave souls from the UK, the US, and Canada who stormed those beaches in a last-ditch effort to free Europe and end the war. Along the Normandy coast, remnants of battlefield sites, moving war monuments and memorials and Canada's Juno Beach Centre are essential visits for families of veterans and soldiers who gave their lives, students and history buffs and anyone who understands the importance of keeping humankind's tragic lessons alive.
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Veterans, their families, anyone interested in history, or the sacrifices of ordinary young men on an extraordinary moment for the world, all Canadians as well as citizens of all the nations who fought or were affected by these momentous times... all should make a pilgrimage to the Juno Beach Centre and the other DDay sites along the Normandy coast.
Many things have changed since that fateful day. Here's what you can expect on a visit to the Juno Beach Centre today.

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Why Travelers in the Know are Booking A Douro River Cruise in Portugal
Have you taken a river cruise in Europe yet? The 'Big Three' river cruises are the Rhine, the Danube and the Rhone/Saone. You may have heard about cruising on the Seine, even Main and Moselle cruises.

But for a little 'off the beaten track' river cruising in Europe, Portugal's Douro river is enjoying its day in the sun. Warm-weather Portugal, in the heart of the Porto wine region's, scenic villages, history and picture-perfect vineyards, is an idyllic spring, summer and fall river cruising destination.

Here's why we love river cruising on the Douro:

The Route:

 
The Douro river flows from Spain in the east, across northern Portugal to the western city of Porto on the Atlantic coast. Bookended by two UNESCO World Heritage cities, a river cruise on the scenic Douro Valley passes through mainly rural landscapes with historic villages, dramatic cliffs, famous vineyards, and for many people, the heart of Portugal's Latin culture.

 
(Image: Getty/Pietro Faccioli)

Even early and late in the season, the weather in Portugal is warmer and drier than in other popular river cruising destinations in Northern Europe, so if basking in pleasant summer weather is how you picture a river cruise, the Douro is for you.
 

The Highlights:

 
At the eastern end of the Douro: Spain. Most itineraries include nearby, renowned Salamanca, a UNESCO World Heritage city, with a 13th century university where Christopher Columbus once studied, and whose signature golden sandstone architecture glows in the summer sun.
 
At the western end of the route, the port city of Porto (pictured top; image: Getty/Mirifada) is the second largest in Portugal (behind Lisbon), and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If its famous bridge reminds you of the Eiffel Tower, you are not crazy; its architect studied under Eiffel. It was a small world, even in the 19th century.
 
A river cruise on the Douro is even more charming passing through the undisturbed countryside between the ports at either end. The Douro is far less traveled than the major European river cruise routes. You may rarely even see other river cruise boats or guests in the small villages where you can wander in a truly local, authentic, un-hurried rhythm and un-touristy environment. 
 

The Wine:

 
The name of the city of Porto suggests its long-lasting claim to fame. This is the home of port wine as you may have guessed, and also other delectable Portuguese wines like Muscatel. It's one of the world's oldest wine producing regions, with two millennia of viticulture traditions. 
 
When it comes to port wine, a Douro river cruise brings you to the doorstep of some of the region's best places to experience a rich and storied wine that has become less commonly served. (These days, it's mostly in British costume dramas where we see men retreating to their studies and clubs for 'port and cigars').
 
You can sip your way along the Douro river with expert, hosted wine tastings in famous and out of the way wineries, including the UNESCO World Heritage Vinhateiro wine region, the scenic Varosa Valley, the beautiful vineyards of Regua that produce the best range of port wine in the country, Casa de Mateus, the castle made famous on the labels of Portugal’s renowned Mateus wine, and other viticulture treats.
 

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 Whether you love Old Havana colonial style, rhythms and cocktails, Mid-Century modern tropical, Rat Pack vibes, or contemporary luxury urban resort on a world's top beach... Puerto Rico's El San Juan Hotel fits the bill.


Following a post-hurricane, $65-million reno, this grande dame of Puerto Rico society and must-visit destination for visitors to Puerto Rico's capital is back - in spectacular style combining all three eras and captivating your travel imagination.
The El San Juan Hotel alone is worth the trip to this US island territory! 

It's ideal as a destination tropical resort for your whole vacation or destination wedding/ vow renewal / business event, or as an extension before or after your Caribbean cruise embarking or disembarking from Puerto Rico; the El San Juan Hotel is 5 minutes from the Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport, 10 minutes from San Juan Cruise Port… and 15 minutes from historic Old San Juan, on 2 miles of Isla Verde Beach that's been voted the Best Urban Beach.

Start your Trip!


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5 Reasons to Get Excited About Booking an Expedition Cruise This Year
Leave your evening gown at home and pack your hiking shoes instead. For more and more travelers, an expedition cruise is on the horizon.

Expedition cruises speak to our inner adventurers. Smaller ships, more remote and tiny ports, untouched destinations, natural beauty, deep cultural interaction.

They're perfect for travelers who want to explore the world's natural wonders and the most distant reaches of the planet in an active way: out of a zodiac, in a kayak, hiking to the tops of peaks, gazing in awe at human masterpieces and photographing rare creatures.

Instead of a cruise director and onboard entertainment team, expedition cruises have teams of experts in the nature, science and human experience of the region. In early days, paying guests joined teams of working researchers in 'roughing it' conditions. 

Nowadays, expedition cruising is much more comfortable, but still ranges from a basic onboard experience where you can wear cargo pants all day, all the way to luxury expedition cruising, where you enjoy the finest hospitality, cuisine and service onboard in a relaxed atmosphere, and once-in-a-lifetime adventures on shore.

Whatever your cruising style, if active, in-depth exploration of destinations less-traveled is what piques your travel imagination, expedition cruising is for you.

BestTripTV's Lynn Elmhirst shares her favorite developments that make this the best year yet to book that expedition cruise of your dreams.
 

CELEBRITY FLORA


Spring 2019 marks the debut of the Celebrity Flora (pictured, top), bringing the total number of the cruise line's 'modern luxury' ships devoted to sailing expeditions of the legendary Galapagos Islands up to 4. Celebrity Cruises has been sailing expedition cruises in the Galapagos for over a dozen years, and their destination expertise means they understand everyone's dream experience of the Galapagos is different, and the Celebrity Flora is the perfect vessel for the modern explorer. The 100-guest Celebrity Flora's mega-yacht sleek curves are breathtaking. Her design is intended to immerse, not separate guests from this bucket-list destination. 


It's an all-inclusive experience where every stateroom is a suite, dining is curated by a Michelin-starred chef, and they even offer a 'Glamping' experience where guests can sleep one night under the Galapagos' magnificent stars in a cabana, with campfire themed dinner, cocktails, star gazing and private breakfast served in the morning of one of the most memorable nights of your life.

MYSTIC CRUISES


 
A new expedition cruise company has launched with the spring 2019 christening of 200-guest luxury ship, World Explorer, by singer/songwriter and former French First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy in Portugal. Mystic Cruises joins the small 'club' of five-star cruise lines with ice class ships and advanced technology able to navigate rivers, iceberg fields including Antarctica, Northern Europe, Iceland and Greenland.

It's the first ocean cruise ship for this hospitality company that already provides river cruises, hotels and resorts, museums and helicopter tours. The World Explorer is chartered by Quark Expeditions for breathtaking Antarctica sailings in winter 2019-2020. Mystic Cruises adds two more ships in the next two years, so you'll be seeing and hearing more about this new entry into the luxury expedition cruise space.

SEABOURN VENTURE



Ultra-luxury cruise line Seabourn is no stranger to expedition cruising, but this is its first purpose-built expedition ship. The 260-guest Seabourn Venture sails in June 2021 for an inaugural season in the Arctic, then a summer season in Antarctica. With polar class engineering and advanced technology, the Seabourn Venture also includes the exceptional design, service and destination-unique experiences Seabourn guests have come to expect from the official cruise partner of UNESCO.


Design icon Adam Thihany, who has designed other boutique-hotel-like Seabourn ship spaces, lends his touch and taste to the Seabourn Venture's interiors as well. The ship will carry two custom-built submarines, zodiacs and kayaks to launch from the ship's marina, for guests to step seamlessly from Seabourn luxury to be immersed into the natural wonders around the ship.

Seabourn has been sailing expedition cruises to the Antarctic since 2013, which led to the Ventures by Seabourn program featuring outdoor adventures in zodiacs, kayaks, hikes and other ways of exploring the natural wonders of Seabourn destinations around the world. The Ventures by Seabourn program inspired the name of the line's first purpose-built expedition ship. The Seabourn Venture is being joined by a sister ship in 2022.

SILVERSEA'S EXPEDITION WORLD CRUISE



It's the first-ever Expedition World Cruise. 250 guests make expedition cruise history in January 2021, setting sail on the Silver Cloud from Ushuaia at the southern most point of South America, south to Antarctica, up the West coast of South America, making a trans-Pacific crossing via Easter Island and Tahiti to Australia, then sailing to South-East Asia, southern India, the Gulf States, Egypt and the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean, then the UK and the North Sea to Iceland, before finally arriving in Tromso, in Norway's far north, in July. That's 167 days. 6 continents. 30 countries. And 107 incredible Destinations.

It's a 5 ½ month journey of a lifetime, in Silversea's signature ultra-luxury style, enhanced by the expertise of over a dozen feature lecturers including a Garden Designer, Anthropologist, Archeologist, Film-Maker, Explorer, Astronomer, RGS Member and others.

and the SILVER ORIGIN



In 2020, Silversea adds another expedition ship to its fleet, this one destination-specific, for Galapagos. The Silver Origin includes Silversea's signature butler service and all-suite accommodation, and adds Ecuadorian expert guides as well as locally-inspired cuisine for a true destination experience.

PONANT'S LE BOUGAINVILLE



The only French cruise line, Ponant is a world leader in luxury expeditions. Its fleet has expanded with the arrival of Le Bougainville. The 3rd ship in the Ponant Explorers series features the incredible, world's-first 'Blue Eye' lounge, an underwater 'salon' with two portholes that resemble a marine mammal's eye. There are even hydrophones to hear the undersea world.

 

The sleek, elegant design and luxury hotel service are unmistakably French, so Le Bougainville's 200 guests can live the French version of the good life while exploring the Mediterranean in its inaugural season, followed by the Seychelles, Mahe, the Indian Ocean, the Vanilla Islands and everywhere in the world Ponant sails its signature expedition cruises. 4 more new ships join the Ponant fleet by 2021.

Start your Trip!


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You may never have heard of the small Bavarian village of Oberammergau. But every year ending in 0: 2010, 2020, 2030 and so on... Oberammergau becomes synonymous with the Passion Play – the biblical story of Easter – it performs nearly daily for months from Spring to Fall. 

For those with a Christian faith tradition, attending a play that's been performed for hundreds of years in celebration of the most significant Biblical story is a once – maybe twice? – in a lifetime opportunity.

But it's not just Christians who are drawn to Oberammergau. The rarity of the play, its cultural and historic traditions in this little pocket of southern Germany, make it a bucket list, must-see spectacle of community that is updated every cycle to speak to changing times and theatrical styles.  

There are many ways to reach Oberammergau in 2020 or even 2030. Land tour operators have worked a day or two in Oberammergau into tours of Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and also included Oberammergau into faith-based tours of Europe. Oberammergau is even included as a shore excursion from Danube and Rhine river cruises.

It's an experience that groups of friends, extended families and singletons on a mission not to miss this extraordinary event cruise, coach, drive, and fly to experience.

Ask your travel advisor the best way to travel to and enjoy this incredible play - and learn more about the story of the play - in this village nestled at the base of a dramatic mountain landscape that falls off the world's travel consciousness for years – until another Passion Play year is on the horizon.
 
 

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Hawaii and Tahiti Added to Holland America Line's FOOD & WINE Shore Excursions
Now guests of the cruise line can choose from nearly 100 culinary-themed shore excursions that allow you to connect with destinations through their food culture while sailing on Holland America Line cruises. 

HAL's partnership with FOOD & WINE already includes exclusive tours in Asia, Australia/New Zealand, Canada & New England, the Mediterranean, and Northern Europe. These shore excursions allow you to take hands-on cooking classes with top local restaurant chefs, culinary walking tours of a destination, taste authentic street food, explore local wine and culinary hideaways and insider access to hot spots.

New FOOD & WINE shore excursions are now available to HAL guests in four Hawaiian ports and Papeete, Tahiti that bring the new culinary excellence and vibrant flavors of the South Pacific to life.
 
Hawaii's melting pot of culinary traditions as well as uniquely local flavors are highlighted in 6 FOOD & WINE tours. Along the way, you'll also visit some of the most scenic sites of Honolulu, Kona, Kauai and Maui:

“Famous Oahu Sites and Bites”

Get a memorable taste of Hawaii’s buzzing food scene at one of star chef Ed Kenney’s hot local restaurants while also taking in Diamond Head, Waimanalo Beach and Pali Lookout in the rugged Ko’olau Mountains.
 

“Princeville, Hanalei & Kilauea Bakery Pizza”

Take in Opaekaa Falls, Hanalei Valley and Hanalei Beach before lunch at Kilauea Bakery & Pizza, a wonderful find on Kauai's north shore.

“A Taste of the Garden Island”

A second Kauai tour features delicacies from one-of-a-kind specialty stores, well-regarded local restaurants and under-the-radar food trucks that are practically unknown to tourists. You'll meet owners and chefs who proudly introduce their culinary creations.
 

“Scenic Maui and Hona Pizza”

You'll visit Lahaina's 'Valley of the Kings', as well as Maui Tropical Plantation, with 2,000 surreally lush acres of pineapples, sugarcane, plumeria, orchids and more Hawaiian flora. The culinary centerpiece is a stop at Honu Pizza, where the pies are topped with seafood and other local treats.
 

“Big Island History, Landscapes and Food”

This Kona tour features stops at The Painted Church and the Place of Refuge set on the lava fields of Kona’s coast, before a memorable stop at the Royal Kona Coffee Center where you can sample Hawaii's famous java straight from the source. The highlight is lunch at Feeding Leaf, a farm-to-table restaurant serving Japanese-Hawaiian cuisine.
 

“The Big Island: A Farm-to-Fork Experience”

On another Kona tour, visit two farms then enjoy lunch featuring fresh-grown ingredients. At 160-year-old Parker Ranch and family-owned farm, see where organic produce is grown for area restaurants. Then take part in a three-course lunch at Merriman’s Restaurant featuring local farm fresh ingredients.
Exotic Tahitian cuisine features a fusion of flavors on two FOOD & WINE tours in Papeete, Tahiti:

“Papeete Market and Master Chef Lunch at L’O à la Bouche”

Discover the flavors of French Polynesia during a market visit and walking tour with displays of colorful and aromatic pineapples, mangoes, bananas, papayas, guava, ginger, vanilla and coconuts. Then indulge in a gastronomic three-course gourmet lunch at L’O à la Bouche, one of Papeete’s top French restaurants featuring local Tahitian ingredients and flavors.

“The Le Lotus Overwater Dining”

This tour is an exclusive option for guests on Amsterdam’s Grand World Voyage and 51-Day Tales of the South Pacific cruise that circumnavigates the region in October 2019. In an evening to remember, guests experience the artful blending of French culinary techniques and fresh Tahitian flavors during a dining experience at Le Lotus, one of French Polynesia’s premier overwater restaurants (pictured, top).
 
If these FOOD & WINE tours sound tempting, there are even more culinary shore excursions on the way for guests on Holland America Line cruises in the Caribbean, Mexico, South America, Alaska and additional European ports.

Start your Trip!


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3 New Cruise Line Private Islands
It used to be that private islands were the playgrounds of the ridiculously rich and fabulously famous. Then cruise lines got into the game. Now, cruise lines are competing with each other to build exclusive tropical enclaves in the Caribbean for their guests to experience not just a day on the beach, but create travel memories they can't get anywhere else.

Most of the actual private cruise line islands are small, uninhabited islands ('cays', pronounced 'keys') among the hundreds of islands in the Bahamas, like the very first cruise line private island in the Caribbean, Norwegian's Great Stirrup Cay, Holland America's Half Moon Cay (WATCH VIDEO OF HALF MOON CAY HERE), and Disney's Castaway Cay.



Harvest Caye is a private island off coast of Belize. It's for guests of sister cruise lines Norwegian, Oceania and Regent.


But the term 'private islands' has also expanded to include private cruise line day resorts developed on larger, inhabited islands, like Labadee on Haiti for guests of Royal Caribbean, and Princess Cay on Eleuthera in the Bahamas.

And cruise lines continue to acquire real estate to up the ante on the ultimate resort experience for a day ashore on the beach.

Whether you've never stepped foot on a cruise line private island, or you've got a favorite you cruise to over and over again… check out these new private island destinations you can only reach by cruise ship.

They're all in the Bahamas, but designed by three very different cruise lines, and offer three very different private island experiences. Find your cruise line private island match!


 
The Cruise Line: Virgin Voyages
The Destination: The Beach Club at Bimini, the Bahamas
The Experience: High-Style Island Beach Club/ Music Festival on the Beach

As Sir Richard Branson launches his new, adults-only cruise line, Virgin Voyages, and its first flagship, the Scarlet Lady, he also launches a private island destination just for Virgin Voyages guests.


No, not HIS private island. But The Beach Club on the Bahamian island of Bimini takes its cues from Sir Richard's famously high-living, party-loving, music industry persona. Along with exquisite beach and turquoise water, The Beach Club provides an atmosphere like beach party destinations Ibiza and St. Tropez.


A detox/retox formula starts with beach yoga and meditation to the sounds of the sea earlier in the day, chilling in hammock groves and cabanas, snacking on complimentary, locally-sourced island cuisine and sipping cocktails from 6 bars, playing on the beach and taking part in watersports, leading up to in-demand DJ-led pool and flotilla parties in the evening, and finally winding down late at night with a beach bonfire and acoustic music before a very late night ship departure.

The Cruise Line: MSC Cruises
The Destination: Ocean Cay Marine Reserve, the Bahamas
The Experience: Soft Adventure Meets Nature on the Beach


Only 65 miles off Miami, MSC will also be able to offer late night departures from its new private island (pictured, top).

7 beaches, each with its own atmosphere and experiences, ranging from shallow paddling for small children to water sports. Dining includes food trucks that incorporate local flavors, and multiple bars including one inspired by Hemmingway's famous taste for rum cocktails overlooking the ocean. MSC's Aurea Spa treatments are available on shore at Ocean Cay. And shopping includes vendors of local arts and crafts as well as branded items.


In addition to the usual beach-side water sports, Ocean Cay offers eco-friendly soft adventure experiences like kayak tours and snorkel safaris highlighting the natural beauty of the island and its seas.

Ocean Cay is surrounded by dozens of square miles of protected seas, and that's the point. The development protects the local wildlife and ecosystem, and there are plans for a coral nursery to actively contribute to the region's environment.
 
The Cruise Line: Royal Caribbean
The Destination: Cococay, the Bahamas
The Experience: 'The Perfect Day at CocoCay' / Over-the-top Theme Park on a Beach

Royal Caribbean ships are whirlwind experiences of ice skating rinks, climbing walls, theme park type rides, restaurants and shopping… more than you could hope to ever do in a single week of cruising. Its new concept, 'Perfect Day', is a collection of private islands around the world that take 'thrill and chill' to a new level, beginning in the Bahamas with 'The Perfect Day at CocoCay'.


Perfect Day at CocoCay is a shopping list of record-breaking builds, adrenaline-charged activities, and unexpected firsts: The tallest waterslide in North America. The largest wave pool in the Caribbean. The first overwater cabanas in the Bahamas. The Up, Up and Away helium balloon ride that takes you 450 feet up to the highest viewpoint in the Bahamas. A soaking by 30 water cannons on a shipwrecked galleon, and an 82-foot geyser. A 1,600-foot zip line – ending with the only splash water landing in the region. A freshwater infinity edge pool and bar, spanning a whopping 2,600-plus feet. And a whole host of other dining, drinking, and shopping activities to pack a full day even fuller.




Royal Caribbean believes Perfect Day at CocoCay will live up to its name – and set the scene for more Perfect Day Island Collection destinations in the Caribbean as well as Asia and Australia.
 
These 3 wildly diverse new cruise line private islands prove: there's a perfect new cruise – and a new cruise line private island - just waiting for you to discover.

Start your Trip!


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If you're like me, Spring can never come too soon. And nothing says Spring like new flower blossoms.

This year, treat yourself to an abundance of Spring in one of these famous floral travel destinations.


By: Lynn Elmhirst, Host/Producer, BestTrip TV
 

Tulips in the Netherlands

Where: Keukenhof Gardens and surrounding tulip fields
When: April

It's the world's largest spring flower garden. The Keukenhof Gardens are a showcase for the Netherlands' biggest agricultural export: flowers and bulbs. The tulip is the ultimate symbol of a Dutch spring, and there are an astounding 7 million bulbs – tulips and other spring flowers - bursting into bloom on the 80 acres of castle grounds at Keukenhof. Open just a few weeks every spring, Keukenhof is a gardener's dream: themed garden plots and pavilions, an windmill you can climb for a viewpoint over acres of surrounding tulip fields in bloom, boat rides in canals lined with never-ending blossoms.

You can also order bulbs of the blooms you can see at Keukenhof; they'll be shipped to you ready for planting in the fall.

WATCH VIDEO, TOP: THE WORLD'S LARGEST SPRING FLOWER GARDEN ON AN AVALON RIVER CRUISE
 
Also Find Tulips at:

The Ottawa Tulip Festival, Canada


There's a Dutch connection to this flower festival in Canada's National Capital. During the Second World War, the Dutch Royal Family took refuge in Canada's capital, and a royal baby was even born on Canadian soil, as overseas, Canadian soldiers led the liberation of the Netherlands. In thanks, after the war, the Dutch sent tulips. 100,000 tulips, and tens of thousands more each year since. The mid-May Ottawa Tulip Festival is not only a symbol of Spring, it's a symbol of peace and cooperation between nations.
 

Chelsea Flower Show

Where: London, England
When: 5 Days Late May

(getty/ BethAmber)

This might be the most famous flower and landscaped garden show in the world. Members of the British Royal Family join garden lovers from around the world at the 11-acre site of the Royal Horticultural Society's annual love-in of traditional, trend-setting and even avante-garde flowers and gardening. You'll see glorious displays of beautiful and also rare spring flowers, floral exhibits and cutting edge design as well as traditional English gardening that is loved and imitated the world over. 

The Chelsea Flower Show is the perfect place to buy English gardening tools and gifts for yourself or your friends at home.
 

Japanese Cherry Blossoms

Where: Japan
When: Peak season on Japan's main island is early-mid April

(Getty/ Torsakarin)

The Japanese don't just have a word for cherry blossoms: 'sakura'. The also have a word 'hanami' that means to view the cherry blossoms. It's a tradition that dates back a thousand years or more, originating with the Imperial Family and continuing today for all Japanese. It's one of the most festive times of the year, when Japanese gather with friends, family and colleagues under cherry blossom trees filling parks, surrounding historic castles, temples and shrines, and lining riverbanks, drinking sake and picnicking under the trees long into the twinkling evening hours.

It's not just the stunning beauty of clouds of white and pale pink blossoms hovering overhead; the Japanese also view short-lived cherry blossoms as a poetic symbol of the fleeting nature of life itself.

Also Find Cherry Blossoms in:

Vancouver, British Columbia
An estimated 50,000 blossoming cherry trees line streets and grace parks from February all the way through April, including the city's famous urban Stanley Park.  The Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival is held every year for most of the month of April.

Washington DC

(Getty/ zrfphoto)

America's capital has a glorious annual reminder of the thousands of cherry blossom trees given by Japan to the US in the early 1900's as a sign of friendship. Famously lining the shore of the Tidal Basin, DC's cherry blossoms are celebrated annually during the National Cherry Blossom Festival from mid-March to mid-April. 
 

Texas Bluebonnets

Where: Throughout the state, especially the City of Ennis and its 'Texas Bluebonnet Trail'
When: April

(Getty / leekris)

This wildflower is the state flower of Texas and believed to be named from its resemblance to a pioneer sunbonnet. Bluebonnets are actually several varieties of lupins. They thrive in lesser soil and so line roadways as well as fill public lands and pastures. 

The city of Ennis, south-east of Dallas-Fort Worth, is the official home of the bluebonnet, with over 40 miles of flower-bedecked roadsides, as well as an annual Festival. The Texas highway department not only delays roadside trimming so people can enjoy the spring bloom, its early officials were instrumental in encouraging these wildflowers to thrive. Today, they still plant about 30,000 pounds of wildflower seed each year, contributing to the preservation of Texas' native vegetation.
 
Also Find Lupins:

In Canada's maritime provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

 (Getty / bilbowden)

The lupins you'll find growing wild in Canada's eastern provinces are a larger variety than Texas bluebonnets, and although they're more purple-y blue as well as pink and white, they're an equally cheerful sign of spring. Well, actually early summer. The cooler climate means peak lupin season here is late June – early July.
 
 

Azaleas in America's South-East

Where: Gardens throughout the region and especially: Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, South Carolina
When: Throughout April

(Getty/MargaretW)
 
Azalea shrubs originated in Asia and were successfully taken to many places in the world. But in America's south-east, they've gained a special place as an iconic garden favorite and symbol of gracious Southern living. Unlike other spring blooms, they're quite long lasting, spreading joy for weeks of the season.

Many public and private gardens have a spectacular spring showing of azaleas, but special mention goes to Charleston's Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. The former rice plantation dates from the 1600's, and is the oldest public gardens in the U.S, opening its doors in 1870 to visitors who wanted to enjoy its thousands of cultivated flowers and plants. The less-formal, 'Romantic' style garden is not only on the list of one of 'America's Most Beautiful Gardens'. Magnolia was also the first garden in the country to plant azaleas outdoors, in the 1840's.
 
Today, hundreds of thousands of azaleas bloom in flame pinks, oranges and reds, lining paths and lakes in a breathtaking spring bloom.

Start your Trip!


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Think Overwater Villas are the Height of Exotic Luxury Travel? Try This UNDERwater Villa
It puts new meaning into being immersed in the local natural beauty. The pristine waters of the Maldives are epic, surrounding one of the world's most romantic, remote and legendary tropical eco paradise destinations. 

Now you can sleep alongside your sweetheart or family as well as the rich marine life that animates the waters of these tiny islands in the Indian Ocean. Conrad Maldives Rangali Island is a pioneering resort: the first international hotel in the Maldives, the first underwater restaurant, and now, the first undersea residence.


It's called the Muraka, or 'coral' in the local Maldivian language, and it is an extraordinary way for up to 9 guests to experience of one of the world's most breathtaking marine environments. Specialized aquarium technology was used to create the 2-story villa, consisting of above-sea-level space, and a spiral staircase to an underwater suite more than 16 feet below sea level with a king size bedroom, living room, and bathing area under a dome with 180-degree views of the ocean.

Sleeping in an undersea dome is an almost surreal vacation, but the overwater part of the villa above is unforgettable, too. More bedrooms, one with an ocean-facing bathtub, more bathrooms, gym, space for a butler and private security, living room, kitchen, bar and dining area with a deck facing the sunset, and another deck with an infinity pool facing sunrise. 

The Muraka butlers are dedicated 24-7 to hyper-personalized service. They are also ambassadors of the Maldivian island experience for undersea villa guests, sharing their passion for culture, the environment and adventure throughout your custom-crafted stay at the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island.


The resort is located in the Maldives' best diving and snorkeling locations. It melds harmoniously with the environment, flowing from island, over the ocean, to the overwater/undersea residence.


You can double down on the undersea experience at the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island at its trailblazing underwater restaurant. Ithaa Undersea Restaurant is also a world's first, where the fusion local and Western lunch and dinner menus, fine wine pairings, and mid-morning cocktails are accompanied by a panoramic view of coral gardens 16 feet below the surface of the ocean.

 
Ithaa Undersea Restaurant is one of dozen resort restaurants and bars that regularly make 'best of…' lists. Conrad Maldives Rangali Island also features an overwater spa and a Spa Retreat, and experiences inspired by the local environment and culture round out the ultimate island escape. Sunrise and sunset yoga practice. A meditation pavilion. A 5-hour journey to inner tranquility via a unique Zen revelation. A Spa Retreat with over a dozen water villas, its own restaurant, and a selection of therapies including a signature treatment inspired by the beauty practices of Maldivian women, including a heated coconut stick massage and organic, pineapple and papaya body scrub.


Consciously-designed villas and suites, from ultra-private beach villas nestled amongst the rich tropical landscape with direct beach access, to overwater villas ranging from private and romantic, to expansive for an extended group of family or friends, complete with sundecks, hot tubs steps into the sea, spa treatment rooms and more, provide the iconic Maldives vacation.
 
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Top 10 Souvenirs from a Trip to Hawaii

You'll come home with a million sun-drenched memories of a holiday in Hawaii. Here are 10 mementos you can take with you.

 

ANYTHING PINEAPPLE



They may be the most common symbol of Hawaii, and you'll find pineapples, pineapple products, and pineapple motifs everywhere. Pineapples are actually native to South America, and their Hawaiian name 'halakahiki' means 'foreign fruit'.  They arrived in Hawaii in the 1500's, but it wasn't until James Dole, the 'Pineapple King' came to the islands in 1899, that Hawaii became synonymous the world over with pineapples.


At one time, Hawaii produced 75% of the world's supply. Hawaii is no longer the world's big kahuna of pineapple production. But the second most visited attraction in Hawaii is the Dole Pineapple Plantation Experience. Roadside stands sell delicious, perfectly ripe pineapples you'll enjoy during your stay, and that's where they'll have to stay. You can't take fresh fruits off the islands. But you can take candied and chocolate versions of pineapple with you – as well as an unlimited selection of items with pineapple motifs that will remind you of lazy days in the Hawaiian sun. 
 

OTHER TROPICAL FRUIT

The Hawaiian islands are America's tropical paradise, with market and roadside fresh guavas, papayas, mangos, bananas, lychees, passionfruit as well as pineapples. Like pineapples, they are not native to the islands, although bananas were one of the dozen staple crops brought on the first journey to Hawaii by Polynesians. Other tropical fruit came later and many have even gone wild, even becoming invasive in the wilderness. 


The same no-fresh-fruit in your luggage rule applies. Fresh tropical fruit juices make delicious toppings on Hawaii's favorite refreshing treat: shaved ice. And look for tropical fruit preserves to take home to relive your vacation every morning with your breakfast toast.
 

LOCAL WOOD



Sustainable local woods, especially local, fast growing and immense acacia koa are turned in the hands of artisans into both beautiful and useful memorabilia of your Hawaiian vacation. From salad tongs and bowls, fruit and nut bowls, platters, yes, even in ubiquitous pineapple styling, Hawaiian tropical wood products make a warm and heart-warming souvenir for yourself or family and friends.
 

ANYTHING TIKI



Much of the world associates tiki culture with the Hawaiian islands. Tiki culture is not actually a real 'thing', in fact, it's a mash up of elements, some real and some imaginary, of stylized elements of the Pacific tropics, like statues, sweet and complex cocktails, tropical décor including bamboo, flaming torches, brightly patterned fabrics (see: Hawaiian shirts), rattan furniture, and bead curtains. Tiki culture developed in the mid-1900's, and picked up speed with a post-war fascination with the romantic and exotic - brought home by returning US troops from the Pacific war theater and exaggerated by Hollywood. 


Now, tiki has a fun, retro vibe, and is a perfect theme for a back yard barbecue, complete with mai tai's garnished with fresh fruit and tiny umbrellas.
 

HULA GIRLS - OR GUYS

The adorably kitschy, wiggling, dash-top décor is a fun and retro memento of one of Hawaii's most powerful, unique and authentic traditions: the hula dance. Accompanied since the 19th century by western-influenced instruments like the ukulele, Hawaii's hula is a complex and ancient dance tradition, where hand movements can represent the swaying of a tree or wave in the ocean, even an emotion, along with unmistakable foot and hip movements. 


Hopefully, you'll experience a hula performance live in Hawaii. The hula girl (or guy) on your dashboard gives you fond memories and a little hipster credibility.
 

HAWAIIAN SHIRT



Channel your inner 'Magnum' or Don Ho with the modern man's loudest item of clothing, worn un-tucked and cool in the tropical heat of Hawaii. Traditional and local Aloha shirts are more muted in tones and style, and are considered formal wear locally, equivalent to shirt, tie and jacket in all except the most formal of scenarios, perfect for the local climate. The Aloha shirt is the top textile export from the islands, so you'll be in good company if you add one to your wardrobe at home.
 

ALOHA ACCESSORIES



Not everyone can pull off an Hawaiian shirt. The rest of us may have to make do with more subtle expressions of Aloha style: plumeria/ frangipani flower hair clips, and shell or silk flower leis. The custom of lei floral and leaf garlands was brought to the islands of Hawaii by settlers who made the incredible journey from Polynesia in canoes.  They've become the symbol around the world of welcome to America's 50th state.
 

MORNING JOE AND AFTERNOON TEA

The word in coffee in Hawaii is 'Kona'. Various efforts on the islands in the 19th century to grow coffee failed, but the slopes of the Kona or west side of the island of Hawaii, where sugarcane was unsuccessful, is ideally suited to coffee production. The Kona district became the center of coffee production in Hawaii and is Hawaii's coffee designation of origin; it must be grown in a two-mile-wide belt of terrain at 700-2000 feet of elevation to be labeled Hawaii's most prestigious coffee.


Kona coffee grows on west side slopes, and the opposite, east side has conditions conducive to growing tea. Tea production in Hawaii is much more recent, and growers are experimenting with black, green, oolong teas, scented with local flowers and fruits, so tea drinkers also have a local hot beverage to enjoy on island or to take home.

GET NUTTY



The pale, round and incredibly rich macadamia nut – sometimes even called the Hawaii nut - is also associated with classic Hawaiian snacks and cooking. But it, like the pineapple, originates elsewhere. Macadamia was introduced to Hawaii from Australia in the 1800's, and a local macadamia nut plantation just after WW2 helped spread the popularity of Hawaiian macadamia nuts through the US.  Enjoy them freshly roasted and take them home in cans, made into brittle, chocolates and countless other reminders of the flavor of Hawaii.

SALT



Hawaiians have been living off the land since their brave Polynesian ancestors made their way by celestial navigation thousands of miles across the Pacific. Harvesting sea salt has always been a fundamental part of island tradition, and continues today, with varieties of sea salt highlighting different flavors and unique characteristics of the areas they are harvested. The perfect foodie souvenir!
 

UKULELE

The soundtrack of any trip to Hawaii is the one-of-a-kind tunes of a ukulele. Looking like a miniature guitar, the ukulele is a Hawaiian adaptation of string instruments brought to the islands by Portuguese immigrants in the 19th century. The word has a whimsical meaning: 'jumping flea', thought to reflect the movement of a player's fingers. Ukulele music was popularized by the patronage of King Kalakaua in Hawaii, and it spread to the US and the rest of the world in the early and mid-20th century, along with post-war fascination with the South Seas and 'tiki' culture. Even Elvis famously played the ukulele in Hawaiian-themed performances.


You too can buy a ukulele in Hawaii, even visit an artisan workshop where they're made from traditional acacia koa, and take lessons, to liven up your next summer barbecue with the ultimate sounds of the Hawaiian tropics.
 

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7 Castles in Ireland Where You Can Stay
St. Patrick and the Emerald Isle. Dramatic coastline. Historic towns and cobblestone streets. Pubs and parties. Folklore and green pastures… and castles.
 
Hundreds of castles and manor houses dot the Irish countryside. They not only evoke Ireland's storied past. Many allow you to live out your inner fantasy world of warrior kings and legendary princesses during overnight stays.
 
Look for a tour of Ireland that allows you to lay your head at some of these stately homes:

Ashford Castle, County Mayo

 
You'll be joining the illustrious ranks of not only early Irish nobility when you stay at Ashford Castle. British royalty, American presidents and sports and entertainment superstars have all stayed at 800-year-old Ashford Castle. It's a 5-star resort lifestyle in a magnificent French chateau style building on a 26,000 acre estate – complete with is own school of falconry, horseback riding, fishing, archery and clay shooting, as well as more modern pass times like a spa, golf, kayaking, tennis, tree climbing and zip lining.

 
Ashford Castle has been voted the best resort in Ireland and one of the top three in Europe.
 

Bantry House, County Cork

 
Since the 1700's Earls of Bantry have occupied Bantry House overlooking Bantry Bay on Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way on the southern coast. You can stay in one of the finest historic manor houses in the country in luxurious bed and breakfast or self-catering style.  

 
As well as the Wild Atlantic Way, you'll want to explore Bantry House's elegant gardens especially when the azaleas and rhododendrons are in bloom. The design is dramatic with seven terraces – the house is on the third terrace - 100 steps, and a fountain.
 

Drumoland Castle, County Clare

 
 Another magnet for global political figures and celebrities, 5-star Dromoland Castle is the ancestral home of the O'Brien family that traces its roots 1000 years back to the famous High King of Ireland Brian Boru. 

 
400 acres of Irish heaven include a top-rated golf course, walking and cycling trails, tennis, hiking, horse riding and pony carriage rides, traditional archery, falconry, fishing and clay shooting. Deluxe décor and luxury living include a spa, afternoon tea, casual and fine dining that once earned a Michelin star.
 

Ballyfin Demesne, County Laois

 
Your travel imagination may picture your castles with gothic towers, but don't miss Ireland's most celebrated Regency / Georgian mansion. With only 20 guest rooms, you'll feel like you're lord of the manor at this 5-star Georgian country house nestled on 600 acres at the foot of the scenic Slieve Bloom Mountains.

 
It's the ultimate mix of old world charm and modern home and hotel comforts – and perfect to take over for a special, destination family or even business event.
 

Ballynahinch Castle, County Galway

 
Voted #1 Irish luxury castle hotel, Ballynahinch is an elegant 17th century castle with magnificent views over 700 acres of woodland and rivers. Relax indoors by one of six open log fires or dine in elegance at one of Irelands' best restaurants. 

 
Take long walks or cycling tours with backdrops against the 12 Bens Mountain range along the Wild Atlantic Way. Or climb onto a boat for a guided trip of its famous salmon and lobster fishery.
 

Crom Castle, County Fermanagh

 
Lord and Lady Erne still dwell at the historic seat of the Earls of Erne, magnificent Crom Castle in Irelands' beautiful Fermanagh Lakelands (pictured top). But the castle's West Wing can be yours, it's available year round for up to 12, with even a cook provided if you wish. 
 
Nearly 2000 acres at Crom are a unique nature reserve with one of the largest semi-natural woodland remaining in Ireland, the largest surviving area of oak woodland in the country, and one of the largest freshwater habitats in the British Isles. You can see two rare butterflies and pine-marten, the largest heronry in Ireland, wild geese and deer.
 

Lismore Castle, County Waterford

 
Some of the most notable names of Europe and the Americas over the last few centuries have visited and stayed at this 12th century castle of the Dukes of Devonshire. Fewer than 30 guests at a time enjoy truly regal hospitality, with use of the castle and estate facilities, and even the Duke's personal butler and staff. The Castle kitchens create formal, informal, indoor and outdoor meals from local and on-site ingredients.

 
Live like the Irish nobility with salmon fishing, golf, horse riding and racing, kayaking and boat trips, even kite surfing, scuba and hot air balloon rides.
 
Make sure your next vacation to Ireland includes a stay fit for a king on one of the Emerald Isle's historic castles.  

(Images courtesy ireland.com)
 

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New Wellness Cultural Journeys from Abercrombie & Kent Enrich Mind, Body, Spirit
Run and train like a warrior with the Maasai or hike to a vantage point high above Machu Picchu.

Feed your spirit with inspiration at a home for underprivileged girls in India, or a silent alms ceremony in Luang Prabang, and feed your body with healing, Ayurvedic herbs in India, or fresh local produce at a cooking demonstration on Krabey Island. 

Re-orient your mind through guided meditation with a local teacher at Kuang Si Falls, or learn about the meaning of tribal beading traditions in Kenya.

Now you can take your commitment to your wellbeing and desire for authentic experiences in global cultures to another level. Luxury tour company Abercrombie & Kent has debuted wellness-inspired journeys that immerse travelers in the local traditions of some of the world's most influential wellness cultures and practices, and provide uplifting visits to philanthropic projects where tourism directly supports local wellbeing.

Groups are limited to only 18 participants, and the pace is slower, with experiences and travel over 9- 13 days to allow you to stretch your mind, body and spirit, and linger in the deeply personal experiences. You'll stay in wellness-focused deluxe hotels, boutique lodges and luxuriously-appointed camps in one-of-a-kind locations. 


The first A&K wellness cultural journeys depart in Fall 2019, and explore the rich cultural traditions of bucket-list destinations Kenya, India, South-East Asia, and Peru. Imagine how enriched you'll feel after these journeys:

Wellness India: Ancient Traditions & Inspiring Icons
Explore India’s rich spiritual heritage, from the temples dedicated to Shiva and Lord Vishnu to the Taj Mahal. Participate in a guided meditation and bike ride through the countryside in Udaipur. Privately consult with an Ayurvedic doctor during a leisurely stay at Amanbagh. Explore the countryside of Rajasthan visiting local artisans. Visit an A&K Philanthropy-supported residential school for young girls. Spend two nights in the spiritual heart of India, Varanasi, where you stay in a former palace on the banks of the sacred Ganges, and take an evening boat ride to experience the pitru tarpana, a moving ceremony that honors the memory of a loved one.
 
Wellness Southeast Asia: Timeless Rituals of Indochina
You won't have to chose among your favorite Southeast Asian country, as the wellness traditions of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are all part of this journey. Take part in inspirational ceremonies such as a baci ceremony in Luang Prabang and tak bat, a silent food offering to local monks. Witness sunrise at Angkor Wat.  Luxuriate on a private tropical island at the new Six Senses Krabey Island. Enjoy a Khmer cooking class, spa treatment or sunset cruise. Discover the difference that clean water makes during a visit to a remote village, where A&K Philanthropy is building wells.

 
Wellness Kenya: Cultures & Wildlife
Discover tribal traditions and learn about conservation efforts on an active safari in the Masai Mara and Tsavo National Park. Hike through the cloud forests of the lush Chyulu Hills and learn about traditional warrior training from the Maasai, and wonder at game drives and your mythical surroundings during sunrise and sunset yoga. Gain a new perspective on giving back at an A&K Philanthropy-supported school and see how sustainable tourism is providing safe drinking water.
 
Wellness Peru: Spirit of the Incas
From the Sacred Valley and Cusco, discover local traditions in remote mountainside villages and working farms. Learn about a traditional Amazonian medicine, and hand-feed llamas and alpacas. Kayak in a secluded lagoon 12,464 feet above sea level and hike up to a birds-eye view of Machu Picchu. Overnight at the only property located on the ancient Incan site to explore the sanctuary at sunrise. Have your coca-leaf fortune read by a shaman.
 

Start your Trip!

 
 


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If you close your eyes and picture 'Italy', chances are, it's the rows of vineyards and cypress trees, villas and farmhouses, fabled towns and household-name works of art of Tuscany that come to mind.


There are a million reasons why Tuscany is the setting of so many escapist novels, movies and life-changing travels. Here are our favorites:

FLORENCE

The red rooftops of Florence are the symbol of Tuscany's capital and epic Italian Renaissance magic. Wandering the alleys and cobblestoned streets, the Boboli Gardens and the Ponte Vecchio lets you drink in Firenze's one-of-a-kind atmosphere. 


But its greatest attractions are indoors. Italy's greatest collection of art is housed in Florence's Uffizi Gallery. The richness of its collection is unparalleled; so many Renaissance masterpieces – recognizable even if you weren't an art history student - you'll hit Botticelli sensory overload quickly, so you'll want to break up your visit into multiple days. Michelangelo's statue of David at the Galleria dell'Accademia makes visitors gasp in awe at the 17-foot marble nude – as does its replica placed in its original 1504 setting outside the Palazzo Vecchio.

SIENA

Art lovers may argue whether it's Renaissance Florence or Gothic Siena that is the most breathtaking Tuscan city for art and architecture. Luckily, you don't have to choose, immerse yourself in the cathedrals and squares and museums in both. In a part of the world teeming with UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Siena's Piazza del Campo stands out in its majesty cradled at the foot of three hills surrounding it. Work off some of that extraordinary Tuscan cuisine climbing the Torre del Mangia, a tower at the Palazzo Pubblico. Your reward is a breathtaking viewpoint over Siena.

 

THE PALIO

Time your visit to Siena right, and you can be a part of one of the world's most famous and storied sports/ cultural historic events. The Palio di Siena is a bareback horse race that feels like a Gothic time capsule. The 10 horses and riders are decked out like, knights of yore, in the medieval colors representing city wards; flags hang from the balconies and buildings in the city.

It's one of the most exciting 90 seconds in sport/ pageantry. The riders cling desperately to their horses for three laps of Siena's packed Piazza del Campo, and often, a few are thrown especially at the tight turns along the way, with riderless horses running into the crowds in the middle of the square or crossing the finish line with the other horses. The Palio is run twice a summer, on July 2nd and August 16th, and the Corteo Storico, a boisterous pageant, precedes the race.  Tip: arrange your visit to Siena's Palio through a tour operator that has balcony access overlooking the Piazza for the best view above the throngs.
 

CINQUE TERRE

'Five Villages' sounds quite humble, but in Tuscany, it's magic. Clinging to the sides of the cliffs overlooking the sea, these five colorful villages are among the most recognizable images of Italy. The area is a national park and also protected by UNESCO World Heritage status that attempts to shield these seaside jewels from excessive tourism/ commercialism.  


It's an epic view from the sea, if you're lucky enough to be on a Mediterranean cruise that sails along the Ligurian coast; smaller ships especially may sail close enough. On land, hiking trails provide both a wonderful outdoor activity and spectacular views of the different villages. There is also a coastal train that stops in each town. 
 

PISA

Pisa's 12th century Leaning Tower has been touristy since there were tourists in Italy – and that's a long time. You too will join the millions of people on Instagram in a photo of yourself 'propping up' the 180-foot tower that is about 4 degrees off a perfect vertical. That doesn't sound like much, but it means the top is 13 feet off center! 

The tower began leaning during construction due to poor foundations. In recent years, hundreds of millions have been spent re-stabilizing the bell tower. Unbelievably, it is safe enough you can even climb 300 steps to the top in a medieval version of a funhouse.

VESPAS

Tuscany is the home of the original, and world's favorite scooter. The Vespa isn't just quaint, retro memorabilia. It was designed (its name means 'wasp' for the insect its shape and handlebars evoke) to lead a transportation revolution: vehicles that are inexpensive and easily parked and maneuvered in urban areas.
 
Vespas are still made at the Piaggio factory in the Tuscan city of Pontedera, not far from Pisa, which has a museum displaying the Vespa customized by Salvador Dali.  They have a cult following around the world. Renting one to tour around Tuscany may be one of the most authentic, fun, and heartwarming local experiences.

WATCH VIDEO AT THE TOP: MEETING A VESPA COLLECTOR/ RESTORER IN TUSCANY


WINE AND DINE IN THE COUNTRYSIDE

As captivating are Tuscany's cities, the iconic scenery of region's rural areas are transformative. Chianti vineyards, white truffle farms, olive groves along country lanes lines with sculpted-looking cypress trees, with villas, farmhouses, and chapels integrated by the centuries into the gently rolling landscape.

To visit Tuscany is to spend time, by vespa or bicycle or on foot, in the countryside, and even better, to stay in a rural castello or villa with its own vineyard and restaurant to treat all of your senses to a taste of Tuscany.
 

Start your Trip!


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What happens when you put three non-painters in a painting workshop? Can you really learn to paint like Van Gogh in an afternoon?  Those were the questions on all our minds as we walked to an art atelier near where our river cruise ship, the Avalon Vista, was docked in the heart of Amsterdam.


I'm creative but I have zero artistic skill. Even my handwriting is famously illegible.  My friends, travel expert Ryan McElroy and travel and gardening journalist Tara Nolan, were no more confident in their own artistic talent.
But we were all game to try to channel our inner Van Gogh.

The afternoon Van Gogh painting workshop is one of Avalon Waterway's "Discovery" shore excursions, included experiences available at different destinations on all Avalon European river cruises. The Van Gogh painting workshop shore excursion is inspired by the Dutch artist and the city that's home to the museum of his works, and it's available to Avalon guests on cruises in port in Amsterdam.

Discovery shore excursions are designed to dig deeper than a Classic tour of sightseeing highlights. Discovery shore excursions allow you to immerse yourself in a particular aspect of local culture and lifestyle.
 
Even if you've never picked up a paintbrush. 

You'll have to decide for yourself if we acquired any painting skill during the workshop. As our artist-teacher, Paul, recommended, we kept open minds and didn't take it too seriously as we went through the process of sketching with pencil and charcoal on paper, then transitioning to canvas and paint for the finale: a still life of sunflowers and iris inspired by Van Gogh's style and two of his most famous paintings.

They won't be hanging in any galleries anytime soon. But it was a lighthearted and illuminating afternoon discussing how art is made, Dutch painters, art in Amsterdam and local life. And we each walked away with the fruits of our efforts: a painting that we all packed in our luggage to take home as a unique memento of our Avalon river cruise.

So that's what happens when you put three non-painters in a painting workshop on an Avalon Discovery shore excursion in Amsterdam!

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You Can Celebrate Richard Branson's Birthday With Him on his Adults-Only Cruise Line
With flamboyant Sir Richard Branson at the helm, the 2020 launch of Virgin Voyages is one of the most anticipated events in travel. The party-loving, trend-setting celebrity entrepreneur promised his latest travel venture would do to cruise what Virgin Air did to flying: rediscover a whole new level of tongue-in-cheek, escape-with-your-friends-to-a-private-party fun. 

Only this time, at sea.

Bookings are now open for the inaugural season of the Scarlet Lady, the first Virgin Voyage ship, in April 2020.  The ship's homeport is a splashy and stylish new terminal in Miami. From there, she sails to the Caribbean.

 (Photos: Virgin Voyages)

No typical 7 or even 10-day cruises, though. Intensive, 4 and 5-night itineraries featuring an overnight in Havana, or 5-night voyages to Costa Maya or Dominican Republic.

And we're getting other details about how Virgin Voyages is breaking the mold and re-inventing cruise travel, dare we say it? for more 'millennial' tastes. But we know just about everyone is interested in cruising Richard Branson-style: youthful, fun, non-traditional and high energy.


Virgin Voyages is introducing lots of new cruise experiences. But just as intriguing is what you won't find on a Virgin Voyage:

No Kids

'Adult-by-Design' Virgin Voyages limits its Sailors and lifestyle to the over-18 crowd. It's where 'Party with your friends on a private island or a pal's yacht' meets 'fabulous new music festival', on a yacht-inspired ship with 2700 other young-at-heart 'Sailors'.

No Buffets and No Main Dining Rooms



Rejecting two mainstays of cruise dining, Virgin Voyages instead aims for informal 'discovery' dining. Sailors will find over 20 restaurants, designed and curated to capture the spirit of the dining experience in a world-class city. Restaurants include mid-century martinis and steak, psychedelic-style vegetarian, 'Extra Virgin' modern Italian, Mezze at the Dock, and internationally-inspired food truck fav's, even 24 hour room service.
 

No Restaurant Surcharges

Whether you're dining in a restaurant, a seaside lounge or casual eatery, it's all included in the cruise fare, to allow Sailors the widest freedom to personalize your cruise experience.

No Broadway Shows



Another example of how Virgin Voyages is not your grandparents' – or parents' – cruise line. Richard Branson flexes his music industry background for a completely different set of evening entertainments: a nightclub named after his first music studio The Manor, DJ evenings in the spa, transforming the thermal suite into a one-of-a-kind maritime party, and a festival-like lineup of all-new completely original Events & Gigs developed by some of the world’s most-talked about producers, directors and artists.

No Tipping Required

Gratuities are already baked into the cruise fare, too, for a no-surprises, full-service cruise bill, something normally only offered on the highest end luxury cruise lines.

No Cost for Wifi

Forget unplugging. Virgin Voyages celebrates today's digital lifestyle and facilitates every selfie you could ever hope to post – without an extra bill or counting how many more minutes of internet you have available.

No Plastic and no Bottled Water

From the outset, Virgin Voyages' goal is to have the cleanest fleet at sea. No single-use plastic or packaging, no bottled water or beverages, investments and partnerships in clean technology and an practice of re-useable service items.

Instead, Virgin Voyages boast:

A Detox-Retox Philosophy


 
The good life at sea, Virgin Voyages style, may keep you up late at night partying, and re-setting your body by day at the outdoor Athletic Club complete with boxing ring, the largest daybed at sea, and a yacht-inspired catamaran net lounge, a 'Crow's Nest' sundeck for sunrise and sunset yoga practice, a 'Runway' standalone 'halo' running track over the ship where skaters are welcome, a wellness pool area, even an on-deck adult playground/ fitness apparatus and the 'Gym and Tonic' bar with both cold-pressed juices and craft cocktails.
 

Exclusive Island Experience… Sorry, not Necker


 
All voyages will spend a day at Virgin Voyage's exclusive Beach Club on the island of Bimini in the Bahamas. It's not Richard Branson's own fabled Necker island, but it is designed to rival beach clubs of Ibiza and Saint-Tropez with idyllic lounging and high energy DJ flotilla and pool parties, bonfires on the beach and a final acoustic musical performance before sailaway.
 

The Only Tattoo Parlor at Sea


 
Forget getting your hair set for formal night, but don't throw perfect grooming out the porthole. The Scarlet Lady has salons for men to get that indulgent hot shave or expert beard trim, and for women to get a blow out after a day of swimming, exercise, pool lounging and wind-swept fun on deck. It also introduces the playfully-named tattoo studio 'Squid Ink' - because why wouldn't you want a tattoo or new piercing to commemorate your Virgin Voyage?

 

Richard Branson's Birthday Party

 
Maybe the most memorable Virgin Voyage will be the one with Sir Richard Branson himself! You can join him on board to celebrate his birthday among celebrity friends and fellow Sailors aboard a four-night Havana After Dark voyage departing July 15, 2020.
 

Start your Trip!

 
 
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The Chinese New Year Dish You Need To Try This Year
Kung Hey Fat Choi! Chinese New Year celebrations brighten up the winter months throughout Asia and Asian communities around the world. It's the most important date on the Lunar calendar and includes weeks of festivities with family and friends from late January through March. Many activities give everyone a chance to get into the spirit of a fresh, healthy, happy and prosperous upcoming year.

Among the many outstanding traditions like lion dances, flower markets, decorations of lanterns, red and gold banners, and orange trees, wearing of red, temple visits, parades, fireworks, family gatherings and gift giving, are, of course, special Chinese New Year feasts.

If it isn't already, put Chinese New Year travel on your bucket list. Every major Asian community in Asia as well as the Americas and Europe holds memorable CNY festivities. Here are a couple of our favorites:

Hong Kong

It's considered one of the world's best festivals, with Victoria Harbour's neon spectacle as a backdrop to 6000 tonnes of fireworks, parades, flower market, temple celebrations and lucky New Year's horse races.

Philippines

Manila's Binondo district is the oldest Chinatown in the world, and appropriately, host of the Guinness world record Chinese New Year's celebrations. Its standout moment is a laser show and a one-of-a-kind LED Lion Dance.

Singapore

Chinese New Year involves weeks of festivities including an International Lion Dance Competition, a riverside carnival, and over 10,000 performers in the continent's largest street procession.
 

San Francisco

This West Coast city's Chinatown is famous, so naturally, it's 2-week CNY celebrations are, too. Flower festivals, a breathtaking, 200-foot dragon finale to the largest CNY parade outside of Asia.

Food is central to the celebrations, and almost every dish carries symbolic meaning or color, or a name that sounds like the Chinese characters for Chinese New Year wishes like longevity or wealth.

Our friends at Hong Kong Tourism have shared with us their recipe for Lion's Head Meatballs – also called Four Joys Meatballs. It's a pork recipe - which seems especially suitable for Year of the Pig – but is equally tasty and relevant no matter which creature's year of the Chinese zodiac it is. The round shape of meatballs symbolizes 'togetherness', and the Lion's Head evokes Chinese New Year Lion dances.
 

It's easy enough to make at home for your own Chinese New Year celebration or any time you crave it.

Braised Chinese Lion’s Head Pork Meat Balls Recipe 

 
Ingredients
 
Meatballs
1 lb Ground Pork
4 large Dried Shiitaki mushroom (soak in warm water until softened, then minced)
½ cup Water Chestnuts, minced
1 Egg
1 teaspoon Minced Ginger
2 Scallions/ Green Onions, minced
½ cup Panko Bread Crumbs
1 teaspoon Minced Garlic
½ teaspoon White Pepper
2 tablespoons Light Soya Sauce
1 tablespoon Dark Soya Sauce
1 tablespoon Cornstarch
2 tablespoons Shaoxing or Rice Wine
1 tablespoon Sesame Oil
1 teaspoon Salt
+
1 cup Vegetable Oil for frying
 
Vegetables in Broth
10 leaves Napa Cabbage
2 pieces Sliced Ginger, bruised
1 cup Chicken Broth

Method

Put ground pork into a large bowl. Add Shaoxing wine, light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, sesame oil, salt, sugar, grated ginger, cornstarch and scallion. Add chestnuts, mushroom and eggs. Add panko. Mix all ingredients til sticky and moist. Divide into 6-8 parts. Roll each part into a large ball.
 
Heat vegetable oil in a non-stick skillet over medium high heat til warm. Fry meatballs til all sides browned. Take out and place on paper towels to absorb oil.
 
Place bruised ginger slices in bottom of a clay pot or any round pot. Fill with chicken broth or water. Put in cabbage leaves. Arrange browned meatballs on top. Cover and heat in medium high temperature til boiled, lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add salt or soya sauce to taste. Garnish with chopped scallion or parsley (optional).
 
Ready to serve over steamed rice. You can make and cook the meatballs in advance and do the final heating in broth when you want to serve the meatballs.

Kung Hey Fat Choi!


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Everyone wants to try 'real' local food when they travel. But we don't always have a real local to point us in the right direction.
 
That's why we loved our Avalon Waterways' culinary tour of the Jordaan, a walking-sipping-snacking tour of the revitalized neighborhood in Amsterdam. It gets you out of the tourist core and into the heart of the Dutch lifestyle the way the locals in the Netherlands really live. 
 
Want to taste the local beer? And the snack the locals order at the bar? You've heard of pickled/ raw herring but never had the nerve to try on your own? Do you want to sample a Dutch cheese you'd never find in a market at home? Or discover the best Dutch chocolate shop to buy souvenirs for family and friends?

We did it all on our culinary discovery tour of Amsterdam with Martine, our Amsterdam guide who knew every shop keeper and even better: the best tips to get that herring down the hatch – and love it!
 
BestTrip's culinary tour of the Jordaan in Amsterdam is just one of Avalon Waterways' collection of included shore excursions that let you get hands-on in a destination and experience the local lifestyle the way you enjoy.
 
How do you like to explore? With 3 types of included excursions and onboard activities on Avalon Europe cruises you can create your own personalized trip.
 
CLASSIC
A local expert is ready to guide you through the history and heritage of local destinations and the “must see” sites.
 
DISCOVERY
Inspiring and interactive hands-on activities designed to speak to your interests - you spend your day immersing yourself in the destination’s unique culture, from cuisine, to art, to wine and more.
 
ACTIVE
Embark on energetic excursions keeping you in motion and on the go — from a guided jogging tour, to biking, paddling, and hiking your way through scenic locales.
 
Every European river cruise destination has its own special character, and Active, Discovery, and Classic styles of exploration mean that from the Seine to the Danube, the Rhine to the Rhone, you'll be traveling the way you want on your Avalon Waterways River Cruise, and gathering the travel stories that put a smile on your face for years to come. 
 

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6 Reasons We Love Seabourn Cruises to Alaska
America's Last Frontier is a destination everyone should visit at least once in a lifetime of travel. Alaska's vast, untouched waters and shores are rich in breathtaking scenery and abundant land and marine wildlife in an unparalleled spectacle of Nature.

Cruising along the pristine, emerald coast between British Columbia and Alaska is one of the very best perspectives and ways to experience Alaska's riches.

Not just any cruise; here's what makes an Alaska cruise on ultra-luxury Seabourn so special.



Smaller, Spacious Ships:


In a place of natural splendor like Alaska, a smaller ship gives you ample space to feel you are part of your natural surroundings. And it sails into ports that other, larger ships can't access. Seabourn Alaska itineraries include marquee ports like Juneau and Ketchikan, but also ports that are off the beaten cruise ship path, like Misty Fjords, Klemtu, Wrangell, Inian Islands, Chiswell Islands, Aialik Glacier and Holgate Glacier, ports that make your Alaska adventure one-of-a-kind.

You share your Seabourn ship in Alaska with fewer than 500 fellow guests. No crowding on decks, no line ups to shore… during daytime sailing, you can stroll on a deck surrounded by the quiet serenity of the impossibly fresh air and the sounds of the waves passing the ship and the densely-forested shore.


You're Always in a Room with a View:


Every space on a Seabourn ship gives you a feeling of being connected to the sea. All suites are ocean-front, many with verandas, and never far above the waves. 


Imagine waking in a verdant fjord to chunks of icebergs floating on glassy waters seemingly at arms' reach off your teak veranda rail. Or the unforgettable experience of sailing in crisp sub-arctic air while sipping champagne in a one of the toasty hot tubs on decks.

Taste-full:

Dining on Seabourn is always a treat. Everywhere Seabourn sails, chefs onboard plan menus like they are serving guests on a private yacht rather than a cruise ship, personally shopping for ingredients in local ports and featuring field- and farm- and fishing-boat fresh flavors on menus that surprise and delight daily.

In the rich waters of British Columbia and Alaska, that's a bounty of crab, salmon, oysters and other local delicacies that are so exquisitely fresh and beautifully prepared, it will spoil you for dining on them anywhere else in the world.

Seabourn Moments: 


Anyone who has traveled on Seabourn has a story of their favorite Seabourn moment. On every sailing, the ship's crew goes above and beyond to come up with spontaneous experiences that bring you closer together with your fellow guests, with your destination, and with the warm and enthusiastic crew. How do Seabourn moments put a smile on your face in Alaska?

One day, you may return from a wind-swept shore excursion to find 'Hot Chocolate with a Twist' on the Pool deck, where Seabourn bartenders are set up serving everyone's favorite comfort drink – with an optional twist of your liqueur and indulgent toppings that warm you up during your scenic sailaway.


In cooler climates like Alaska, Seabourn's famous 'Caviar in the Surf' becomes caviar on ice. What pairs best: vodka or champagne? Why not both? At the open-air, pop-up party deluxe, vodka and champagne stations, chefs coming out of the kitchens to greet guests at caviar station, opening up super-sized cans of caviar and plating servings for guests, circulating staff, and the live band all come together in the ultimate Seabourn spirit of the moment. 
 

Ventures by Seabourn:


Seabourn's smaller ships can't just sail into Alaska's smaller ports, bays and fjords, they can also launch Zodiacs and kayaks directly from the Marina at the aft of the ship.


Ventures by Seabourn are fun, accessible, active excursions that satisfy your craving to explore hands-on and up-close to Nature.  You can join a small group of like-minded guests and expedition leaders including naturalists, marine biologists, ornithologists, geologists, historians and other experts. If you like exploring the outdoors, these are the Alaska experiences of your dreams: watch whales and eagles in Kenai Fjords from a Zodiac, or kayak up close to wildlife in Misty Fjords, take a photo safari for bears in Wrangell, or hike the Davidson Glacier.
 

Don't Stop at the Shoreline:


You won't want your Seabourn cruise in Alaska to end when you disembark, and luckily, it doesn't have to. Seabourn has introduced pre- and post-cruise Seabourn Journeys, fully-escorted extensions inland from the ports at the beginning and end of its Alaska itineraries.
 
The UNESCO Banff National Park & Rocky Mountaineer Seabourn Journey delivers you to your Seabourn cruise in Vancouver following a 7-day trip that includes one of the world's most famous luxury scenic train journeys and an exploration of Canada's iconic UNESCO World Heritage national park.  
 
In Alaska, a Denali Seabourn Journey takes you by scenic rail to America's highest peak and the spectacular national park surrounding Mount McKinley. It's a 5-day experience that features a flight over Ruth Glacier and a guided tour to spot grizzly bears, wolves, moose, caribou and other wildlife park residents.
 
Traveling with Seabourn in Alaska gives you a welcoming, ultra-luxury journey to the majestic, sub-arctic 'safari' destination in our backyard.
 

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(Images not labeled BestTrip.tv are courtesy Seabourn/ Rocky Mountaineer.)
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Have You Heard About OceaniaNEXT?
Oceania Cruises is making a triple-play of transformations, breathtaking in scope, that have already begun. When complete over the next few years these three tremendous changes will elevate all of the things you love about Oceania, and give you even more to experience.

A $100-million re-imagination of its four, 684-guest Regatta-class ships to make them 'better than new'


A thousand artisans have been deployed in the process to up-convert the Regatta, Insignia, Sirena, and Nautica. Inspired by their newer big sisters in the fleet, the Marina and Riviera, the Regatta-class ships each emerges from a sweeping rejuvenation with over 300 brand-new designer suites and staterooms, and a new interpretation of décor in public spaces that will still make the ships feel like home to guests, while reflecting the 450 Oceania destination ports. 


On your next Oceania cruise on a transformed ship, you'll be welcomed by a dramatic new central staircase, dazzling, artistic, centerpiece chandeliers in the Grand Dining Room, tones and textures that reflect the sea and sky and welcoming shores, and in staterooms, lavish bathroom re-designs, and technology enhancements like USB ports and interactive, state-of-the-art television systems.

Re-imagined ship reveals are scheduled between late 2018 and 2020: Insignia December 2018, Sirena May 2019, Regatta September 2019, and Nautica mid-2020

Enhancements to Oceania's acclaimed 1,250-guest ships Marina and Riviera


Even as they serve as muses of the Regatta-class ship rejuvenations, the Marina and Riviera will themselves be enhanced, including a new generation of Owner's Suites whose new look will be furnished entirely by Ralph Lauren Home.


The 2000-square-foot suites' living rooms, master suites with king-sized beds, two walk-in closets, indoor and outdoor whirlpools, wraparound teak verandas, spectacular foyers with floor-to-ceiling sea views, mahogany bars and grand pianos, are being re-mastered in Ralph Lauren's quintessential American luxury style interpreted through yachting themes of  navy, white, crème and camel tones, accented by nautical stripes, sail-inspired fabrics, rich, saddle-stitched leather, and pops of luxurious metals.  Re-mastered suites debut on the Riviera in spring 2019 and on the Marina the following year.

The OceaniaNEXT transformation includes incredible new experiences too.

The Oceania Marina and Riviera are the only places in the world you can indulge in the Dom Perignon Experience. The most revered brand in champagne has partnered with Oceania to create an experience of a lifetime, one that's already available at La Reserve. (WATCH THE VIDEO TO LEARN MORE AND MEET THE CHEFS HERE). Six exquisite courses are paired with a different expression and vintage of Dom Perignon. Being able to try four different vintages of the grandfather of champagnes, paired with culinary creations of the combined Oceania and Dom Perignon teams, is a truly unforgettable evening.


New, Allura Class Ships


OceaniaNEXT isn't just about re-imagination. The transformation of the cruise line includes a whole new, Allura-class of ships, debuting in 2022.  Details are starting to be revealed about the next generation of Oceania cruise ships, and we can't wait to hear more about how Oceania's fleet-wide cruising experience, from design to dining and lifestyle experiences, as well as ships will evolve.

What we know is that the sparkle, and at-home warmth of Oceania cruises, as well as the celebrated dining and in-depth destination exploration, will remain a hallmark through the OceaniaNEXT generation of cruising.
 

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Learn to Haka on the All Blacks' Rugby Team's Home Ground
It's one of the most famous – and fearsome – pre-game rituals in the world. One that you can now learn for yourself in one of the world's most storied stadiums.

Any global sports fan has heard of New Zealand's fabled All Blacks rugby team. The All Blacks are not just heroes of the country's national sport; in spite of New Zealand's tiny size, the All Blacks are considered the greatest team in global rugby history. They are consistently ranked at the top of the sport, and have won the Rugby World Cup more than any other team in the world.

(Photo: Kai Schworer. All other Photos: Eden Park)

The All Blacks' distinctive black uniforms with only the national silver fern symbol are already intimidating: the team resembles an aggressive black swarm on the rugby field. Then imagine an entire team of robust, black-clad rugby players screaming and stomping wildly, working themselves into a fierce, unbeatable tour de force on the rugby field.

For the sporting superstitious, part of the All Blacks' success comes from the spectacular haka that the team performs before every match. The ancient Maori dance serves the same purpose for the All Blacks as it did for the New Zealand indigenous warriors on the battlefield. The ferocious postures and vocalizations that challenge opponents prepare the players physically and mentally, and unite them in a focused team frenzy.
 
The All Blacks' pre-game Haka tradition is as anticipated every game as their winning rugby form. It's ancient Maori for: Bring. It. On.


Now when you visit Auckland you can step on the hallowed grounds of the All Blacks' home stadium, get a behind the scenes tour of Eden Park, and learn to tap into your inner Maori warrior with a haka group – right on the green where the All Blacks play.


A Maori warrior in traditional garb is your guide of the home team's changing rooms and other off-camera spaces, your tour of great sporting moments for the All Blacks and Eden Park over the last century and more, and finally, onto the actual playing turf itself.

You'll join an authentic haka group and experience the power of the haka up close as it's performed on an All Blacks' game day. And you'll even have the opportunity to channel your inner Maori warrior during an interactive haka-learning workshop, and have your photo taken with traditional Maori warriors.


Whether or not you – or anyone in your group - are sports or rugby fans, the Haka in the Park program at the All Blacks' Eden Park in Auckland is a one-of-a-kind way to get up close and even participate yourself in the drama and history of authentic New Zealand Maori culture.

 

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Discover Tropical Romance in 3 Overwater Bungalow Resorts on the Caribbean Sea
(Re)kindle the romance close to home – without long flights to the South Pacific or the Maldives!

Overwater villas are the next best thing to a private tropical island of your own – a luxury, bungalow suspended right over top of jewel-toned seas with the rustic-chic experience of living indoors and outdoors. It doesn't need to be Valentine's Day or your honeymoon for you and your sweetheart to deserve an overwater dream holiday.

Here are 3 resorts on the Caribbean Sea - in Jamaica, Mexico, and Panama, where you can live the dream.


Where: Sandals Royal Caribbean, Montego Bay, Jamaica


The Overwater Bungalows and Resort Highlights:

Couples-only Sandals built the Caribbean's first all-inclusive overwater bungalows, inspired by more distant cousins in Tahiti. These secluded villas are just off the resort's private island with private water taxi service. Picture glass floors, butler service, private infinity pools and outdoor soaking tub for two or hammocks over the water where you can dangle your toes and absorb the sun, extended outdoor decks and outdoor showers that blur the line between indoor and outdoor luxury living.


  • All-inclusive, unlimited fine dining at 8 restaurants and unlimited wine and spirits at 5 bars, including swim-up, and stocked bars in every room
  • Free wifi, tips, taxes and gratuities
  • Roundtrip airport transfers and BMW private airport transfers for all Butler and Club Sandals guests
  • Professional water sport instruction and all equipment; PADI-Certified SCUBA diving, snorkeling 
  • Hobie Cats, paddle boards, kayaks, beach volleyball, bocce ball, pool tables, day and night tennis, unlimited land sports and state-of-the-art fitness centers
  • Day and night entertainment including live shows
  • PLUS exchange privileges and all amenities and inclusions with 2 nearby Sandals – it's like having 3 resorts in one!

 

Where: Karisma's El Dorado Maroma, Riviera Maya, Mexico

 
The Overwater Bungalows and Other Resort Highlights:

The adults-only resort's 'Palafitos' (pictured top) are not only the first overwater bungalows in Mexico, but are also on Maroma Beach, one of the world's top-rated beaches. Glass-bottom floors give you a view of the sea from the moment you wake up and your feet touch the floor; in the evenings, you'll have an unobstructed view of the setting sun from your own infinity pool on your private deck. And outdoor shower and private butler top off your indulgent beach escape.

 
  • Easily-reached via non-stop flights to Cancun
  • 8 diverse resort restaurants available in the 'Gourmet inclusive' all-inclusive program and 24-hour room service
  • 2 lounges and 3 swim up bars
  • Non-motorized watersports
  • Spanish lessons, yoga, aqua aerobics, latin dance lessons, cooking classes,  beach volleyball, mescal tasting, free wifi and more
  • Daily entertainment and  nightly entertainment including karaoke, live music, circus show and more
  • Shopping tours to Playa del Carmen
  • Fitness center, sauna and steam baths at the spa, aqua fit

 

Where: Viceroy, Bocas del Toro, Panama – opening slated for 2021

 
Overwater Bungalows and Other Resort Highlights:

  • 42 overwater bungalows the first in Central America
  • Accessible via a short flight from Panama City, boat, seaplane or helicopter
  • 457 acres of Caribbean coastline in a famous eco-destination, next to jungle and San San Pond Sak wetlands, a habitat for birds and wildlife exploration via eco-tours and hiking
  • Sailing, paddle boarding, kayaking, snorkeling, surfing, biking, walks and lounging on the lengthy beach
  • 42 overwater bungalows and 150 more guestrooms and residences
  • 8 onsite restaurants plus lounges,
  • Multiple pools, spa, fitness center, meditation rooms

 
Tip: If your travel heart is set on the romance of an overwater villa, book well advance as these evocative, one-of-a-kind accommodations are always among the first to fully book especially in high season December – March.

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8 Facts About the Panama Canal

Panama is one of the fastest-growing destinations in Central America, and the Panama Canal is the country's star attraction. Although it's on everyone's list of things to experience, the canal is more important as a global shipping transit than tourist experience. 

Whether you sail the canal on your next cruise or watch in action from land, here are 8 things you need to know about this wonder of the modern world.

1. It's a short cut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

The Panama Canal cuts across the Isthmus of Panama in a narrow land bridge between North and South America. Prior, ships had to sail around the tip of South America. It takes about 8 hours to cross the Canal's 50 miles (77km). That saves days. If a ship had to navigate down and around Cape Horn at the tip of South America and back up the other side, it would have to travel nearly 12,500 miles (20,000 km).

2. It's over 100 years old.

2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal.  Columbia, France, then later, the United States controlled the land surrounding the canal. In 1881, the French started building the canal, but progress halted due to engineering problems and high worker mortality. The US took it over in 1904 and completed the project with newly available technology ten years later at a cost of $400 million USD. In 1999, control passed back to Panama.

3. Construction cost over 25,000 lives.

At times, more than 43,000 people were working on the Panama Canal at once. Workers had to deal with heat, jungles, swamps - and all the creatures in them, including rats that carried bubonic plague. Plus mosquito-borne diseases like yellow fever and malaria. Over 20,000 workers died during French building efforts.

After the scientific links between the insects and disease had been discovered, Americans undertook intensive and successful anti-mosquito initiatives. Even so, another more than 5000 workers perished during the American building phase.

4. It's considered one of the Man-Made Wonders of the World

The American Society of Civil Engineers has also dubbed the Panama Canal one of the 7 Wonders of the Modern World. It's one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken.
 
A system of locks at each end of the Canal lifts ships up 85 feet (26 meters) above sea level to an artificial lake. Ships traverse the artificial lake, as well as a series of improved and artificial channels, and then are lowered again in more locks to sea level at the other side.  
 
The locks are 110 feet (33 meters) feet wide and 1000 feet (300 meters) long. About 30-MILLION pounds (1,400,000 kilos) of explosives were used to help clear the land for the canal.

 (That's a view! The Norwegian Bliss is the largest passenger cruise ship to have ever transited the Panama Canal)

5. Over 1 Million Vessels have transited the canal since it opened.

In 1914, the year it opened, about 1000 ships used the canal. Today, nearly 15,000 ships pass through the Isthmus of Panama via the Canal annually. The 1 Millionth ship crossed the canal in 2010, 96 years after it opened.
In 1934 it was estimated that the maximum traffic of the canal would be around 80 million tons of shipping a year, but by 2015, canal traffic exceeded 340 million tons of shipping – over 4 times the original maximum estimate.
 

6. $2 Billion in Tolls are Collected Annually

Every ship that passes through the canal pays a toll based on its size, type and volume of cargo. Tolls are set by the Panama Canal Authority. Tolls for the largest cargo ships can run about $450,000. Cruise ships pay by berths (number of passengers in beds). The per-berth fee set in 2016 was $138; a large cruise ship can pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to sail through the Canal. 

The smallest toll recorded was paid by American Richard Halliburton in 1928, who paid 36 cents to swim the Canal.

 

7. The Panama Canal was expanded for bigger ships in 2016

The original canal locks are 110 feet (33 meters) wide and ten times as long. For a century, they accommodated shipping, and the term 'Panamax' ships was used to describe ships built to fit through the canal. But ships kept getting bigger, and in 2007, work began on a multi-billion dollar expansion of the Canal. In 2016, a third, wider lane of locks opened for commercial shipping, capable of handling 'Post-Panamax' ships that can carry 14,000 20-foot shipping containers (nearly 3 times Panamax ship capacity).

In spite of that giant leap forward in 2016, the world's largest container ships - that can carry 18,000 shipping containers – can't pass through the Panama Canal.

(A Celebrity Cruise ship transiting the Panama Canal)

8. How you can visit the Panama Canal. 

Many ocean cruise lines offer increasingly popular Panama Canal itineraries that sail through the canal in the approximately 8 hour passage to their next destination in the opposite ocean. 

But you don't have to sail through the canal. If you're visiting Panama City, or taking a resort / beach vacation in Panama, you can take a land trip to see the canal in action.
 
The Miraflores Visitor Center is on the east side of the Miraflores Locks, which are close to the Pacific end of the Canal and Panama City. Like the canal, the Visitor Center is open daily. The Visitor Center has large balconies designed for you to get a great view as the lock gates are opened and closed for ships to start or complete their journey through the Panama Canal. 

Engineering buffs and even children will be thrilled at the up-close-to-the-action perspective on this man-made Wonder of the World. 
 

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They say on St. Patrick's Day everyone's a little bit Irish. So it's fair to say that on Rabbie Burns' Day, we're all a little bit Scottish. The national poet of Scotland – he wrote the song you likely sing every New Year's Eve: Auld Lang Syne – was born on January 25, 1759. And every year on January 25th, Scots and people of Scottish ancestry world-wide celebrate the man voted the 'Greatest Scot' in the country's history.

In Scotland and in many communities with Scots heritage, especially in Canada, where more than 15% of the population have ancestors from Scotland, the day is marked with Rabbie Burns Day Suppers. Gentlemen lucky enough to own a kilt suit up, bagpipers pipe in the haggis, Burns' 'Address to a Haggis' is read as the stuffed sheep's stomach is ceremonially carved and served, many toasts are made with whisky (all the better to wash down the haggis!), and it wraps up with everyone singing Auld Lang Syne.

If you're one of the millions of North Americans of Scots ancestry – or are an honorary Scot on Rabbie Burns' Day – we hope you attend a Rabbie Burns supper on January 25th in your hometown. Even better, once in your life, make the trip to join the festivities in Scotland itself. It's a bucket list trip much like being in Ireland on St. Patrick's Day. You'll feel like a true Scot for the rest of your life.

Here's our salute to Robert Burns Day: BestTrip's video / love letter to the Shetland Islands, the most remote part of Scotland and northern-most point of the British Isles. (Click on the video above to watch).

The Shetland Islands are where 'Scotland meets Scandinavia and the North Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean'. Directly due west of Norway, the Shetland Islands are as far north as St. Petersburg, Russia, and Anchorage, Alaska.

With over 4000 years of history, enchanting wild coastline and charming farms - and an estimated 1500 of its famous, local namesake breed of Shetland ponies roaming its green pastures - the Shetland islands are a time capsule of unique Scottish history, heritage and traditional lifestyle. 

(Seabourn Ovation docked next to Oslo's historic fortifications)

We sailed to the Shetland Islands on our luxury Seabourn cruise of Scandinavia and the Northern British Isles. The Shetland Islands are yet another reason we love sailing on smaller ships like Seabourn, whose itineraries include not just marquee destinations like Copenhagen, Oslo and Edinburgh, but also small ports in remote destinations - like the Orkney and Shetland Islands. Imagine a cruise port where you barely see another tourist while you experience untouched Nature and authentic local life. 

It's cruise travel as the explorer inside you dreams it will be.

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