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Top train trips around the world

Train travel hearkens back to a romantic bygone era. While there are certainly faster ways to get from one place to another, riding the rails really delivers on showcasing the natural beauty of a destination. In lieu of flying from major city to major city, trains can show travelers how urban and rural areas fit together to form a country. Part of your perfect vacation could be devoting some time to just staring out the window and daydreaming. Here are few of our favorite trains and itineraries for it.

Rocky Mountaineer

Running through British Columbia and Alberta, Rocky Mountaineer takes passengers on a journey through Western Canada. The cities of Vancouver and Calgary mingle with gorgeous mountain scenery, including national parks such as Jasper and Lake Louise. The view from the Virtuoso-preferred Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is iconic. If you want to do some exploring on your own, Rocky Mountaineer has the option of combining rail and car rental. The season runs from mid-April to mid-October. Pro tip: The last month features fall foliage at the lower elevations and snow higher up.

The Blue Train

The 994 miles through South Africa between Cape Town and Pretoria cover some beautiful territory. The Blue Train crosses it in style, with private suites for the overnight journey. The dining is fine, the lounges are elegant, the sights of mountains are vineyards rolling by are spectacular. Going southbound, you’ll stop in the mining town of Kimberly. Northbound travelers see the Victorian buildings of Matjiesfontein. With departure times of 8:30 a.m. and arrivals of 3 p.m. the next day, The Blue Train is a great addition to safaris.

Belmond

Belmond has seven trains crisscrossing Europe, Peru and Southeast Asia. They pull into stations at such diverse outposts as London, Machu Picchu, Kuala Lumpur and the Scottish Highlands. (Not all on the same ride, of course.) Some journeys feature comfortable overnight quarters, while others are tailored to allow overnight stays at some of Belmond’s 35 worldwide hotels. The Royal Scotsman and Andean Explorer even have spas onboard to help you unwind even more.

The Swiss Alps

The roof of Europe has awe-inspiring views, and a train window is a terrific vantage point. The Gornergrat train whisks passengers from Zermatt to 10,000 feet of elevation in just over half an hour, opening up a dramatic view of the Matterhorn. The cogwheel train has been running since 1898 and operates every day of the year. Climbing through orchards and vineyards on its way up to mountain passes, the Bernina Express makes its way across more than 50 bridges and through almost 200 tunnels. No wonder parts of the route have UNESCO World Heritage status. Featuring the St. Moritz, Zermatt, the Rhine Gorge and the Oberalp Pass, a ride on the Glacier Express is a full day of feasting for the eyes and palate, with meals prepared fresh onboard.

The Ghan and Indian Pacific

The Ghan runs north-south nearly 2,000 up Australia’s spine, while the Indian Pacific traverses 2,700 miles between Sydney and Perth on the east-west axis through the southern part of the continent. Each journey is a three-night affair, with off-train excursions included in packages. Get to know the Outback on the Ghan train, and consider upgrading to a fixed-wing flight over Uluru/Ayers Rock. From Adelaide on the southern end, you can easily reach the Barossa Valley wine region or the unique wildlife of Kangaroo Island. The Indian Pacific offers Barossa Valley and Blue Mountains excursions. Gourmet meals and premium wines await in the Queen Adelaide Restaurant car

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CHRISTMAS IN JULY: MAKE YOUR FESTIVE PLANS NOW

It’s not quite the same as Christmas in July, but you can give yourself the gift of peace of mind by booking your festive season travel now. If you have a specific resort or destination in mind, you might be surprised to find how tight space is already for the period around Christmas and New Year’s. You can’t exactly go on vacation and leave a couple of your  kids behind because you couldn’t get another room. So do yourself a favor and start planning as soon as possible.

People who stayed at resorts over the festive season last winter got first dibs on booking that space for the upcoming season. Perhaps they had such a good time, they invited more of their family members to join them this year and have already had their rooms secured for months. If the winters are cold in your neck of the woods, you can rest assured that your neighbors will be flocking in droves to sunny resorts in Hawaii, Mexico and the Caribbean.

If all else fails, think outside the box. There’s a whole other hemisphere where it’s warm when we’re cold. South America, Southern Africa, Australia, New Zealand, they all have nice weather as one year turns into the next.

It’s not especially warm in Europe’s heartland, though the jetstream does keep things milder than many parts of the U.S., but a river cruise can let you catch the end of the beautiful Christmas markets along the Rhine and Danube. If you haven’t seen a European Christmas market before, they are a sight to behold. Plus, there’s plenty of mulled wine to help you keep warm, there are great Christmas dinners served on the river and you can ring in the new year a few hours ahead of your friends.

No matter what you end up picking, don’t wait until it’s too late and you no longer have your choice of options. There will be plenty of scrambling trying to track down those last-minute gifts. Getting started with your holiday travel plans now could end up as the best gift you and family receive.

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HAWAII GUIDE: THE BIG ISLAND

It’s often called the Big Island but it’s technically Hawaii Island and is the largest in the state. It’s so large that all of the other major islands can fit in its footprint. So it’s huge, yet has relatively few people compared to Maui or Oahu, and it’s the only island with an active volcano.

Kilauea Volcano is the most active volcano in the world and has been erupting for decades now. The big draw here is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which is about the closest you’ll want to get to an angry volcano.

The Big Island is very different than the other islands, not just in its massive size but also the land itself. Because of the volcanoes and the fact that it is the newest of the islands, you’ll see more black lava rock here than lush green areas. The surface here looks like another planet with endless miles of black lava rock and pockets of green where various resorts have been built.

CHOOSING WHERE TO STAY

The west side is the most visited along the Kailua-Kon and Waikoloa areas.   The east side, which is more lush, is home to the town of  Hilo, which is still touristy but not nearly as much as the west side.

Getting Around

You will want to rent a car. A drive around the entire island (without stops) can be done in as little as 6-7 hours, so splurge a little on a 4 wheel drive and spend a few days exploring! There are too many must-see spots scattered around — both along the coast and hidden in lush reserves — to stay in one spot the entire duration of your stay.

THINGS TO DO

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: Even among Hawaii’s many wonders, this national park stands out. Its two active volcanoes testify to the ongoing birth of the islands: quiet Mauna Loa (13,677ft) sprawling above, its unassuming mass downplaying its height, and young Kilauea (4091ft), one of the world’s most active volcanoes, providing near-continual sources of awe. With luck, you’ll witness the primal power of molten earth boiling into the sea. But the park contains much more: overwhelming lava deserts, steaming craters, lava tubes and ancient rainforests.

Mauna Kea Summit: At 13,796 ft in the air, you are above 40% of the atmosphere and 90% of its water vapor – apparently perfect conditions for growing the giant mushroom-like observatories that have popped up around the summit. The summit hss the greatest collection of telescopes on earth. Sunsets are phenomenal from around the summit. Moon rises can be equally as impressive: the high altitude may make the moon appear squashed and misshapen, or sometimes resemble a brush fire. The public may drive to the summit in the daytime, but you must descend 30 minutes after sunset.

Beaches: There is a wide variety of beaches on the Big Island.  Beaches are made out of pitch black sand,  crystal green sand, coarse white sand, coral, and even out of newly formed lava rocks! Whatever you are in the mood for, there are many choices! Punalu’u is the most famous black sand beach on the island, It is easily accessible and great for swimming, snorkeling, coastal hikes and seeing turtles. Richardsons is the black sand beach closest to Hilo, and the #1 place to snorkel south of Hilo.  There are showers, bathrooms, picnic areas, and a lifeguard. The beach and swimming area are protected by a natural lava rock breakwater.  Click here for an in-depth guide to the many beaches on Hawaii.

Snorkeling: One of the best family activities on the island, there are many great spots to go for a snorkel.  The top spots to visit are Honaunau Bay, also known as Two Step.  Kealakekua Bay is another amazing place to snorkel, and kayak! Kahalu’u Beach Park is also highly recommended for snorkeling.

So who is the Big Island best for? Well, they have mega-resorts to cover families and couples, but it always feels like more of an island for those who want to explore and adventure. It’s a little more on the raw side here. Getting around requires a car and can mean long journeys, so maybe not as much fun for all kids. If you want to see lava then this is the only place you’ll have a shot at that. If you want more open space then this is a good bet. Big Island is also known for a large variety of golf courses.

 

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Why I Love St. Lucia

….And you should too!!

With the tragic hurricanes of 2017, many of the Caribbean islands have been unable to receive tourists and get running back to normal. The number 1 question I get from my clients, “Can I go to the Caribbean?”. Well, of course the answer is “YES”, there are many islands that were not affected, but space is a premium with limited choices. The number 1 destination for our clients this season has been St. Lucia.

The St. Lucia experience is unlike any other in the Caribbean. The luxurious spas and resorts alone make it one of the top destinations for honeymooners. But St. Lucia offers so much more than romance and relaxation. This island has earned its status as the “Hawaii of the Caribbean” due to its lush mountainous landscape and paralleled outdoor adventures. Unique culinary creations, breathtaking scenery, and lively culture guarantee a trip to St. Lucia is an adventure for the senses.

 

A Different Point of View

From waterfalls, to rainforests, to the mesmerizing mountains, St. Lucia’s awe-inspiring scenery captivates from every angle. But the best views aren’t found from your suite’s balcony.

The Pitons

The iconic Gros Piton and Petit Piton peaks rising from the sapphire waters of the Caribbean Sea can be seen for miles from the beaches and resorts surrounding the city of Soufrière. This World Heritage Site is an official symbol of the country, and there are many ways to get your dose of views; air, land, and sea are a few options. But the best way to see the Pitons has to be from the trails traveling up the mountains themselves. Not only will you revel in the flora and fauna that call the mountainsides home, but the vistas of the island from their peaks offer a one-of-a-kind sight.

Rainforest

The plush greenery of St. Lucia’s beautiful rainforest draws nature-lovers and adventure-seekers alike. For a thrilling look at this natural paradise, we recommend a fast-paced ride through the trees. Speed through the canopy by zip lining between platforms on some of the longest and swiftest cables in the Caribbean. Expert guides are there for assistance and to point out the species of plants and wildlife of the island.

Soufriere Volcano

Driving through the Soufriere Volcano crater

Perhaps one of the most striking geographical traits of the island is its volcano. However, St. Lucia’s volcano has a special trait; it’s considered the only drive-in volcano in the world. A road running through the middle of this volcanic crater allows visitors the chance to get up close and personal with hot steam, mud, and water bubbling up through cracks in the crust. This unique experience is a must-see for every traveler.

Food for Thought

St. Lucia’s warm tropical climate permits aromatic spices, rare fruits, and even cocoa beans to thrive here. Combine this with fresh seafood from the surrounding seas and you have the perfect recipe for culinary creations that push the boundaries of your taste buds.

Chocolate

You’ll seldom find a person to admit they dislike chocolate. This sweet treat was once known as the Food of the Gods, and it all starts with a bean. Cocoa is one of St. Lucia’s key exports, and they are very enthusiastic about sharing its history, cultivating process, and decadence with you. Ever been curious about how they turn those brown gems into the quintessential bars we love today? Find out with a tree-to-bar lesson from Hotel Chocolat. You’ll learn all about the anatomy of the pods, how they harvest them, grind down the beans, and make a candy bar of your very own! The experience is completed with a lunch at Boucan, whose tantalizing menu features the cocoa plant in every one of its dishes.

Fish Fry

A trip to the Caribbean is never complete without sampling some fresh seafood and the locals always know how to make it just right. Anse La Raye, a once small Gros Islet fishing village turned into a bustling cultural town, has perfected the Friday Night Fish Fry. What began about 20 years ago as a means to entice tourists into town, is now a favored tradition for vendors, locals, and travelers. Stalls offering the catch-of the day fried, grilled, and baked prepared with local ingredients line the streets, and the tantalizing smells are accompanied by calypso music, creating a feast of the senses for hungry patrons. And trust us, you’ll want to go hungry and sample all the delicacies, such as Accras, or “fish cakes,” and whole King Lobsters, available at a fraction of restaurant costs and, frankly, fresher. Be sure to wash it all down with locally distilled rum or a cold Pitons Beer.

Castries Market

Spice Blends to make your own Spiced Rum

Nothing reveals more about a culture than a visit to its markets, and the one in Castries, the island’s capital, has everything you need to experience the flavors of St. Lucia. Nibble on homegrown exotic fruits and vegetables while browsing for unique spice blends and bottled sauce concoctions to bring the tastes of your travels home. Open every day of the week except Sundays, the market is busiest on Friday and Saturday mornings, which many understandably may wish to avoid, but there are also more vendors on those days, so plan your visit accordingly.

Mixed Signals

St. Lucia’s tropical climate assures warm beautiful weather all year round. However, contradicting touches of hot and cold can be found here. The best option for experiencing this phenomenon is with a tour of the beautiful waterfalls that also includes a stop at Sulphur Springs. Cool down in the pools beneath the many waterfalls that dot the island, and let the cascading water massage the tension from your shoulders. If that didn’t do the trick, rejuvenate at Sulphur Springs. Thanks to the Soufriere Volcano, pools of hot mineral water create the perfect natural soaking tub. You’ll also want to lather up in a warm mud bath, whose thick grey silt is believed to contain medical benefits and healing properties.

A Hint of Sweet and Spicy

Plumeria

Surround yourself in the sweet scents of St. Lucia’s many botanical gardens. While stopping to enjoy the majesty of Diamond Falls, be sure to take a walk through the surrounding 2000-acre grounds, home to the oldest botanical garden on the island. The signature scent of Plumeria, a fragrant flower that also flourishes in Hawaii and commonly used for leis, attracts not only visitors but different species of hummingbirds and butterflies at Mamiku Gardens. Three areas of different themes showcase the various species found on St. Lucia, including a medicinal garden with guides to the plants and their uses.

Jump Up and Get Down

St. Lucia’s colorful culture shines through in its energetic music scene. Afro-Caribbean inspired Calypso and pulsating Soca music appear to be the front-running styles, but notes of Reggae and R&B can also grace the air. For the best showcase of these eclectic melodies visit during the annual Lucian Carnival. The islands top and aspiring artists come together to share their songs and compete for various prizes. Dancers wear bright costumes, and hopefully you’ll pick up some of their impressive moves. If you won’t make it to Carnival, then head over to Gros Islet for their weekly Jump-Up Street Party. Every Friday night, live bands and DJs entertain the crowds, creating the perfect opportunity to mingle and groove with locals.

From sights and sounds to scents and savory tastes, a vacation in St. Lucia will awaken the senses. While romantic luxury resorts and picturesque beaches are definitely the main draw, step out to experience everything this fascinating island has to offer.  Go to our Virtuoso page on St. Lucia to see some of the fabulous properties we offer and contact us to book!

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2018 Top Travel Pick: CROATIA

Until 1991, Croatia was a part of Yugoslavia, and while it was never as isolated as other Eastern Bloc nations, it generally remained off the beaten path for tourists. Today, however, traveling to Croatia isn’t just for adventurous backpackers – in fact, the country has become one of Europe’s hottest new destinations. This should come as no surprise: Travel to Croatia offers the chance to explore the Adriatic coast and the urban cities of Zagreb and Dubrovnik, as well as a rich interior that, even today, is still overlooked by many travelers.

Things Not to Miss in Croatia
From seaside resorts to pristine parks and sleepy, atmospheric villages, there are countless places to visit in Croatia. Plan your visit with our Croatia travel guide, starting with these can’t-miss sights and cities:

• The Dalmatian Coast
• Diocletian’s Palace
• The Mediterranean city of Dubrovnik
• The stunning waterfalls of Plitvice Lakes National Park
• The architectural marvels in Zagreb

When to Go to Croatia
The Adriatic Coast has a brief, expensive peak season in July and August, when the climate is at its most agreeable. At any other time of year, you may find steep travel discounts, but you’ll also miss out on the buzzy excitement of peak season. Away from the coast, however, hotel rates are fairly consistent year-round. Winter occasionally brings snow, although it rarely snows on the coast.

Explore our offerings in Croatia by CLICKING HERE, or we can custom curate an itinerary to fit your exact wishes!

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How does the REAL ID ACT affect you?

REAL ID Act for U.S. Air Travel: Louisiana, Michigan and
New York currently under review

As a reminder, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a deadline of January 22, 2018 for U.S. states and territories to comply with new government regulations required for the REAL ID Act. The Real ID Act invalidates certain forms of identification allowed for use in commercial U.S. air travel.

As of today, all U.S. states are compliant or have already been granted a temporary extension except for Louisiana, Michigan and New York. These states are currently under review. Travelers who have a valid U.S. state-issued driver’s license and identification cards from these states should closely monitor developments regarding the anticipated implementation of this law.

These three states may be granted an extension by the authorities prior to the January 22, 2018 enforcement deadline. However, without an extension, travelers from these states will need to use a U.S. passport or other form of accepted identification when undertaking domestic air travel.

Travelers with further questions should review the Frequently Asked Questions on the DHS website.

REAL ID Act
As a reminder, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a deadline of January 22, 2018 for U.S. states and territories to comply with new government regulations required for the REAL ID Act. Unless a state received an extension or is compliant with the Act, travelers will need to get an enhanced driver’s license or passport for domestic air travel. To check which states are compliant or received an extension, click here.

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IS EXTRA LEG ROOM WORTH THE PRICE?

Standard economy seats continues to shrink, with today’s airline customers receiving a mere 30 or 31 inches of leg space on most US domestic flights. And not many travelers are willing to pay hundreds more for the luxuries of first class. Thankfully, new extra legroom options offer middle ground, including more space and reasonable prices. The key question I always consider: is it worth it?

The Cost for Comfort      Cost increases for extra legroom depend largely on each customer’s airline, destination, and availability. Regardless of specific price, those who take a step up from standard economy can expect to pay a premium for the opportunity.  A normal United Flight from New York to Denver: with standard economy seating, costs $135 each way. Extra legroom designation raises the tick   et price another $100.  American Airlines arguably offers the most affordable option (albeit accompanied by a mere 34 inches of leg space). Price increases start at just $20. Those on longer flights can expect to pay between $50 and $75 for the next tier up from standard economy, compared to several hundred in additional fees for some airlines.  Jet Blue also offers this feature, called “Even More Space” . Their prices start at $65, and also get you thru the airport lines with a priority line.

Benefits of Extra Legroom      Extra legroom perks vary significantly from one airline to the next. But with shrinking seats, even a few inches can deliver a more relaxing in-air experience, particularly for tall flyers.  Not all airlines offer the same amount of space, so what appears to be Extra legroom on one airline may be just an inch or two more spacious than standard economy for another.United customers who opt for Extra legroom enjoy between 34 and 36 inches of leg space. This can make a huge difference in comfort during long flights, especially now that typical economy seats often only provide 30 or 31 inches of leg space. JetBlue offers one of the most impressive space expansions, with premium seats granting 38 inches of leg space. Delta customers beware, as the “comfort” in “Delta Comfort” may only refer to being towards the front of the plane with a dedicated overhead bin, and no extra leg room!

The Benefits to Being Upfront      Extra legroom seats are located closer to the plane’s entrance and exit. This means less time spent on the plane after arriving at the intended destination. For some airlines (including Delta), Extra legroom customers enjoy priority seating before the flight.

More Perks     Most airlines limit Extra legroom benefits to additional space and a spot near the front of the plane, all in the interest of controlling costs. Delta, however, offers an expanded range of perks for its Comfort+ flyers, who enjoy advanced boarding and exclusive overhead bin space. JetBlue’s Even More Space sometimes comes with Even More Speed, a dedicated VIP line at the airport.

Is It Worth It?     Be careful when booking this perk. Delta calls their program “Delta Comfort” but the comfort often is just a seat further forward in the plane with dedicated overhead storage. Some flyers will invariably find the added Extra legroom fee worthwhile if it means increased leg space, guaranteed overhead storage, and better placement within the plane. For these individuals, Extra legroom provides a valuable middle ground between the cramped quarters of typical economy seating and the significant cost increase of premium cabins. Others are willing to put up with a bit less space in the interest of scoring a more affordable flight. For those who play their cards right, Extra legroom could mean superior comfort for a (sometimes) modest price increase.

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