About Terry Denton

Inveterate traveler, proficient writer, avid golfer, unremarkable person. Co-owner of Travel Leaders / Main Street Travel of Fort Worth, Texas · http://www.travelleaders.com/fortworthtx

Karisma Resorts and Their Bracelet of Charms

Perhaps, dear reader, you are not yet familiar with the string of jewels that comprise the incomparable Karisma Hotels & Resorts. That will not be the case once you have read this riveting little blog post.  You will not only be fully informed but thoroughly charmed . . . I’m sure!

hammockThe name Karisma is derived from our English word charisma and has come to mean the sort of charm that others find alluring or irresistible.   You will soon discover that the entire family of Karisma Hotels & Resorts are dripping with charm like a Cocker Spaniel caught in a summer storm dribbling puddles of water on your kitchen floor.

dsc03318Above I compared this collection of resorts to a string of jewels but, exercising my writer’s prerogative, I am shifting the metaphor more appropriately to a bracelet festooned with charms.   By way of full disclosure, my objective for the next several blog posts is to inspire you, like an ingénue with her first charm bracelet,  to start your own personal collection of Karisma Hotel & Resort visits.

Let’s start with the basics, shall we?  Karisma Hotel & Resorts is a family of gourmet inclusive adults only and family friendly properties situated in Mexico’s Riviera Maya south of Cancun.  You really need to begin adding charms to your bracelet immediately (if not yesterday) since there is a new Nickelodeon in Punta Cana and there will soon be additional resorts in Puerto Vallarta and Jamaica.

I spent the past few days inspecting all nine of the Karisma properties in the Mayan dsc03333Riviera.  (OK, we didn’t actually tour Hidden Beach.  They have naked people running around over there . . . seriously!)  I even graduated from Karisma Groumet Inclusive Experience University where I squeezed the entire four year bachelors program into two hours!  I even have the sheepskin to prove it.  OK, it’s actually paper but sheep are a little rare in that part of Mexico and sheep tanners even more so.

I only share this nugget with you to establish my bona fides as a Karisma expert.  (I will gladly show you my diploma but I am a tad shy when it comes to flashing my bona fides in public . . .  not that they aren’t quite respectable, mind you!).

OK, we are starting to drift a bit.  Back to the matter at hand.  Karisma Resorts is the parent company with Azul Hotels being the family friendly properties (along with the new Nickelodeon Hotels & Resorts), the El Dodados are the adults only resorts where children, if you hear them referenced at all, are usually described by the guests in muted tones as “the coming barbarians”, “street urchins” or “rug rats”.  Generations Riviera Maya is a fairly new brand for those families where every generation actually enjoys each other’s company.  The high occupancy rate never ceases to amaze me.  (Just a little travel agent humor, dear family. Hugs and Kisses!).

With so many resorts in the destination, what makes Karisma Hotels & Resorts unique?  Pretty much everything.  They are not like any other hotel chain nor do they aspire to be.  From their partnerships with Jackson Family Wines, Canadian Beef, My Gym, and Nickelodeon to their pioneering transformation of all-inclusive into Gourmet Inclusive to artificial reefs and over water bungalows, they are setting the standard for the entire destination.

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There remains barely enough time in this post for a listing of the Karisma properties located in the Mayan Riviera.  For a complete list of all the Karisma Hotels & Resorts brands and properties click here.

Azul Beach Hotel

Azul Fives Hotel

Azul Sensatori Hotel Mexico

El Dorado Maroma

El Dorado Royale

El Dorado Casistas Royale

El Dorado Seaside Suites

Generations Riviera Maya

Hidden Beach (You’re on your own here.  I am not allowed to speak about this place, much less visit.  I had to wear blinders when we drove by.)

I know this has only whetted your appetite.  Don’t worry, when you come back (you will be back, right?) there will be oodles of great information delivered in the same soaring prose you have come to expect from this blog.

So if you want to learn about Palafitos (not to be confused with Piles of Fritos) where you are able to watch fish swim by without getting out of bed, which resort has one of the  top ten beaches in the world and where you can consume 23 courses at one sitting (more if your dining mates are not as adventurous as you), come back soon.

Secrets Akumal Makes Sweet Sixteen . . . And Counting

If you slavishly follow this blog . . .  as all the glitterati do, or course . . .  you will know that it is hardly a secret that I love Secrets Resorts brought to you by the friendly folks at AMResorts.  By my last count, there are now sixteen Secrets Resorts in five destinations (Mexico, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Costa Rica and Panama) with more to come very soon.   I have stayed at several of these properties and written blog posts about my experience which you can read here.  Thus you will understand why my heart went all “a twitter” (as we were wont to say long before the advent of the social media site of the same name) when I realized I would be visiting Secrets Akumal.SEARM_EXT_Aerial1_2A_1400x458

Secrets Akumal is located in . . . well . . .  Akumal (a Mayan word meaning “place of the turtle”).   If that doesn’t seem all that helpful let’s start with Mexico (think south), then Riviera Maya (think south of Cancun) and then Akumal Bay and Half Moon Bay (think so far south you’re almost in Belize).  Before you are off put by the one hour ride from the airport, read this post and you will quickly decide this is a clear-cut case where the difference is worth the distance!

Let’s start with the beach for you sand and sun worshipers out there.  Gaze at the picture above.  This property offers silky soft sand, a gently sloping shoreline and silvery aqua waters.  Although I am not one to spend long hours on the beach,  I offer this picture below as proof that even the most extreme”type A” personalities can chill out at this property.   I only hope you can draw your eyes away from these two perfectly formed feet long enough to appreciate the scene.   What can I say?  Nature was kind to me.IMG_1476

But the beach itself wasn’t even the best part.  For free mind you, you can check out snorkeling gear, paddle out fifty yards or so and swim with sea turtles the size of my first Volkswagen.  OK, maybe I exaggerate slightly but, as Jimmy Fallon doing Donald Trump would say, they are “Huge, Huge, Huge.”   

Leave it to yours truly, however, to transform a simple exercise into a major fiasco.  When you have perfectly formed feet as I do (I think we have already established that point) it is not easy to find fins that fit properly.  Especially if you don’t notice when you don them that they can be tightened on both sides.  In full snorkeling regalia, I paddled serenely out from shore almost reaching the desired viewing spot when one of my fins slipped off.  Fortunately, the water being crystal clear, I could see it swaying gently on the sea floor.  However, when you are wearing a full life vest, trust me, you might as well be a fishing cork attempting to dive for pearls.

I quickly realized I would have to take off my life vest to have any hope of retrieving my fin. I was driven by the near certainty that the snorkel shack would demand a king’s ransom if I returned sans one fin.  Pulling my arms out from the vest while bobbing like the aforementioned cork proved a lot more challenging than you might think.  I finally extricated one of my arms from the arm hole.  Holding on to the vest with one hand, I was barely able, after the third or fourth attempt,  to reach just low enough to snag the offending fin (pun intended).  By the time I replaced the fin and managed to reapply the life jacket, I had swallowed a pint of sea water, was spewing bilge like a beluga whale clearing its air spout not to mention breathing so heavily I thought I was going to pass out.

I think my grown daughter, who observed the entire proceedings from a few feet away, thought she was going to have to notify her mother that I was tragically lost at sea in the normally benign act of viewing sea turtles.Turtle

Enough about my little misadventure.  Let’s return to the centerpiece of this post, the incomparable Secrets Akumal.  Here are three things I particularly enjoyed during my stay.

The World Class Secrets Spa by Pevonia 

When you book a spa treatment at Secrets, in essence you get two great experiences for the price of one.  As much as I enjoyed my 50 minute message, I found the visit to the Hydrotherapy Circuit every bit as pleasurable.  I took the snapshot below with the intention of showing you the various features of this amazing pool, when this young lady insinuated herself into the picture.  If there is one thing I hate, it is having a picture photo bombed by some attractive twenty something.  I paddled over to give her a piece of my mind only to have her reply that I shouldn’t bother, I really couldn’t spare it.   Do you believe that?  (Hopefully, only my most gullible readers will.)Hydrotherapy Circuit at Secrets Akumal Spa

Bordeaux, the French Cuisine Restaurant

If you have never been to a Secrets Resort, banish all thoughts of one long buffet line after another.  That may have described the early all-inclusives from decades ago but nothing could be farther from today’s reality.  If you are only staying a few days, you most difficult decision is going to be deciding whether to dine at El Patio (Mexican cuisine), Himitsu (Pan-Asian cuisine), Portofino (Italian cuisine), Oceana (fresh seafood) or my personal favorite Bordeaux (French cuisine).  I have a solution.  Book seven nights and you can throw in room service and a romantic dinner for two on the beach.

Coco Café

In my previous blog post on Costa Rica, I made a full-throated confession regarding my coffee addiction.  Whenever I travel to Mexico, I love to indulge in their beautiful cappuccinos.  OK, over Coco Cafe Secrets Akumalindulge.  So what could be better that a charming little coffee shop that is open twenty-four hours a day!  Which proves quite handy since, if you drink as many as I did, you won’t be bothered by that nasty habit of sleep anyway.

Well, I have once again exhausted my creative genius . . . not to mention most of my readers, so I will draw this latest literary contribution to a close with a fitting challenge.  Join me in my endeavor to visit every single Secrets Resort.   Of the sixteen, I have visited (not necessarily stayed overnight at) nine of the ten in Mexico and the two in Jamaica for a total of eleven.   But it you are going to achieve this goal, call me right away because a little bird tells me some new ones are about to sprout!

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Costa Rica … Not To Mention Clima Rica, Cultura Rica And Café Rico

By some strange twist of fate, I have been to Australia nearly 20 times, the same for England and probably closer to 100 times to Mexico.   (Before you work yourself into a lather with overwrought envy, I will remind you that long ago I quite consciously traded treasure for travel, i.e. paltry money, powerful memories.  (See Memories Are Made Of This.)  Until this past week, however, I had never been to Costa Rica.  No doubt, were it not for my dear friends at Funjet Vacations, that would still be the case.  Thankfully, and to many of you shockingly I am sure, I was invited along with a hundred or so of my closest friends to spend a few magical days there.

Costa Rica translates into English as rich coast.  As my title suggest, however, the coast is far from the only aspect of Costa Rica that is opulent.   Just gaze upon this sunset for a moment.  I took this picture at the Pacifico Beach Club just before one of our evening dinners.  It looks even more magnificent with a rum and coke in one hand.  It became immediately apparent, even to someone as certifiably clueless as me, why this venue was selected!

Costa Rica Sunset

Just so you don’t embarrass yourself by attempting to swim around it, Costa Rica is not an island.  It is a Central American country that, like the US has an eastern and western coast.  There are several distinct tourist areas including Guanacaste, Arenal, Monteverde, Tortuguero, Central Pacific and San Jose.  Our excellent destination management company, CATours (as in Central American Tours but pronounced Cat Tours) has an excellent site with good information about various options.

Clima Rica

One of the most alluring attractions of Costa Rica is the incredible diversity of flora and fauna.  I have no idea what flora and fauna is, I just like saying it.  (Good thing I had never heard of those terms when I was struggling to name my two daughters.)  Just kidding, I really do know that it means IMG_1448plant and wildlife . . . or is it wildlife and plants?   Anyway, let’s not get lost wandering around that little tropical rain forest.

As one of my devoted readers, you must know by know I am an avid golfer.   Even so, this was my first experience trying to putt out with mantled howler monkeys lounging on the branches above me.  And in case you are wondering, they do howl . . . especially on your backswing.  This particular species apparently has a rather fiendish sense of humor.  According to a website called The Real Costa Rica, “Though Costa Rica covers only 0.03% of the surface of the earth, Costa Rica has approximately almost 6% of the world’s bio diversity.”    Click on the link above to read about Costa Rica’s 12 different climatic zones.

Cultura Rica

Guanacaste is not nearly so developed as many other resort destinations.  As an example, the ride from our hotel, the Riu Palace, to the Reserva Conchal Golf Course at the Westin Resort and Spa was an hour and twenty-minute ride over winding, narrow roads.  However, I was not in the least off put by that fact.  As an avid golfer, I would have walked that far to play another beautiful golf course (provided I had a caddie, of course).

More importantly, I viewed it as an opportunity to see the countryside.   OK, a lot of countryside.  Being my first trip, the last thing I wanted to do was spend the entire time at the resort, nice though it was.  IMG_1456

We were able to see lots of representative homes,  schools and stores, etc.  When we completed the round (the course record is still intact for those of you snarky enough to bring up my score), we had the option of heading directly back or visiting a little village called Tamarindo.  Forunately the driver had the good sense not to tell us it was in the opposite direction from our resort.

I would say Tamarindo is best described as a bohemian enclave populated by lost souls from the four corners of the world in search of inner serenity either through contemplation or puffing on various hand rolled medicinal fibers.  There are dive shops offering surfing lessons and, for the less adventurous, cafes with frothy cappuccinos and yummy flavors of ice cream.  I thought the Monkey ‘n Croc, pictured above, captured the ambiance nicely, even if by Tamarindo standards it is no doubt considered a bit haughty and pretentious.

Café Rico

Speaking of coffee, if you drink it by the barrel as I am prone to do (Starbucks should be sending me my stock certificates any day) the coffee is worth the price of the trip alone.  The reputation Costa Rica has for their coffee is, to say the least, well deserved.  My only complaint is that the word coffee should be feminine in Spanish, making the parallelism in my title ever so much more tidy!

IMG_1459 IMG_1463One thing the Riu Palace resorts all seem to do well is put on a party.  For the closing event they transformed the Papagaya Steakhouse into a Costa Rican rain forest.  You wouldn’t believe the size of the butterflies in Costa Rica by the way!  Below are a couple of more pictures to give you a sense of the beauty of the property.

DSC03261   DSC03264

On my aforementioned coach ride to the golf course, we passed a small fenced-in school yard and I could not help but notice the handwritten sign, “Orgulloso de Ser Guanacastecos” . . . proud to be from Guanacaste.   Having now traveled to Costa Rica, I have no difficulty understanding that sentiment perfectly.  I would be “orgulloso” too!

Liberation At Sea

There is something about the routine of daily life that is both reassuring and suffocating at the same time. Even more than most, I live my life at home traversing a very intentional and well-worn rut. I work out on the same three days of the week, on certain days of the week I carry out food from the same familiar places (Thursdays are soup night, don‘t you know?), etc. The upside of having a routine is that this mindless pattern saves a lot of wear and tear on the little gray cells. On the downside, however, life lived in this fashion can slowly and silently suck your bones dry of the marrow of inspiration and spontaneity.

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When people ahead of you in the grocery store line start to become irritating, double-wide barriers between you and the checkout counter and when smiling starts to require way more energy than you are willing to expend, perhaps the time has come to book your next cruise (from one of our expert agents, of course) on the Liberty of the Seas. As I write these words, I am sitting in Liberty’s Café Promenade sipping a cappuccino and reflecting on seven ways in seven days to become liberated on a Royal Caribbean cruise.

Liberated To Eat Like A Gourmand

When it comes to food and vacation, rationalization is a beautiful thing.  You can devour everything that comes within an arm’s reach and tell yourself it doesn’t really count, you are on vacation after all.  The great thing about cruising with Royal Caribbean is that the quantity, although voluminous, is somehow surpassed by the quality.

Here is a very important tip for those contemplating sailing on the Liberty of the Seas.  Belly up to the bar . . . a rather apt figure of speech . . .  and buy the three dinner specialty restaurant package in advance.  It will save you a little money but, more importantly, getting to dine at Giovanni’s Table, Chops Grille and Sabor Modern Mexican will, I promise you, be the highlight of your cruise.

DSC03246  DSC03239

The up charge is modest, the food is divine, the service impeccable and the ambience intimate and inviting.  I loved all three but I suppose if I had to choose a favorite it would be Sabor.  This comes from someone who is not a raving fan of Tex-Mex (heresy for a Texan, I know).  But Sabor offers is authentic modern Mexican cuisine.  They make the guacamole tableside as well as the margaritas!  Nadia Guevara, the manager, is a true delight (pictured above with my bride) and above, as well, you can see Cocoa making one mean margarita.

Liberated To Imbibe Like A Connoisseur

When it comes to adult beverages, the great thing is you don’t even need to  rationalize!  Here is another little tip.  When you first get on the ship, you can purchase a wine packageIMG_1294 with several bottles of wine.  If you don’t finish one, you can have the remainder brought to you the next evening, regardless of where you are dining.  If you don’t consume all the wine during the trip, as we didn’t, you can bring the rest home with you.

One evening at dinner, as we were about to order our wine (you get to choose from a list of about 15 wines), the head waiter, Lucian, told is it was not necessary.  He said someone had provided a bottle for us.  He then raved about the quality of the wine, a 2013 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon pictured here.  We can confirm his estimation as we consumed the entire bottle over a long and lingering dinner!  So here is a special shout out to the benefactress whose name I will not mention both for fear of offending her modesty and also being accused of brazen name dropping.  Thank you for your gracious contribution to a wonderful evening.

Liberated To Indulge In Shameless Pampering

We rewarded ourselves for our numerous visits to the fitness center with a visit to the spa.  Let’s just say it is not exactly every day I am the recipient of a Swedish back message, energizing foot and ankle massage, relaxing scalp massage and a Men‘s Skin IQ MiniFacial.  I was very disappointed, though not completely surprised, to discover that my skin has a higher IQ than my brain!

DSC03243The pampering extended to the way Kevin, our cabin steward, attended to our every whim.  (I am pretty sure we exceed our whim allotment the first couple of days.)  From tracking down a lost suitcase, to brightening our day with his towel art and much more, Kevin embodied the rock star treatment one unfailingly gets on a Royal Caribbean ship.

Liberated To Explore Like A Latter Day Columbus

Our cruise called at Cozumel, Georgetown, Grand Cayman and Falmouth, Jamaica. Among the score of offerings at each port of call, Royal Caribbean singles out these three for special recommendation:

  • Cozumel – Explore the ruins of the ancient Mayan city of Tulúm, majestically perched above the turquoise Caribbean.
  • Grand Cayman – Experience a once-in-a-lifetime adventure: snorkeling with stingrays at Stingray City Sandbar. These relatively tame creatures will swim right into your arms as they glide around you.
  • Jamaica – One of Jamaica’s leading natural attractions, Dunn’s River Falls are terraced, giant limestone stairs, measuring about 180 feet tall and 600 feet long and plunging into the sea.

DSC03229I would tell you all about these wonderful excursions were it not for the fact that we never ventured out of the fantastic dockside shopping areas each port offered.  From the picture above, you might say the one in Falmouth, Jamaica was conveniently situated!

Liberated To Shop Like Paris Hilton

Speaking of shopping, I was particular impressed with the incredible village in Falmouth, Jamaica with the bamboo stores and rum shops.  OK, we may have whiled away a couple of hours in this cute little rum shack.

You can purchase all manner of items in these shops.  You would be completely off base if IMG_1298you are picturing a Bahamas “Straw Market”.   In these shops, you can find diamonds, colored gemstones, jewelry, watches, gold, sterling silver, and even Oriental rugs.

Among my favorite places  were the bamboo stores where everything sold was made of bamboo.  They sell sheets that are softer than Egyptian cotton.  You can find shops offering everything from handicrafts to designer stores such as “C2K, Caribbean Hook, Honora, House of Tanzanite, John Hardy, Kabana, La Nouvelle Bague, Starnight, White Diamonds, Cartier, Concord, Maurice Lacroix, Michele, Movado and more”.

Liberated To Learn Like A Rhodes Scholar

You literally would not believe how many learning opportunities there are on board if you want to expand your horizons to match your growing waistline.  We both attended a cooking . . . and tasting . . . demonstration put on by Sabor where they demonstrated how to make some of their signature appetizers.   I did not join in on the cupcake decorating class, however, knowing my limitations full well.  Sampling is one thing, squeezing icing something else all together.

I was never able to work in the “Puffy eyes and dark circles” seminar.  Honestly, the whole subject sounded a little depressing anyway.   I wasn’t sure I wanted to surround myself with a room full of folks who felt a pressing need for that information!

IMG_1257  DSC03199

Liberated To Transform Former Strangers Into Fast Friends

When we are at home, we seldom approach strangers and when we do, they usually assume we want to sell them something. OK, by way of full disclosure, in my case that is usually true. I tend to place people into two important categories: potential cruisers or possible land tourists. Non-travelers are, truth to say, passing blips on the radar screen.

When you are on a cruise, total strangers have a way of becoming Facebook friends on the elevator somewhere between deck five and eleven. You find yourself asking the couple at the next table at dinner where they are from and, no matter what answer they give, it triggers some long suppressed genius for free association. You will immediately discover what seems (for the moment at least) like a providential connection fated by a mysterious higher power.

DSC03171Isn’t the time long overdue for you to discover you own seven ways in seven days to liberation?  In spite of the length of this post (my apologies), I have only scratched the surface.  To experience all this for yourself, trade in your frustration at home for liberation at sea.

Royal Caribbean’s Royal Suite Class: Best, Bester, Bestest

My abject apology to English grammarians around the world (or better yet, across the seas) for trampling upon their sacrosanct rules governing comparatives and superlatives.  I was an English major myself so, for what it’s worth, my sin . . . while no doubt mortal in their eyes . . . was at least not committed unconsciously.  The reason for the title is simply that the time-worn phrase “Good, Better, Best” just doesn’t cut the mustard in this instance.  Shall I explain?  Indeed, I shall.

Royal Loft Suite with BalconyRoyal Caribbean International next May will launch a newly enhanced luxury at sea program called the “Royal Suite Class”.  This program offers three levels of delicious self-indulgence.  Picture yourself standing on the spacious balcony of one of these suites as I was just a few days ago on the Anthem of the Seas.  Your gaze quite naturally falls first upon the glistening sea below, then rises to the brilliant sky above and finally, as twilight falls, to the luminous panoply of stars beyond.  Thus, the names of the three tiers almost begged from the beginning to be known as Sea Class, Sky Class and Star Class.  See how easy this all is when you have moi to guide you by the hand!

THE BEST:  SEA CLASS

Something all three classes have in common is access to the Coastal Kitchen, a dining option exclusively for suite guests and Pinnacle members.  Think a fusion of Mediterranean coastline and California farmland.  They pretty much had me when I read about ” . . . Med-inspired tastes like Serrano ham, whipped goat cheese and roasted grapes.”  Granted “whipped” and “roasted” sounds a little violent from the food’s point of view but I am pretty sure you will enjoy the results!

This particular class has one category perfect for families.   On the Quantum Class of ships, the Family Connected Coastal Kitchen Anthem of the SeasJunior Suite provides the greatest number of guests in connecting rooms of any suite configuration.  It provides space for up to 10 guests!

I am desperately trying to picture nine other friends,  relatives or even passing acquaintances willing to share that level of intimacy with me and so far I am drawing a blank.  If you find yourself both wealthier and more popular than your humble scribe (not a high bar), you will just have to move up to the Star Class on one of the Oasis class ships where the Four Bedroom Family Suite sleeps fourteen!

All three classes of suites afford access to two other fantastic features.  The first is the suite lounge where you will enjoy 24-hour access to this intimate setting which offers complimentary breakfast and evening drinks.  Secondly, you can recline in the comfort of a plush lounge chair and bask under the Caribbean sun in a private Sun Deck reserved just for you . . . well, you and a handful of other discriminating suite guests.

EVEN BESTER:  SKY CLASS

This year has been a pretty good year for you, all things considered.  Are you ready to take it up a notch?  If you have ever stayed in a five-star hotel, you know the value of a great concierge.  When you book this class, your exclusive concierge will assist you in booking priority reservations and theater seats.

Take a look at all the suite benefits and concierge services that are at your disposal.  You haven’t been pampered like this since you first learned as an infant to scream your head off in the middle of the night sending your parents scurrying about like the fire alarm just went off.

Sky Class

ABSOLUTE BESTEST:  STAR CLASS

If you book the Star Class, you receive  all the amenities listed in the chart above PLUS unlimited beverage package, complimentary specialty restaurants, in-suite hand crafted cocktail service, complimentary minibar, Nespresso coffee maker service, complimentary fitness class, complimentary in-suite movies, daily gratuities included, Duxiana mattress, and Frette linens, towels and robes.

Sky Loft Suite With Balcony  Royal Suite with balcony bathroom

With all those inclusions, I have saved the bestest for lastest.  For the Star Class guests, Royal Caribbean is introducing something called the Royal Genie Service.   Royal Genie ServiceThe concept is not just to attend to your every need and desire (legal and moral, let me qualify) but to actually anticipate them.  The rumor is that these future genies are being trained even as we speak at the London School of Mental Telepathy.

To summarize, the Royal Suite program will be available on two classes of ships:  the Oasis Class and the Quantum Class.  There are three tiers of suites:  Sea Class, Sky Class and Star Class.  Finally there are sixteen different categories of suites such as Royal Lofts and Owner’s Suite.

I beg you, don’t try to sort this out all on your own.  You will only bruise your precious little gray cells.  Instead, reach our to one of our Royal Caribbean experts.  Why not let your Royal Genie service begin with the booking process?

Make Portugal Your Port O’ Call

One of the absolute best things about being in the travel business is getting to visit places I have never been before.  As Simon Raven said, “…life is short and the world is wide” so it is hardly surprisingly that there are still many places that my foot has yet to touch.

When the chance arose to do a Globus Journeys tour of Portugal and Spain, I was on it like an Anatidae on a Phyllophaga (or duck on a June bug as we say here in Texas).   The extent of my previous knowledge was limited to a vague awareness that some of the world’s best port comes from Portugal.

Visit PortugalIt took me about half an hour to be smitten like a junior high schoolboy with Lisbon and its environs.  One of my criteria for a great European city is that it must be walkable.   Every other mode of transportation, with the exception of one I am about to mention, moves too fast for my plodding little gray cells to absorb the surroundings.  Lisbon is eminently walkable if you have  a strategically located hotel like the Sofitel Liberdade Lisbon.   Turn right out the front door and you have before you a beautiful twenty minute walk down to the Tagus River.

Colour Tours Colour Tours

Another option besides walking is the concept Lisbon has borrowed from Thailand called Tuk Tuks.  They can be found scurrying about everywhere like little pregnant motorcycles.  By sheer good fortune, we selected a Tuk Tuk driven by young lady named Teresa (a name shared by my wife) and whose father owns ColourTrip Lisbon.   She had recently started driving for her Dad and was a delightful hostess for her beautiful city.  You can do thirty minutes, an hour or two.  We did one hour and had her drop us off back at the hotel at the end of one of the most enjoyable sixty minutes in my recent memory.

One of the most striking things about Lisbon is the hills that offer some very impressive vantage points.  The locals know it as The City of the Seven Hills.   From a historical point lisbon-burningof view, the most infamous event in Lisbon’s storied past, without question, was the cataclysmic trifecta known as the Earthquake of 1755.  Striking at 9:40 in the morning on Saturday, November 1st, All Saints  Day, it destroyed most of the city.  I called it a trifecta because it combined a horrific earthquake, a calamitous tsunami and  devastating fires that raged for five days.

Leaving on that less than cheery note, let’s recover our serenity with a glass of wine at the My Story Hotel.  Even though we stopped in a couple of times at their charming sidewalk cafe, I never did learn what their Story Hotel, Lisbon, Portugal“story” was.  Maybe I was too awestruck by the modest prices.  Two nice glasses of Cabernet and a large bottle of water was eight Euros (about nine dollars).  That illustrates one of the most appealing things about Portugal and to a lesser degree Spain.  Due, no doubt, to its well publicized economic woes, everything seemed strikingly affordable, especially by European standards.

Another thing I found fascinating was the language.  Portuguese, of course, is one of the five romance languages all of which are largely based on Latin.  I have a passing familiarity with Spanish . . . by that I mean I can get into a conversation in Spanish, I just can’t ever get out . . . and assumed I would be able to pick up a little of the Portuguese banter.  That was not the case.  The “sh” sound is ubiquitous in Portuguese.  Portuguese, to my ear at least, sounds like a Czech school teacher shushing her class of students in Spanish with a decidedly French accent.  I had two separate native speakers tell me that they can understand virtually everything the Spanish say but the Spanish look at them as if they were speaking Mandarin Chinese!

Cork cap and purse from PortugalI wish I had a dollar every time over the years I have been told to “put a cork in it.”  I am finally going to take that advice by putting a little cork in this blog post.  Did you know that Portugal produces over half the world output of commercial cork?  Of course you didn’t.  That would make you as smart as me and we can’t have that, now can we?

You may assume that all that cork goes just to stopping up wine bottles but you would be so wrong.  (I know, nothing is more obnoxious than some wise …  hmm, wiseacre with a bit of new knowledge.)  I will spare you my newly garnered insight into the cork tree growing process, fascinating thought it is.  In point of fact all sorts of products are made with cork such as my new cap and the wife’s new posh purse purchased in Portugal.  (Try saying that without pursing your lips!)

         Travel Leaders / Main Street Travel   DSC02721

As usually, there is so much more to say but our journey beckons.  I will close with this bit of sage advice.  If you want to visit Europe and you’re looking for a place rich in history, gastronomy and hospitality but exceedingly kind to your pocketbook,  Portugal needs to be your next Port O’ Call.  That is, if you don’t mind being shushed all the time.

  •  You can view all the pictures I took on this trip here.

Imbibing In Iberia (or if you prefer) Cuba Libre Continental Style

For the next several posts you will be transported through Portugal and Spain with a dash of London thrown in for flavor at the end.  You will not be boarding a luxury Globus motorcoach, as I recently did, but rather you will be borne along on the fluffy clouds of my velvety prose.

Globus Touring CoachThose of you who live for my next pulsating post no doubt have noticed a dearth of such missives of late.  The explanation is as simple as it is depressive.  For the past few weeks I have been toiling like a serf rather than traveling like a sovereign.  Oh, the humanity!   I feel your compassion oozing across cyberspace even as I write these words but, take comfort, dear heart, I have learned how to steel myself against life’s injustices.

Thank goodness my interminable season of discontent ended on September 23rd when the wife and I boarded a British Airways flight bound for Lisbon by way of London.  Simply return to this site on a regular basis and you can follow along on my grand adventure.

Where to start?  Why don’t we begin with a theme that emerged quite by happenstance?  On the evening of the first full day in Lisbon, I wandered into the bar at the Sofitel Lisbon Liberdade (I am sure I was looking for the sundry store) when I decided to pause for an ever so modest libation.  I ordered a rum and coke, my cocktail of choice, and was quite delighted with the presentation.  So, I snapped a picture and posted this comment on my Facebook page:

“Every bar has a rum and coke. Leave it to the Sofitel Liberdade Lisbon to add the nuts, cranberries, olives AND a bowl for the pits!”

Rum & Coke Sofitel LiberdadeWhen we arrived to the Gran Melia Colon in Sevilla who would have guessed they also had a bar!  Is it my fault that they place the darn things so close to the sundry shops?  I ordered my customary drink and here is what they brought.

Rum & Coke Gran Melia ColonThe post on Facebook read:

“OK, tonight’s rum and Coke in Seville #GranMeliaColon is served with orange slices, peanuts, chocolate and gumdrops.”

I thought this was a particularly nice glass.

I know my readers are unusually astute so no doubt you see the pattern developing here.  Unconsciously (which is, by the way, how I operate most of the time), I was developing my own metric for comparing the various hotels on our itinerary.  The pressure started to build to see if the next venue could rise to the rum and coke test.

Our third stop was at the Alhambra Palace Hotel in Granada. I suppose it is pointless at this juncture to pretend there was a sundry shop anywhere near the bar.  Anyway, I was oRum & Coke Alhambra Palace Hoteln a mission.  I was not succumbing to self-indulgence, I repeatedly told myself, but rather performing scholarly research.

My Facebook post for the evening read:

“Tonight’s rum and coke at the Hotel Alhambra Palace in Granada comes with a sunset!”

Our fourth and final stop in Spain was at the Gran Melia Fenix in Madrid.  With my Rum and Coke Gran Melia Fenixresearch pad in hand, I went in quest of the bar.  Have you ever noticed that in nice hotels the bars are hardly ever difficult to find?  The evening comment in Facebook read:

The Gran Melia Fenix in Madrid offers dark rum and coke with green cherries and a beautiful mural and red rose behind the bar.”

At this point, you might assume that our little rum and coke tour has mercifully ended but you would be wrong Spanish olive breath!   Unless you have been playing your own drinking game and downing a rum and coke every time I said the word “Facebook”, you might recall I mentioned that there was a brief stop in London at the end.

Our final two nights were spent at the One AldwychMy final Facebook post (time for another swig, game players) read:

“Tonight’s rum and coke at ‪#‎onealdwych‬ London features black cherries, green olives, nuts & the most cosmopolitan city in the world!”

Rum & Coke One AldwychNow we really have reached the end.  What would research be, however, without a scientific poll?  Here is your chance to participate.

You can view all the pictures I took on this trip here.

Be sure to come back soon and we will visit each of these spectacular hotels and much of the Portuguese and Spanish countryside.  It will be fun, I promise . . . especially if you bring your own rum and coke!

Radisson Blu Will Leave You Anything But

Generally speaking, I like surprises.  Not the nasty, unpleasant ones, of course.  Not the kind where you find out that tattoo you got all across your back has two misspellings and a grammatical error, not to mention the American bald eagle is cross-eyed.

We even have a term for pleasant surprises in our family (a term admittedly shared by few other families whose ancestors undoubtedly pilfered it from one of my many brilliant forebearers).  We call them “sussies”.   Sussies are, generally speaking, little surprises that are unexpected, undeserved and inexpensive.

My Dad, for example, used to stop off at the “Grizzly Bear” on his way home from work whenever he knew the grand kids were coming over to buy a bag of assorted candy sussies.  The one that stands out in my mind, though it may require psychotherapy to determine why, was a plastic lemon filled with a lemon flavored powdery substance that was probably banned by the FDA a decade ago.

Radisson Blu Mall of AmericaThese days my favorite type of sussies are those that fall into the travel category.  I just attended a Travel Leaders meeting in Minneapolis and was told that the meeting would be held at the Radisson Blu Mall of America.  My expectations were quite modest as most meeting hotels around airports and malls don’t exactly take your breath away (although the smell in a few has done so).  My first thought was that the word “Blu” must have frozen his little “e” off on one of those bone chilling days so typical of Minneapolis and just hadn’t gotten around to having it surgically repaired yet.

Silly me.  It turns out there are Radisson Blu hotels all over Europe and the name was no doubt coined to evoke trendy images and avant-garde emotions and all manner of new wave nuances, all of which were obviously wasted on a Philistine like me.

I have, however, cultivated an appreciation for nice accommodations.  I was quite pleasantly surprised to walk into the lobby and see the geometric iceberg in the picture above dominating the entire back wall.

Here is another picture of the quite striking lobby.

Radisson Blu Mall of AmericaLobbyIf you are wondering about those gigantic Hershey Kisses at the far end of the lobby, wonder no more.  Those are hanging wicker basket chairs of the type you crawl into and Radisson Blu Hanging Wicker chairsfall asleep while waiting for your airport van and miss your flight.

Not that I would expect you to give a rodent’s posterior . . . this is a family friendly blog, after all . .  but since the meeting began at one in the afternoon, I had to get up at the ghastly hour of 4am to catch a 6:50am flight.  I can assure you that not even the aforementioned rats are scurrying about at that hour.

The point of sharing this tidbit, apart from a useless attempt at soliciting sympathy, is to explain the absence of other patrons in the restaurant below.  Having eaten a Starbucks breakfast sandwich at 5am, my business partner and I found ourselves banging down the door of the FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar at 11am when they opened.  Here we discovered another pleasant little surprise.  The menu was quite extensive and the food was delicious.  I am pretty sure I would have deemed it so even if I hadn’t been ravenous.

Firelake Grill House and Cocktail BarYou may have noticed, assuming you have not dozed off by this point, that this particular Radisson Blu is called Radisson Blu Mall of America.  The truly astute among you will have worked Mall of Americaout by now that the name probably has some connection to its proximity to the Mall of America.  You would be right although proximity hardly does it justice.  This hotel is joined at the hip (metaphorically speaking) to the mall by a very short covered skywalk.  If you are among a tiny handful in North America not familiar with the Mall of America, it is a mid-size Minneapolis city masquerading as a shopping center with 500 shopping, dining and entertainment options.

I will leave you with this bit of advice.  If you are headed to Minneapolis on business or to do a little shopping and are feeling a little blue (but don’t want to stay that way), this stylish abode will warm the cockles of your heart . . .  and wherever else you may have them!

Special Agents: The SECRET to great SERVICE!

Our esteemed leaders at Travel Leaders headquarters had an epiphany a while back that has had a dramatic impact on the way Travel Leaders agencies like ours go to market.  In a dazzling moment of crystalline clarity, they realized that, in a very real sense, we are all not so much in the travel business as the travel agent business.  By that I mean, the essence of our business is to connect eager travelers to the right travel experience by means of an experienced travel expert.

Special Agent Badge

You can buy this badge by clicking on the image.

According to Wikipedia, “In the United States, special agent is usually the title for a detective or investigator for a state, county, municipal, federal or tribal government who conducts criminal investigations and has arrest authority.”   Never one to shy away from random acts of audacity, I am going to brazenly expropriate that term and apply it to our own front line travel agents . . .  minus the criminal investigation and arrest authority, of course! 

Those who regularly visit these pages know that I exercise remarkable restraint when it comes to blatant promotion.  Only after I have hopefully entertained and educated do I occasionally sprinkle in a little enticement to do business with us.  Today, however, I creating a new category to which I will contribute content consistently but sparingly.  The category is called “Special Agent” and under that rubric I will introduce you from time to time to one of our special travel agents.

What I intend to do now, and in upcoming similar posts, is to give you a brief overview of an agent and provide a link to their “agent profile”.  Whereas, B.E. (that would be Before Epiphany), we would spend our time and money advertising destinations and/or travel provider partners, now we largely focus on promoting our agents through their individual, customized agent profiles.

For example, today I want to introduce you to Sandy DuVall.  Sandy is a consummate Sandy DuVallprofessional.  Over the past twenty-five years, she has traveled much of the world broadening her knowledge and adding to her personal experience. When she recommends a beach, she has likely wiggled her toes in that very sand. When she touts a resort, no doubt she has performed a recent white gloves site inspection.  When she endorses an adult beverage to be sipped pool side . . .  never mind.

While Sandy’s experience is broad, her true travel passions are a little more focused.  In particular, her heart rate rises a few ticks when someone inquires about a honeymoon or destination wedding or about Mexico or Hawaii.

This will become very evident when you visit her Agent Profile.   You can read about each of these three specialties, view picture albums related to each and even read short experiential posts that share her personal insights.  Spend a few minutes perusing her profile and you will find that entrusting Sandy with your dream trip is not just reasonable but downright perspicacious.

HawiiIf I were in the market for a destination wedding, planning a visit to the Hawaiian Islands or longing for an unforgettable Mexico vacation, I would have no hesitancy in seeking the advice of Sandy DuVall.  Now that I think about it, even as an agency owner I have sought her advice more than once!

Bottom line, if you are a traveler seeking a memorable travel experience, you need the assistance of a true travel expert.  Let me be the first to introduce you to Special Agent Sandy DuVall.

Casa De Campo: Mere Resort or More Destination?

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, among others, is credited with coining the aphorism, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”  My sincereGood Intentions hope is that he, or whoever authored that phrase, was simply having a bad day and peevishly overstated the case.  I don’t know too many of us who want to be found lazily strolling down the “broad road which leads to destruction”.

Way back on June 2nd, when I published another of my literary gems, “Bit On The Bum By The Teeth Of The Dog”, I had every good intention of following it up in short order with a sequel on Casa De Campo.  I even promised as much.  Life, as it has a habit of doing, managed to intervene.  Sound theology reminds us that true repentance involves not only contrition but a corresponding course correction.  This blog post is my humble attempt to make amends for my tardiness.

 CASA DE CAMPO

For those unfamiliar with this property, Casa De Campo is, as I suggest in my title, best understood not so much as a resort but rather a full-blown destination. It is situated in La Romana on the southeast coast of the Dominican Republic and is accessible  by at least ten different airlines flying into either La Romana, Santo Domingo or Punta Cana.

Even as I pen these words,  a large map is spread out across my desk called the “Resort Overview”.  Honestly, I am feeling a bit of vertigo as I try to soak it all in.  My eyes dart between the polo grounds and La Marina, from the seaside “Teeth of the Dog” golf course to the hilltop “Dye Fore” layout, from oceanfront villas to the shooting club to the shops of Altos De Chavon.  It is all rather dizzying.

Casa De Campo Polo FieldsAs a quick aside, don’t you just hate it when people use your image without your permission as was so obviously done above.  Here I was simply trying to collect my thoughts after a tough polo match and the paparazzi could not grant me even a moment of serenity.  $%*& press!

There is a fascinating history to the place which you can read here.  There is not sufficient time or space to recount the story now but it begins with a young Alvaro Carta fleeing communist Cuba in 1960.  If you want to find out how a sugar plantation, the famed golf architect Pete Dye, the crooner Frank Sinatra, the renowned restaurateur Siro Maccioni and the designer Oscar de la Renta are all woven into the history, you will just have to go back and click on the little blue “here” above.

Let’s assume for the moment that you are the type of vacationer who requires constant stimulation to avoid boredom.  If that describes you, rest assured, Casa De Campo will be your nirvana, paradise, heaven, shangri-la or land o’goshen on earth (take your pick).

There are three polo fields (I have no idea how you will get a horse into the overhead compartment), a 245 acre shooting facility (don’t even think about stuffing a shotgun down your pants leg) and 90 holes of golf (the airlines will allow you to check golf clubs but only after they clear out your retirement account).

Casa De Campo Dominican RepublicThis resort . . .  I mean destination . . .has more villas than an Italian count can count, including this little humble abode above called Villa Las Ondinas with a mere ten bedrooms.   I understand this particular villa is a big hit with strict, not to mention virile,  Catholics who take the pope’s views on birth control very seriously.

So where can such a large clan dine with a nice ocean view?  How about this locale where I took a leisurely lunch with a few of my close friends?  (I can only ascribe bad lighting and a quick shave to the fact that my picture here bears so little resemblance to my other picture above!)

Lunch on the beach at Casa De CampoI wish I had time to tell you about all the dining options like the Beach Club by Le Cirque or great bars like Punto & Corcho down by the marina.  If you love to shop, be sure and check out Altos de Chavon.  For some incredible excursion options, just click here.

I don’t know how much clicking through to the Casa De Campo website you have done to this point but I sent you there because it is the source of loads of helpful information about this “destination”.  However, when it comes to making an actually booking, there is only one place to go.   How could you live with yourself if after consuming this extraordinary content, you callously booked somewhere else?  If the road to hell really is paved with good intentions, bad intentions might well be the short cut!

Just a little something to think about when you are ready to book.

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