Monday, July 29, 2013

Visiting European Christmas Markets on a Viking River Cruise

The history of Christmas Markets goes way back to the late Middle Ages in the German-speaking part of Europe. The Bautzen Christmas market was first mentioned in records in 1384 when King Vaclav (that’s Wenzel in German) gave the townspeople the privilege to hold a market for meat. Through the years the market transformed itself into a Christmas Market… now known as “Wenzelsmarkt"" in honor of King Vaclav.  Today, the German Christmas markets remain some of the most popular markets in the world, although many countries have since adopted this old-world tradition.  A great way to experience several European Christmas Markets is by taking a Viking River Cruise.

Most Christmas Markets start the last week of November, ushering in the season of Advent, and run through to Christmas Eve. The markets are generally held in the Town Square and pedestrian zones, which are usually walking distance from where the ship docks. There’s nothing like wandering through a market of wooden stalls, covered in brightly colored Christmas lights and handmade decorations. The mouth-watering aroma of Bratwurst sausages cooking on the grill, the sweet smell of “Christstollen”, (an egg bread with candied fruit), the spices of hot mulled wine (Gluhwein) and the perfumes of fancy soaps fill the air! Visitors stroll the festive illuminated streets while munching on gingerbread cookies and other delectable treats. All of the markets have a stage set up for entertainers, mostly children who perform traditional folkloric songs and dances.  There are choirs singing carols, as well as orchestras and bands providing festive musical accompaniment.

Each market has a unique ambiance and a Viking River Cruise allows you to sample several. There are traditional handcrafted products such as intricate glassware and jewelry, embroidered lace, wooden toys, nutcrackers, metal-ware, ceramic plates and mugs, beautifully dressed puppets and dolls, and hats, gloves, socks and scarves.  Some stalls have spinning wheels right on the premises to make wool items to order! Fresh honey and scented bee’s wax candles are also plentiful. Locally made ornaments of exquisite hand-blown glass or whimsical carved wood are plentiful. Intricate crèche nativity scenes are unlike anything sold at the mall and would likely become a family heirloom.

There is no better way to discover the enchanting Christmas Markets of Europe than on a Viking River Cruise. Guests will travel along Europe's scenic rivers and visit the bustling holiday markets in cities such as Prague, Nuremberg (home to today’s most renown market), Vienna, Strasbourg and Budapest. Every destination is captivating and enjoyable. Aside from the free time available to shop at the markets, guests receive complimentary guided tours in each port, informative lectures, and interesting demonstrations. After an exhilarating day in port, guests return to the comfort and luxury of a beautifully appointed stateroom. The onboard dining experience features authentic regional dishes bursting with flavor from locally sourced ingredients. A Viking River cruise is always an immersive and enlightening experience.  It becomes even more extraordinary when the itinerary includes the European Christmas Markets."

Monday, July 22, 2013

Labadee...Royal Caribbean's Private Island

One of the most anticipated days on a Royal Caribbean cruise vacation (select itineraries only), is the day spent on Labadee. More like a private resort than a private island, Labadee is located on the northern coast of Hati, fenced off from the rest of the island. This exclusive destination offers multiple pristine beaches, each with its own distinct “vibe”. There are sunny and shady spots along the beaches, where local musicians and performers offer free entertainment. Plenty of beach lounge chairs are available, as well as some hammocks.

For an additional cost, guests can rent floating mats, kayaks, wave runners, snorkel equipment and lovely cabanas. For families with children, purchasing a pass for Arawak Aqua Park may be the best money they spend the entire week! The area consists of water trampolines, icebergs, rolling logs, water slides and a variety of other aquatic activities that will keep the kids occupied all day long!

 Looking for an adrenaline rush? Dragon's Tail Coaster, a high-speed alpine coaster ride, rises to 680 feet before descending at 30 miles per hour through dips and 360-degree turns. And for real daredevils, nothing can compare to Dragon’s Breath Flight Line. It’s the world’s largest over water zip line, soaring as high as 500 feet above the water, at speeds as fast as 50 miles per hour!

There are special excursions that can be booked on Labadee as well.  The “Adrenaline Coastal Tour” is a narrated sightseeing tour aboard a RIB, a small but powerful vessel that zips out from Labadee to cruise along the scenic shoreline of the island.

The “Discover Haiti Coastal Cruise” will take you on a journey onboard the “Discovery,” a specially designed motorized catamaran. Throughout the voyage you will view by sea breathtaking landscapes, beautiful reefs, a shipwreck, Amiga Island, coastal villages, handmade wooden fishing boats and the landmarks of the Arawak Indians and the early discoverers such as Christopher Columbus in the 15th century.

On the “Haitian Cultural Tour at Paradise Cove” guests will meet a local fisherman and visit a typical rural Haitian home where they can view their cooking techniques, handmade children's toys and natural materials used to build their homes. Many other exhibits onsite will give guests an understanding of the culture and people of Haiti.

 Royal Caribbean provides a complimentary buffet-style barbecue lunch on Labadee that includes non-alcoholic drinks and dessert. Three pavilions house the buffet, which is served at large community-style picnic tables to encourage socialization. Several bars are set up across the resort and visitors can charge specialty and alcoholic drinks to their ship accounts. I highly recommend a Labaduzee, the specialty frozen drink available only on Labadee. It’s made with dark rum, coconut rum, orange juice, pineapple juice, papaya juice and cream of coconut, and served in a tall souvenir cup.  Yum!"

Monday, July 15, 2013

AzAmazing Evenings Presented by Azamara Club Cruises

I’ve been home from my cruise aboard Azamara Quest for a couple of months now, but I still haven’t stopped talking about the incredible time I had.  Without a doubt, one of the most memorable events of my cruise was the complimentary AzAmazing evening, a concert by the Royal Gibraltar Regiment Band held in the depths of St. Michael’s Cave, Gibraltar. If you think this was just another shore excursion, you couldn’t be more wrong. This was a very special experience created exclusively for Azamara guests that could not be purchased at any price. AzAmazing evenings are events that immerse you in the local culture (in the form of dance, music, theater, food, etc) and take place in beautiful landmark venues (ancient palaces, private gardens, town squares, etc). There is one such event on every Azamara Quest and Azamara Journey cruise (with the exception of Transatlantic voyages), each one an extraordinary experience! These evenings clearly exemplify what Azamara Club Cruises means by “destination immersion”.  For that reason I thought I’d describe a few that are featured on upcoming fall sailings.

Tuscan Flavors and Three Tenors Concert  (October 1 / Azamara Journey)

From the port of Livorno guests will travel to Greve in Chianti, gateway to the centuries-old vineyards of Tuscany. Here you’ll savor an exquisite evening of hospitality, local foods and wines, and music at an historical hillside castle.  A performance by Three Tenors singing Italian opera favorites makes it an enchanting evening.

A Night at the Oceanographic Museum (October 16 / Azamara Quest)

The sounds of live jazz fills the rooms at the after hours party held at the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco.  Once directed by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, this exceptional museum is dedicated to all marine sciences. Canapés, Monegasque specialties, and the wines of Provence will be served as guests meander the facilities exploring the dazzling aquarium

Ephesus – Back to Roman Times  (October 19 / Azamara Journey)

Visit the Odeon in Ancient Ephesus, constructed in the 2nd Century AD and used for the meetings of the Senate, and sometimes, as a concert hall for performances. On this night, there will be see a classical ensemble playing the music of Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, and others. Wine and canapés will be served as guests sit back and enjoy the music, soft spotlights illuminating ancient columns and marble streets.

The Cultures and Traditions of Kerala  (November 9 / Azamara Journey)

A brightly painted elephant welcomes guests when they arrive at Vivanta by Taj Maliabar, one of India's most spectacular properties. Tonight guests will stroll the grounds where an assembled marketplace features tea and toddy shops, a mehndi artist skilled in henna tattoos, astrologers, potters and cane weavers. They may taste the local specialties at the many cooking stations that are set up and watch performances of Mohiniyattam (Indian classical dance) and Kalaripayattu (martial arts dance using spears, swords and daggers.

Anchors Away Party at the USS Yorktown (December 8 / Azamara Quest)

Commissioned in 1943, the Yorktown earned 11 battle stars for service in the Pacific Theater during WWII, and five more for service in Vietnam.  Tonight guests step aboard and begin their experience with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres on the flight deck. After a private tour of the aircraft carrier guests will be entertained on the hanger deck by the David Archers band."

Monday, July 08, 2013

Rolling Down the River With Viking River Cruises

Long before autobahns and autostrades, rivers were the super highways of Europe. Towns and cities sprung up all along the rivers of the world because being close to the water made the growth of trade and industry possible. Fast-forward to the present day and you’ll still find some of the most charming towns and exciting cities of the world…Paris, Amsterdam, Vienna, St. Petersburg, Budapest, amongst others, located along these waterways!  And what better way to explore them, than by taking a river cruise?

River cruising is the fastest growing segment of the cruise industry, and Viking River Cruises is the largest river cruise company in the world. One of the advantages of having a large fleet of vessels is the ability to take guests to the four corners of the world…or at least wherever there is a river! Imagine a laid back and relaxing cruise, meandering along spectacular rivers, whose banks and hillsides are lined with vineyards and medieval castles. It’s all about unwinding, enjoying food, learning, and taking in the culture and history of the places you are visiting. It is a supremely calming experience; an antidote to the pressures of life in a fast-paced world.

Unlike ocean cruises, passengers sail directly into the heart of every destination and dock in the middle of town. There’s no need to navigate railways or to waste time traveling on crowded city streets from the port to the ship. Shore excursions and culture enrichment programs, provided by local tour directors, are included in the price of the cruise. Imagine a stop at a local school in China during a Yangtze River Cruise, or learning about the life and works of Monet during a cruise on the Seine. River cruises also feature special events such as the world-famous Christmas markets of Eastern Europe or the tulips and windmills of Holland in the spring.

Viking River Cruises are a great value too, due to the all-inclusiveness of the experience. Spacious and airy, every stateroom is beautifully appointed… complimentary bottled water, wooden clothes hangers, premium bath products and comfortable slippers to slide into after a busy day exploring! Guests receive complimentary wine, beer, and soft drinks with lunch and dinner on board, and they can help themselves to tea, coffee and cappuccino at any time.

Dress onboard is relaxed and casual. Viking ships offer open seating for all meals, which means guests may sit when and with whom they’d like. Breakfast is usually a buffet, while lunch can be ordered from the menu, and passengers can choose to eat in areas such as the lounge or sun deck. When evening falls, the artistry in the kitchen transforms into a masterpiece of a five-course dinner, with a menu that incorporates traditional influences as well as contemporary cuisine.

Inspiring destinations, beautifully crafted itineraries, expert tour guides, luxurious ships, fine cuisine, excellent service, remarkable value…that’s what Viking River Cruises is all about."

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Free Things To Do On An Alaska Cruise

Alaska is America's last great frontier, a majestic wilderness of living blue ice, snow covered mountain peaks, dense green forests, and quaint, waterfront towns. For many, an Alaska cruise is a once in a lifetime, dream vacation. As a travel agent, one concern I hear from clients over and over again is the high cost of shore excursions associated with an Alaska cruise. Dog sledding, floatplanes, helicopter tours, salmon fishing and glacier trekking are expensive! What I usually suggest to my clients is to pick one amazing “must do” adventure and then scale back on the other ports.  There are many wonderful activities to enjoy in every Alaska port of call that allow you to immerse yourself in the beauty and culture that is uniquely Alaska.  And best of all….many are free!


Mendenhall Glacier: The Mendenhall Glacier is one of Southeast Alaska’s most popular attractions. The USDA Forest Service Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center ($3 pp) is located in the Mendenhall Valley, 12 miles from downtown Juneau. Visitors may reach the visitor center by city bus, taxi, or rental car. The city bus drops visitors a mile and a half from the visitor center. Hiking trails around the Mendenhall Glacier visitor center range from a short, 0.3-mile walk to a 6.8-mile hike with a 1,300-foot elevation gain. These trails will give great views of Mendenhall Glacier, but will not take you onto the ice. Walking on Mendenhall Glacier is dangerous, and should only be done if you have proper training.

Downtown Juneau Historical Walking Tour: Within easy walking distance of the cruise ship docks are many of Juneau’s main attractions, The lively downtown is compact, and easy to navigate on foot. Pick up a walking tour map from any visitors center and follow the path, which takes you by all the major locations that played a part in the history of Juneau, including the state capitol building, Saint Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, several museums and historic South Franklin Street, where turn-of-the-century buildings today are gift shops, restaurants and pubs.

Salmon Spawning Streams: Between July and September, many of the natural salmon spawning streams in the Juneau area are filled with salmon completing their natural life cycle, and it is certainly a spectacle to behold. While some fish these streams, most people just go to watch this amazing annual event.


Walking tour of the Historic District with the National Park Service Ranger: Visit the Klondike Gold National Historical Park Visitor Center at 2nd Avenue and Broadway. Rangers answer questions, give talks, show films, and, five times a day, lead an excellent free guided walking tour. A seven-block corridor along Broadway Street features 15 restored buildings, false fronts and wooden sidewalks from Skagway, Alaska's golden era as a boomtown.

Walk out to the Gold Rush Cemetery and Reid Falls: The Gold Camp Cemetery is in easy walking distance of downtown (about 2 miles) and boasts the “Largest Nugget in the World”. The headstones and markers are not maintained, giving the cemetery an appropriately creepy, historic atmosphere. The monument to Frank Reid, who killed the villainous Soapy Smith reads, ""He died for the honor of Skagway."" Continue through the cemetery for 1/4 of a mile you can also see Reid Falls. The trail up to the falls starts out flat and slightly inclined, but became rougher and steeper closer to the falls. The falls are quite magnificent and there is a bench where you can rest and admire them.

Hike to Lower Dewey Lake: (0.9 mile to lake; 3.6 miles around lake) Go east on 2nd Ave. past the railroad depot. Where the railroad tracks cross the road turn left and follow the tracks 120 meters north to the trailhead. Plan on taking an hour round-trip for the easy but steep hike to Lower Dewey Lake, where there are picnic tables, and a trail circling the lake.


Totem Heritage Center ($5 pp):  View the largest collection of unrestored 19th century totem poles, but that's just the beginning of what it has to offer. Also displayed are baskets, masks, regalia, carvings, and my personal favorite, the incredible photographs of the old villages where the poles were retrieved. Not to mention the many carvings and totem poles outside the building.

Self-Guided Walking Tour: Pick up the official Ketchikan Walking Tour map at the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau’s visitor information center. Starting from downtown follow the numbered signs posted along two routes offered to learn about the history and culture of this quaint town. Routes can be walked in as little as 60 minutes, but plan extra time to appreciate the sights and for entering attractions or shops along the way. Be sure to stroll along Creek Street. Visited by thousands of visitors every year, historic Creek Street is one of the most popular things to do in Ketchikan. The antique boardwalk on wooden pilings over Ketchikan Creek is home to restaurants, unique curio shops, the Dolly’s House Museum’ & private dwellings, as well as some of the best salmon viewing areas in Ketchikan.

Deer Mountain Tribal Hatchery and Eagle Center ($12 pp): This nonprofit center combines one of Alaska's best hatchery tours and a place to see a bald eagle close up. The wooden buildings stand over Ketchikan Creek. You can see fish climbing against the current up into pools where they are sorted before being cut open to complete their biological purpose (salmon die when they spawn anyway). The hatchery tours let you get so close, right in the action, where you can feed the growing salmon fry yourself. The hatchery produces king and silver salmon and steelhead trout. Visitors can also walk right through the eagle enclosure. The eagles hunt salmon swimming naturally through their enclosure. No glass stands between you and this activity, only a few feet away."