8 Tips for first time American travelers to India

Traveling to India is a unique experience. And while I did not even come close to covering the whole country, my recent experiences as a first time traveler may help you prepare for your own future trip to amazing India. While much of this advice is pertinent to anyone traveling to India (or on a very long trip in general), I think there are a few things specific to the experience of an American who has never traveled to India before. Hopefully you find these tips useful!

1. Prepare for the time change

No matter where you are coming from in the US, it’s a looooooong way to India. A nonstop flight will take at least 14 hours. My flights, with a layover in Amsterdam, cost me 22 hours. No matter what, you are going to ‘lose’ a day and a half or two days just to travel. (Want the good news? You get those days back when you head home!) Leave on Monday morning, and you won’t arrive to India until Tuesday afternoon at the earliest, and possibly Wednesday.

In addition, many stopover flights from the US arrive in India at very odd hours. My flight landed at 12:50 am Bangalore time.

Fun fact: despite its size, all of India is on one time zone. At my time of travel, the time difference between the East Coast and India was 10.5 hours – you read that right – time in India is not on the same ‘hourly’ schedule as the rest of the world. There is a metaphor there somewhere…

I have a few recommendations to help you manage the accompanying jet lag and time confusion you will inevitably experience.

  • Memorize two three quick time conversions. For example, noon in the US (East coast) is 10:30pm in India. And 3:00pm in India is 1:30 am in the US. This way, whatever time it is, your mind won’t struggle to think about whether it’s a good time to call home or look for the newest Wordle puzzle.
  • Begin slowly transitioning your sleep hours to move closer to Indian time. In the days leading up to your trip, go to bed a little earlier each night. Get up a bit earlier each day. Even a two or three hour shift in the right direction will help.
  • Try a jet lag management app such as Timeshifter. The app not only recommended when and how to begin ‘shifting’ my sleep schedule but when to sleep on the plane, when to avoid sunglasses (to maximize light exposure), when to drink coffee, and when to take melatonin.
  • If your flight arrives in the middle of the night, arrange for a hotel room for that night. You don’t want to arrive at the hotel at 3 am and then be unable to check in until 4pm. You want your bed ready to go!

2. Don’t rent a car

I know, you’re a great driver. So am I. So is Dear Husband. We never ever make driving mistakes at home (she said facetiously). At home, though, there are these nebulous things called “The Rules of the Road”. Things like, use your mirror and use a signal before you change lanes. Follow the speed limit, more or less. No cows allowed on the highway. Following these rules helps us turn our small errors around home into near misses rather than collisions. We also more or less know our way around, and are familiar with the road signage.

None of this will be the case in India.

Perhaps the most surprising part of my trip was the traffic and roads in Bangalore, Agra, and Mysore. I didn’t even visit some of the most congested areas, such as New Delhi and Mumbai, and I can only imagine.

Lane markings? A mere suggestion. Signals? Never. Horns? Constant. Red lights and one way signs? Worth occasional consideration. Bicycles, cows, overloaded trailers, scooters with entire families on board, you name it…. they all share the road and are all going as fast as they can to get there. If they can pass you on the right, they will. If they can pass you on the left, they will. Sometimes with a friendly ‘beep beep’, sometimes not.

Simply put, it’s chaos. Let someone who is local and experienced do the driving for you, whether you hop in a Tuk Tuk, take a bus tour, or hire a driver for your entire trip. I cannot recommend this strongly enough.

3. Get professional travel medical advice

Our immune systems are conditioned to home. American water, American air quality, American insects, etc. In addition, although the COVID-19 world health emergency is officially behind us, there can still be travel restrictions and requirements. Further, I’ll take it as a given that you would probably prefer to avoid landing in an Indian hospital with a serious illness. For all of these reasons, consider professional travel medical advice.

I went to Passport Health, a nationwide chain of travel medical advisors overseen by doctors. I’m sure there are plenty of other options, so ask your own doctor first, particularly if you have any kind of medical issues.

In addition to a tetanus booster, I chose to receive a polio booster and typhoid vaccination. I was also advised that malaria is a problem in India, and chose to take an anti-malarial drug beginning a few days before my trip. I purchased strong repellent as well.

While I guess I will never know whether these steps prevented me from falling seriously ill, I know that one of the recommendations was, as Mastercard puts it, priceless. I purchased two “DiaResQ” pills. Which leads me to my next piece of advice…

4. Research and understand Indian food

Indian food is divisive in my circles. Some of my friends and family love it, some not so much. I generally enjoy it, although I am not a fan of food so spicy that I don’t even know what I’m eating. Everyone has different spice tolerance, and only you can know yours.

But, even if you love and ingest spicy Indian food regularly at home, be aware that you still have a good chance to contract what’s lovingly known as “Delhi Belly” if you are in India for any length of time.

For the majority of Americans, an Indian menu will contain a number of unfamiliar items. I’ve definitely heard of, and enjoyed, tikka masala. Tikka darbari? Not so much. Tikka angare? Nope. Before I left, I googled “Indian foods ranked by spiciness” and memorized a few of the names on the bottom of the list. I also discovered some very flavorful, rich foods such as dosa and maddur vada, which are grain based and mild.

I heeded the advice and cautiously brushed my teeth with bottled water, and avoided ice in my drinks, even at the swanky JW Marriott. I ate several traditional Indian meals during my first few days in India, but also chose more familiar foods such as eggs and pizza to balance things out. Nonetheless, I fell victim. Suffice to say, white rice became my best friend for a few days.

My best advice? Ask servers, do your research, skip street food, avoid unpurified water, …. and be prepared with your anti-diarrheal medication of choice.

5. Hire local tour guides

While a well-written guide book or recorded app can certainly give you the background and history of a given city or tourist site, choosing to self educate, particularly in India, will rob you the opportunity to really hear about the perceptions and experiences of its vast populace.

Our guides in Agra, booked through Pacific Classic Tours India, and Bangalore /Mysore booked through Hidden Gems Tours, offered great logistical advantages (planned by locals who know and understand that traffic referenced above). They took us not only to the most famous of Indian tourist sites, but to little-known ‘hidden gems’ such as the Bengaluru flower market. I highly recommend both companies.

Most importantly, however, they gave us undisturbed one-on-one time with Indian citizens who were more than happy to educate us about everything from local holidays and traditions, to insight on family life, to the political landscape and economic challenges faced by Indians. While I enjoyed learning about Indian rulers from several centuries ago, I will always treasure the new awareness I gained as a result of these conversations.

6. Absorb a little Indian culture before you go

Whether it’s a raucous Bollywood movie or a fictional book set in India, spend some time before your trip getting to know India. It’s just more fun when you know what to look for – such as the delicate henna tattoos I saw on some of the women attending an engagement party held at our hotel, or the thrumming beat of Indian music as I passed by the nightclub. India’s many customs are unique, and there is nothing like a good story to make them come to life.

I watched Oscar-winning Bollywood movie “RRR” on the plane. I’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire, but I learned from one of my guides that Indians don’t particularly embrace that film, seeing it as spreading stereotypes about India. A few of the books I read prior to my trip were:

  • The Henna Artist, and The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, both by Alka Joshi
  • The Storyteller’s Secret by Sejal Badani
  • The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  • (parts of ) a translation of the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu scripture

Reading A Passage to India and Siddhartha back in high school does not count, although I did that too.

7. Especially for women

So I debated whether to include this section. I am not in any way looking to create a stir or criticize another culture. I also won’t even pretend to be fully educated on the treatment of women in India. I just think American women should be aware that it simply won’t be quite like home when you visit India. This is my perception, not a judgment.

I guess the best way to put it is that different countries make progress on Women’s rights at different rates. Back in the 1980s, walking to work in downtown Chicago in my ‘9 to 5’ office attire, I could expect a whistle or two from a construction worker or a guy driving a big pickup truck. It felt a bit icky, and sometimes intimidating depending on the situation. India is a little like that.

You will rarely see an Indian woman walking alone in the city – only with her male partner or with a bunch of other females. I found out the reason when I took a solo walk around Bengaluru one day. I was honestly was a little uncomfortable when some of the tuk tuk drivers tried to lure me for a ride, shopkeepers beckoned me inside for a bargain, or as I passed a staring man on a park bench. Men you have never met will not hesitate to look directly at you and get physically closer than you are likely used to.

To be clear, I never felt unsafe on my walk, which was in the middle of a busy Wednesday afternoon. But I was glad to re-enter the cool, controlled environment of the JW Marriott.

As another example of what I mean, one of Oldest’s female American colleagues, who has blond hair, mentioned that sometimes people (men, women, and children) would not only stare but just reach out and touch her hair, because it’s so unfamiliar to them. I had read before my trip that “personal space” has a very different definition in India than it does in the US. It makes sense, when you think about the incredible population density in Indian cities. It’s also very true.

GO! And take it all in

Looking back at what I have written above, I realize it may seem like a multitude of dire warnings. Traffic, food, jet lag, personal space … yes, they are all challenges. But with great challenges come great rewards, and that is especially true with traveling to India. So for my final #toptipforindia, I’ll steal from Nike and say: Just Do It.

While you are there, take time to look around you. Don’t just go to the Taj Mahal and post it on social media and spend the rest of your day scrolling. Watch local TV. Look at magazines and billboards. Eat in small local restaurants (with care, see #4 above…). Shop in the little shops and bargain and feel the silk. See the colors, hear the sounds, talk to the people. It’s beautiful, and noisy, and chaotic, and lively. It’s exotic, for an American, and you may just develop a new appreciation for the Stars and Stripes – as well as a taste for even more foreign travel.

A tough act to follow….. Time in Agra after visiting the Taj Mahal

After visiting the Taj Mahal at sunrise, we continued our tour of Agra and environs with our tour guide, Mahesh from https://www.discoverydreams.com/about-us. You will be happy to know that the first thing we did was find a restroom and I was able to fully cleanse my bird-soiled hand before we continued our tour around Agra. Much better. As we exited the complex we stopped for photographs of a lovely red sandstone outer building with an arched passageway:

No, I didn’t call the arches to plan our outfits

Mahesh explained a bit more about the recent history of Agra. Just a few decades ago, the city boasted a population of 6 million whose lives were centered not around its famous monument, but around numerous local factories. Unfortunately, these factories contributed heavily to the locally polluted air, and the government determined that the beautiful marble facade of the Taj Mahal was suffering as a result. Given the value of the Taj as a tourist destination, the decision was made to relocate a number of these factories in an attempt to clear the air. This led to an anomaly for India: a declining local population. Agra is now home to about 2 million people.

Eventually, as so often happens, recognition bloomed that perhaps the relocation efforts had gone too far, and Agra was a city in decline. So, the government decided to use financial incentives to promote the various local arts to the city’s 50 million+ annual tourists: carpet making, marble carving, and jewelry made with local gems among other items. The next part of our tour included artisan demonstrations in each of these areas, along with the inevitable pushy sales pitch. Did I cave and buy something? Read on to find out….

Artisan Shopping in Agra

The showroom of Diamond Carpets (https://www.diamondcarpets.com) is located in the middle of downtown Agra. Our visit began with a quick explanation of the process of weaving wool and silk into beautiful rug creations. We were shown photos of the main carpet factory located a few miles away.

carpetweaving in process
women use their strong toes to edge the rugs

Next, we were taken to the display room, which housed hundreds of gorgeous rugs. One might say they rolled out the red blue carpet for us…

Showing us rugs for sale…. dare I ask the price of this one?

I made the crucial ‘mistake’ of asking the price, assuming it would be completely exorbitant, letting me off the hook with a quick “no, thanks that’s out of my price range”. For reference, last year on a cruise stop in Istanbul, Husband and I attended a similar carpet factory display, where the small but beautiful rug I admired could have been mine for a mere $20,000. So, that was my expectation here. I have a puppy at home, so the rugs tend to come from Wayfair and Home Goods. But… thanks to the government incentives, which included free shipping to the US, the price on the rug I liked was just a fraction of my prediction.

We negotiated the price a bit and I got another 15% or so off the original quote. Mahesh had told us to always negotiate in India! When you buy a rug, you sign the back to ensure that the one you receive is the one you chose. This lovely rug now sits in my office below my desk as I type, a wonderful memory of India. I have no regrets.

signing my new rug!

As our day continued, we also visited a marble carving exhibition and a jeweler, making a few more small purchases. Hopefully we helped the local economy.

Artisans insert gems into marble

Agra Fort

Today’s agenda included the two less famous but equally historic buildings in the Agra area: 1)Agra Fort, and 2)the Tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah, also known as the “Baby Taj”.

Agra Fort, an enormous red sandstone complex, dates to the 14th century and once housed the members of the Mughal ruling family. At the time of the Fort’s construction, Agra was the capital of this northern region of India now known as Utter Pradesh, to be replaced by Delhi about 100 years later.

Imposing entrance to Agra Fort

Covering roughly 94 acres, Agra Fort borders the same Yamuna River as the Taj Mahal. The Fort is full of both Islamic and Indian architectural influences, as well as much of the same carved marble as seen at the Taj. In the heat of the midday March sun, it’s not difficult to imagine royal court members seeking cool shade in its many arched, open air corridors.

Inside Agra Fort
a peek at the Taj Mahal through one of the Fort’s windows
Tourists inspecting the gold infused ‘master bedroom’
The Fort’s courtyard almost looks like a University campus quad…
Touring Agra U

Baby Taj

After a quick traditional Indian buffet lunch, we wrapped up the day at the the tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah, nicknamed the Baby Taj due to its similar architecture: a central marble dome surrounded by four tall minarets. Given the nickname, we made the natural but erroneous assumption that this much smaller monument was inspired by its larger cousin. Nope!

I’timad-ud-Daulah was an exiled emir of Persia, and also the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan’s favorite wife who is entombed in the Taj Mahal. Baby Taj was commissioned by one of I’timad-ud-Daulah’s daughters in 1622, almost 10 years before construction began on the Taj. Both buildings represent a period in which local architectural trends had shifted toward more white inlaid marble and less red sandstone.

Like the Taj Mahal, the grounds of the Baby Taj include symmetrical gardens criss-crossed with water courses and walkways.

Baby Taj – a much smaller tomb than its more famous neighbor, as illustrated by the humans in the doorway

Perhaps the most notable difference between the Baby Taj and its more famous cousin is lack of maintenance. The structure’s interior shows its true age like a Real Housewife without her makeup.

faded carving surrounds an interior doorway
inside the dome, imagine the vibrance long ago…
View of one of the red sandstone entrances from inside the Baby Taj

Unlike the heavily trafficked Taj Mahal, here a visitor can get close to the monument to inspect the beautiful carvings, take interior photographs, and experience the peaceful setting. Despite the damage wrought by age (and gem thieves), the authenticity of this structure shines through.

Around Agra

Our long, hot day in Agra came to an end in the late afternoon, as Mahesh transported us back to the Doubletree to relax before tomorrow’s journey back to Bangalore. Once again we reflected on the divergence between the tourist-filled, opulent royal structures surrounding this former capital city, and the lifestyle of its current inhabitants.

A typical Agra streetscape
children play as mom watches from the doorway
A family walks among the crumbling buildings
Monkeys climb the walls of an old factory

Evening in Agra, with puppets!

A review of our day in Agra wouldn’t be complete without mention of the late night entertainment. Too exhausted to explore any further, we dined at the Doubletree’s restaurant, Kebab-e-Que (https://www.hilton.com/en/hotels/agrdtdi-doubletree-agra/dining/) where a guitarist played the same 4 chords on every song. I kept hearing “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, which became tomorrow’s ear worm, because of course it did. We left the restaurant full of good food and wine and ready for bed, only to find the lobby decorated with candles and greens and the number “60”. Shamefully, we did not ask what this was about. Maybe the 60th anniversary of the hotel?

I honestly do not know what was going on here

The lobby festivities were highlighted by a young Sikh performer who showcased his family’s handmade animal menagerie. Waiting for us, alone, he could not contain his excitement at finally having an audience.

I bought the bright red elephant in the back ūüôā
A little culture in the Doubletree Lobby! Turn sound on

Our new friend had also set up a stage for a very unique puppet show. He invited the boys to don turbans …

Awesome headwear

If you are my age, you may remember ultra-kind Mr. Rogers and his somewhat creepy puppet show in the Neighborhood of Make Believe? This was kinda like that.

Watch out for the snake… and turn the sound on

Our time in Agra truly came to a memorable end! Once again I would like to thank Mahesh and Shakul at Pacific Classic Tours India (Trip Advisor Link: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g297683-d6758183-Reviews-Pacific_Classic_Tours_India-Agra_Agra_District_Uttar_Pradesh.html) for arranging a fabulous trip to all of Agra’s highlights. In addition to checking off an ultimate bucket list destination and a Wonder of the World, we learned so much more about India’s history and culture. We were also once again surrounded by kind, friendly, colorful people who helped create the best travel memories.

The Taj Mahal. And, birds gotta do what they gotta doo doo…

One of the Seven Wonders of the World, it’s the first thing most people think of when they imagine visiting India. Although I don’t always like to follow “can’t miss” and “must do” lists, come on… it’s the Taj Mahal!

So, as soon as I knew I was headed to India, I researched the best way to visit the iconic structure. The Taj is located in Agra, a small city in the north central part of India and almost 2000km from Bengaluru. The closest major city is New Delhi, about a 2.5 hour car ride away.

A word of advice

Many tour operators offered a “day trip” to the Taj from Bengaluru. This would have involved:

  • hotel pick up at 6 am
  • 45 minute ride to BLR airport
  • waiting around the airport
  • 2.5 hour flight to New Delhi
  • 2.5 hour car ride to the Taj
  • An hour or so at the Taj, and maybe lunch
  • 2.5 hour car ride back to New Delhi
  • waiting around the airport
  • 2.5 hour flight back to BLR
  • 45 minute ride back to Bangalore city

No, thank you.

Instead, I chose a trip arranged through https://www.discoverydreams.com, leaving on a Friday morning, with two nights in Agra, and returning on a Sunday. Best of all, the company (also known as Pacific Classic Tours India or PCTI) arranged the trip via a direct flight to Agra rather than New Delhi, saving a lot of time in the car. This tour is only available on certain days of the week, as the direct flight from Bengaluru to Agra only operates on a few days, and the Taj itself is closed to the public on Fridays for religious purposes.

Take your time with this place, it’s worthwhile.

journey to agra

The flight itself was uneventful but the arrival was a bit different. We flew on IndiGo, a quirky no-frills airline reminiscent of Jet Blue or Southwest in the US. Riding buses to the tarmac for a domestic flight experience at BLR provides that up close and personal experience:

That gorgeous baby had more gold jewelry than I do

Unfortunately, I have no photos of our arrival at Agra airport, because it is actually a military airport that only recently opened to commercial air traffic. NO PHOTOGRAPHY signs and armed guards greeted us. Next, we were required to take a bus to the prison-like gated entrance of the airport. Although the 1/2 mile bus ride was purported to be free, one of the armed guards wanted to collect a fee of 50 rupees (about 61 US cents). Needless to say, we riders complied.

Our tour guide for the next two days, Mahesh, was positioned at the airport entrance gate to meet us in an air conditioned vehicle. The airport was only about 10 minutes from the small city of Agra, where our package included delicious late lunch at the Salt Cafe. Then off to our hotel, the Doubletree Agra https://www.hilton.com/en/hotels/agrdtdi-doubletree-agra/

My room had a teeny tiny view of the dome of the Taj Mahal. A newly constructed elevated railway obscures the view from this side of Agra (unfortunately including the now inaptly named “Taj View Hotel” nearby). Progress and history compete as everywhere.

my first “view” of the Taj Mahal

Taj Viewpoint in the evening

After a short rest at the hotel, Mahesh picked us up again to get our first real view of the Taj. Since it was a Friday, and the mausoleum was closed, our only option was to proceed to the north side of the Yamuna river to the “Taj Viewpoint”. We dodged rickshaws, stray dogs, monkeys, children and camels on the approach to the viewpoint.

Since the monument is completely symmetrical, from either direction the view is identical. The view you are most likely familiar with looks across well-designed entrance pools and gardens; From the rear, the view crosses a nearly dry riverbed full of weeds, cows and goats grazing . The striking divergence of the opulent marble monument, the pollution-hazed sunset, the peasants with their cattle, and my own sheer wonder added to my sense of awe.

and there it is…..
and here we are!

After a half hour so of wandering, photographing, and simply gazing in speechless amazement, we headed back to the hotel. Tomorrow, we will visit at sunrise and learn more about the history of the Taj Mahal. But for now, driving away from the Viewpoint, I was struck by the “neighborhood” here. Just 1/4 mile from one of the world’s most famous monuments, people live with no running water, no electricity, wandering animals, and scattered trash. One of humanity’s greatest architectural and artistic accomplishments and societal failures in such close proximity. Jarring, to say the least.

Across the river from the Taj Mahal

Despite jet lag and travel weariness, I had trouble sleeping that night.

Sunrise at the Taj mahal

The next morning, we arose early to arrive at the Taj Mahal just before sunrise. The ethereal light attracted plenty of other visitors, but knowing the heat would rise later in the day, we knew this was the best time to be here. As a bonus, the photography is a bit surreal too. In some of the photos, the Taj almost looks like a painted backdrop.

crowds at the Taj gate at sunrise.
spooky look toward the hazy sunrise
that iconic view
here we are standing beside a painting of the Taj Mahal…. (jk)
fun with angles and perspective

A little brief history of the Taj Mahal: The Taj Mahal was commissioned in 1631 as a mausoleum by the Mughal emperor at the time, Shah Jahan, to house the remains of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Per our tour guide, she was one of one of three wives, and bore him 13 children. Pregnant with their 14th, on a camel back ride across the country for some royal purpose or another, she became physically distressed and lost both the child and her life. Construction was completed in 1648. I’m thinking the Shah felt a little guilty… hence the huge marble structure that virtually glows in the sunlight. There are two smaller mausoleums on either side of the structure for the other two wives that seem like (and most likely were) an afterthought.

Details of the Taj Mahal:

Of course I knew the Taj Mahal was a white building, and made of marble. What I didn’t know is that each and almost every inch is full of carvings, jewels, and intricate writings that can only be seen up close. Here are a couple of photos attempting to capture that detail:

The entrance approach up close
close up showing both the colorful inset stones, gold leaf, and some of the damage inflicted by years of people and weather
another close up from outside

One of the more fascinating aspects of this detail is the red stone shown below. Holding our iPhone flashlights up to the stone created a unique glow that blushed across the entire stone. Sadly, many of the 28 types of jewels originally used in the Taj Mahal’s construction were stolen over time.

The yucky part

By now, you may be wondering about the bird doo doo referenced in my title. OK then, since you asked….

The indoor of the mausoleum houses the tombs of both Mumtaz Mahal and the Shah who created the tomb. No indoor photos are allowed. I do have this one, though, which shows my hand on the railing that keeps visitors from touching the inside walls:

I guess I really am over COVID, because I probably shouldn’t be touching that….

Inside of the Taj dome are 82 foot walls. While the structure is enclosed, the doors are tall enough that a few of the birds that surround the monument must find their way in periodically. They happily nest in the windows and carvings above. I don’t know what kind of bird blessed me, but my hand was exactly as shown on one of these railings when PLOP! a cold, nasty liquid was discharged right onto the back of my right hand. Oh, my kingdom for a tissue…..! I’ll bet there aren’t too many people who can say they have been pooped on inside the Taj Mahal. I feel soooo special. Karma for life, anyone?

bird, schmird… I’m still smiling .. check out the fun reflection in my sunglasses – thanks Mahesh!
Taj Mahal at sunrise

In my next post, more to come about the rest of our time in Agra, which included artisan demonstrations, a visit to Agra Fort and the “Baby Taj” monument, and a… puppet show. Yep, a puppet show.

How do you spell colorful chaos? B-E-N-G-A-L-U-R-U….

Hello readers! It’s been awhile, and I have so much catching up to do. Since my last post, I have gleefully emerged from COVID and travelled to Greece, Rome, Spain, Turks & Caicos, and more. Also, after over a year of ‘commuting’ from the Delaware beaches to New Jersey, I have also thrown in the proverbial towel and retired from banking. So you know there are many more great trips (and more blogging) planned!

Bengaluru’s state government building, Vidhana Soudha, lit up in bright colors for the celebration of Ugadi, a New year holiday

For my first post retirement trip, I went for big adventure, thanks to my Oldest child. He took a short term work assignment in Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore) India, therefore I HAD to go visit him. It was my first trip to Asia and my first trip to a country more populous than the United States. With only a few months’ notice to plan the trip, I started where I always start: with a map and Google.

Bengaluru is located in the southern third of India , in an area that was once part of the Mysore dynasty. From here, it’s over 600 miles to Mumbai and over 1300 to New Delhi. Bengaluru is known as the “Silicon Valley of India”, due to the predominance of tech workers: in addition to its own budding tech industry, this area primarily functions as the back office of American and European Big Business. In 2023, Bengaluru is expected to grow by 6%. It’s one of the fastest growing cities in a fast growing nation.

India is geographically about one-third the size of the lower 48 states, but its population is nearly 4x that of the US. In April, 2023, it is believed that India has now achieved the status of becoming the most populous country in the world, surpassing China. In fact, per Pew Research, India’s population has grown by more than 1 billion people since just 1950.

Arriving in Bengaluru, the pace of that growth is evident. BLR airport’s terminal is new and arguably a lot nicer than Newark, and additional terminal work is underway. In fact, there was construction pretty much everywhere. An elevated train will soon whisk travelers from BLR to the central city, currently about a 40 minute ride on the highway. Along that highway, signs selling suburban real estate and newly built high-rises abound, along with looming office parks boasting familiar US and European corporate logos.

All this growth comes with a cost, however. From my hotel window, the air pollution is evident. Bellandur Lake, the largest in this ‘garden city’, famously caught fire in 2015. The pollution is a function of vehicles, road dust, trash, and construction. I won’t go on a climate change rant here, but I have serious concerns about the future livability of this city if things don’t improve.

Hazy sunset from the 12th floor of the JW Marriott, Bengaluru

And traffic? I will henceforth NEVER AGAIN complain about the traffic on Rt 1 in Delaware or the Garden State Parkway. It’s difficult to describe, but I’ll try. Imagine, if you will …..

getting up close & personal in Bengaluru traffic

1)no obedience to lane markings

2)drivers ignoring traffic signals and one-way street indicators;

3)all sizes of vehicles, from bicycle to scooter to agricultural cart to semi-truck sharing the same road and lanes, with no rules governing left, right, fast, slow, or otherwise;

4)construction cones and barriers everywhere; and

5)horns. Never ending horns.

“Beep Beep Beep” was the lullaby to which I fell asleep each night in my hotel room 12 floors up. In India, they use horns to let other drivers know they are overtaking them. Which is … constantly. To the left, to the right, it doesn’t matter, just beep beep and keep going. Other vehicles drive within inches of one another. You can count the chin hairs on your neighboring driver. My American vehicle would never make it here, because it beeps a warning whenever something is a couple of feet away, and includes an auto brake feature. In India, it would simply melt down.

But from within all the chaos stemming from Bengaluru’s fast growth and dense population, shines India’s radiant heart. The people I encountered in India were simply beautiful, inside and out. Warm, and always willing to share a smile and an education. Despite the pervasive and unending traffic, I never saw a single ‘flipped bird’ or heard a curse word.

Indian food is loaded with spices, many unfamiliar to Americans – because to Indians, a lack of spice is cold, bland and tasteless; a true metaphor. Their thirst for knowledge is evident in the familiar sight of schools under construction and uniformed children toting books. Their love of bright colors as reflected in clothing, temples, and food is palpable. From what I experienced, India’s cultural motto might well be ‘the more the better’! Whether from buildings, vehicles, colors, spices, or people, the buzzing chaos somehow combines into a fascinating harmony.

boy in bookstore
Dresses for sale on Commercial Street, Bengaluru
Bengaluru Flower Market
Bengaluru Flower Market at 6:45 am
Smiling woman at Bengaluru Flower Market

From our tour guides, to Tuk Tuk drivers, to hospitality personnel, to shopkeepers, everyone I met shared a sense of vibrancy and positivity. India may be challenged by pollution, fast growth, and poverty, but if its peoples’ attitudes matter, these challenges will be faced with relish in the decades ahead.

COVID-19 Journal: Banker Chick Doesn’t Travel…. Exploring Slower Lower Delaware

Make no mistake – I love traveling internationally.  I love the challenge and excitement of learning about a different culture.  I love trying (usually poorly) to communicate in a foreign language. I love navigating the unfamiliar. I love embarking on an airplane to travel somewhere, anywhere,  far away.  But sometimes it’s nice, and sometimes it’s necessary, to stay closer to home.

In addition to flexibility in pandemic times, here are some other advantages of a closer-to-home trip:

  • Bring anything, and anyone, that fits in the car, including the dog or cat!
  • If you can‚Äôt schedule a long trip, a short one still works – even a day trip.
  • No jet lag  or time zone adjustment
  • No costly airport parking, TSA lines, or mechanical delays
  • Given proximity and lower cost, frequent return trips are possible if you fall in love with the destination

Just like everyone else, my 2020 travel plans were derailed by COVID-19.   This year’s scratched itineraries included a wine tasting trip to Napa Valley in April,  a trip to London and the Cotswolds in June, and a trip to Lake Como and Tuscany (more wine!) in September. Instead, I have spent these months of COVID lockdowns and restrictions in a much more accessible location:  Lewes, Delaware.    We had planned to spend many summer weekends in Lewes this year, but when the virus began its assault on the New York area in March, like many second homeowners in the area, we grabbed our stuff and drove over the giant Delaware Memorial Bridge to our beach escape. Husband and I purchased a second home here two years ago with an eye toward eventually retiring in this tax-friendly state, that has the added advantage of being relatively close to jobs and kids in New Jersey.

Delaware is proud to be the first established state in the US,  but remains one of the smallest with fewer than 1 million inhabitants and only covering about 2500 square miles –  less than 2% of the size of California.  Delaware’s largest city, Wilmington, has only 70,000 residents,  and the entire state is still covered by one area code,  302. Our home is located in Sussex County,  the southernmost of Delaware’s three counties and the only one with an Atlantic coastline.

Locals happily refer to the area as ‚ÄúSlower Lower Delaware‚ÄĚ, or SLD for short. (You will see destination stickers using the letters LSD – cute-   but SLD is the real deal).  The Delaware Beaches, as they are more officially known, are within a 2 hour drive of the fast-paced, pressure-filled areas surrounding Washington DC, Philadelphia, and Baltimore,  and less than 4 hours from NYC, but visitors here enjoy an entirely different tempo (at least in the offseason:  October – April). Just to the south is Ocean City, Maryland,  a bustling seaside city full of high rise resorts and an amusement-filled boardwalk.  To the north, across the Delaware Bay, via a car ferry,  is the southern tip of New Jersey and charming, Victorian Cape May.

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The Atlantic Ocean at Cape Henlopen

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Welcome to Slower Lower!

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Dogs are permitted at many local beaches,  check before you go

Squarely situated on the heavily populated Eastern Seaboard,  the Delaware Beaches seem magically distant, sparsely populated, and full of open space to enjoy.  The flat, open land lends itself to the kind of beautiful sunsets I remember from growing up in the Midwest, and I think they are a highlight of the area.  Here are just a few recent sunset snapshots:

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Pondfront Sunset

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Wintry sunset

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After the storm, a blazing sky

The area is very popular with hundreds of thousands of summer visitors who flock to the area mainly to enjoy its 25 mile Atlantic Coast,  along with beach towns, boardwalks, and the busy Rt. 1 strip with restaurants, outlet malls, mini golf, and a go-cart track.  However, just a bit further inland are bays and inlets for boaters and fishermen, golf courses galore, walking and biking trails, serene ponds, cornfields, farmsteads, and dairy farms boasting fresh ice cream.

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Say it with me… MOOOOOOOO!

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Fresh from the Cow ice cream, along aptly named Dairy Farm Road

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An entrance to the shady Breakwater Junction walking and biking trail

Area highlights include :

Rehoboth Beach is the vacation hub of the Delaware Beach area.  In Downtown Rehoboth, visitors will find cute shops, culinarily sophisticated restaurants, lively bars, and a classic activity-filled boardwalk with kiddie rides, games, and beachy snack delights such as french fries, saltwater taffy, and of course ice cream. Dogfish Head Brewery, headquartered in nearby Milton, recently completed construction of a large restaurant and entertainment venue right on Rehoboth Ave, the town’s primary street. And best of all, the lifeguarded beach off the boardwalk is free!

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Busy downtown Rehoboth Beach

Dewey Beach is located on a narrow strip of land between the ocean and Rehoboth Bay –  you’re never more than 1/4 mile from a waterfront in Dewey.  Dewey is known for attracting a younger crowd, and has a number of live music venues and clubs.

Heading south down Rt 1 from Dewey through a state park and over the scenic Indian River Inlet bridge brings the traveler to one of my favorite spots,  Bethany Beach.  Known as the  ‚Äúthe quiet beach‚ÄĚ, Bethany’s  nickname says it all. The town boasts an adorable, small downtown with plenty of  shopping and dining options, and a small boardwalk meant for strolling rather than partying.  Sea Colony is a large resort complex just south of downtown featuring several pools, a tennis complex, and private beach access.

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Photo courtesy of VisitDelaware.com

Lewes is the transit point for the ferry from Delaware to Cape May,  New Jersey, but offers so much more.   The “first town in the First State” was founded in the 1600s and served as a launching point for all things naval.  It’s a bit less of a tourist destination than the other towns, all of which include an Atlantic coastline;  Lewes’ beaches are on the Delaware Bay.  The regional high school and hospital are located in Lewes, and in addition to being the northernmost point of “the Beaches”, the town offers a quaint, boating-oriented downtown evocative of Newport, RI or Kennebunkport, ME.  In my opinion, it’s the hidden gem of the Delaware beach scene. (it’ also my new hometown, so I’m a little biased!)

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St. Peter’s church in Lewes

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Take what you need, Give what you can free food pantry in Lewes

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Lightship Overfalls, a museum ship and one of only 17 remaining lightships

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Lewes waterfront

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Charming 2nd street in downtown Lewes

Marking the entrance to the Delaware Bay, Cape Henlopen State Park is the environmental gem of the area. With 6 miles of bay and ocean shoreline, CHSP  is accessible from both Lewes (on the bay side of the Cape) and Rehoboth (on the ocean side).  Automobiles can enter the park for $10/day, but are unable to traverse through the park from Lewes to Rehoboth, presumably to prevent traffic from using the park as a bypass for busy Rt. 1. However, bicycles and pedestrians can access the entire park;  a fantastic 16 mile loop takes the rider or walker from Lewes to Rehoboth and back across Gordon’s Pond and down the Junction Breakwater Trail.  Bird and wildlife enthusiasts and those seeking solitude can enjoy the pine-edged trails, lighthouses, campgrounds, WWII watchtowers, surfing, fishing, and inland waterway access along with natural, unobstructed beach views.

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View along Gordon’s Pond trail in CHSP

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WWII Watchtowers line the Delaware beach shorefront

Although the Delaware beaches offer plenty of activities, daytrips are possible to Philadelphia, Washington DC, Annapolis, Victorian Cape May (via ferry), or Maryland’s eastern shore (Chincoteague Island is a very popular day trip – or camp overnight for a better chance to see the fabled wild horses).

While there are some hotels and B & B‚Äôs in the area, the vast majority of lodging for travelers is found in private homes or condominiums rented out by their owners through local realtors or on VRBO, HomeAway, or AirBNB.  This type of lodging contributes to the family-friendly nature of the Delaware beaches and keeps costs down, allowing groups or families to rent a multi-bedroom space with laundry and a kitchen for self-prepared meals.

This post would be remiss without mentioning the Delaware Beaches’  alternate moniker:  the “Culinary Coast”.   While Rt. 1 is full of standard restaurant chains, the towns are full of small, locally owned foodie-friendly restaurants.  Cuisines range from prevalent coastal (think crab cakes, lobster, fish tacos, and soft-shell crab), to farm-to-table, to Mexican, steakhouses, pizza, barbecue, French, and Asian.   There are also a number of locally established breweries, including well-known Dogfish Head, and even a couple of decent wineries.  We’ve done our best to keep them all busy by ordering takeout during COVID.  Here is an incomplete list of our favorites, with links and in no particular order:

  • Agave, Lewes – upscale Mexican – try the guacamole sampler!
  • La Fable,  Rehoboth –  French, cabaret-style
  • Salt Air, Rehoboth – Organic, farm-to-table
  • 1776 , Midway mall, Rehoboth, classic steakhouse
  • Bethany Blues,  Lewes and Bethany-  family-friendly barbecue where the bar specializes in bourbon
  • Striper Bites, Lewes – coastal specialty with a fun bar scene
  • The Purple Parrot Grill , downtown Rehoboth –  the food is good, but come here for the very lively bar/biergarten scene and particularly for karaoke on Friday and Saturdays
  • Irish Eyes, Lewes – Irish/American dining on the Lewes waterfront, live music many evenings
  • Rustic Acres Farm Market, Holland Glade Road, Rehoboth – barbecue, bakery, and fresh ice cream
  • Touch of Italy,  multiple locations including Lewes and Rehoboth,  reasonably authentic Italian – OMG THE CHICKEN PARM!!!
  • Chesapeake & Maine, downtown Rehoboth – seafood with live music almost every night, part of the Dogfish Head complex
  • Matt’s Fish Camp , Lewes and Bethany – coastal / seafood
  • Houston White,  downtown Rehoboth, steakhouse
  • Iron Hill Brewery,  just outside Rehoboth – great for a large party, this small chain out of Philadelphia has a large tented patio and their own proprietary brews
  • 2nd Street Tavern, Lewes – American (fried green tomatoes topped w/ crabmeat is my favorite), lively with live music or sports on TV and big open Victorian porch
  • Revelation Brewery & DaNizza pizza truck, Rehoboth –  like eating in your friend’s backyard (that cool friend who makes their own beer)
  • La Tonalteca, on Rt 1 outside of Rehoboth – inexpensive but great Mexican, with several local restaurants, colorful seating, and great margaritas

Please note –  just because a restaurant isn’t listed above,  doesn’t mean it isn’t great!  To survive the quiet offseason,  you need to be GOOD.  We just haven’t visited them all…..

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a toast at Revelation

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Rustic Acres farm market

If there’s a silver lining to all of the grief and stress caused by the COVID pandemic, it’s that my job has pivoted to primarily work-from-home.  As a result, our relocation to Delaware is now on the fast track, and I’ll be spending a lot more time here.  I guess I‚Äôll just have to learn to love biking trails, parks, beaches, quaint towns, a slower pace, beautiful sunsets, and great food. And I’ll have to learn to tolerate all the Orioles and Phillies fans, instead of the NY ones I‚Äôve gotten used to ūüôā

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Lewes Sunset

Nayara Springs – Rainforests, volcanos, and luxury: oh my!

Switching gears on our 10th Anniversary Costa Rica trip, Husband I left the sunny, dry ¬†Peninsula Papagayo in Guanacaste and made our way to the rainforest and the small ¬†town of La Fortuna, Costa Rica.¬† The drive took us a little over 3 hours, and was, shall we say, a bit adventurous;¬† we may have made a wrong turn, but followed our trusty Google Maps.¬† Somehow we ended up on a mostly unpaved road,¬† essentially offroading over a mountain.¬† We were lucky to have a 4 wheel drive vehicle –¬† at one point it felt like we were climbing at a 90 degree angle!

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See where the blue line exits Rt 142 and appears to cut across? ¬†That’s the rough portion of the road. Thanks Google for making things…. interesting!

This friendly fellow greeted us at our lunch stop as we approached the Lake Arenal area:

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And by the way … excellent fried chicken to be had here!

As we made our way around Lake Arenal, we enjoyed incredible views of the Arenal Volcano, from across the lake:

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Those are clouds, not an eruption

Arenal is classified as an active volcano, with its last major eruption in 1968, but most recent in 2010. The volcano is surrounded by a mountainous rainforest full of wildlife and beauty. And it was here that we found our incredible resort, Nayara Springs, which was The. Best. Resort. I’ve. EVER. Visited. Period.

As is proudly displayed on its website, Nayara Springs has won a number of luxury travel awards. Since this was an anniversary trip, and we had used points at our other Costa Rican destination, the Andaz, we chose to splurge on this spot and Oh! was it worth it.¬† (Husband says:¬† Banker Chick is really good at finding excuses to book luxury).¬† Rooms –¬† which aren’t typical hotel rooms, but villas – ¬†1,500 freakin’ sq. ft. villas – average about $900 / night. Because we booked more than six months in advance, we got a special rate of 4 nights for the price of 3.¬† Still far from cheap, but again … this place was worth every penny. And I will note, ¬†they don’t nickel and dime you – ¬†there is no resort fee, and the resort includes a free in room mini bar (non-alcoholic), ¬†free breakfast, free laundry, and free international phone calls.

A few photos of our amazing villa:

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A romantic Anniversary greeting awaited us

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Seating area with fresh fruit and champagne

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Netting around the bed was unnecessary, there were no bugs in the room

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sliding glass doors to private balcony with infinity pool

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Infinity pool, surrounded by lush vegetation

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The bathroom was easily 500 sq. ft.  In this photo, indoor shower and outdoor shower

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Another view of outside shower. ¬†I couldn’t get enough of this bathroom!

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View across the bathroom. Did I tell you I couldn’t get enough?

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Hammock on patio just waiting for me…

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Ahhhh – pura vida!

Not only the villas, but the entire resort was maintained to perfection. Dense foliage surrounded well lit, hilly pathways:

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Since the resort is on the side of a mountain,  some of the terrain could be steep.  Fortunately, the resort offered golf cart transportation if needed.  We were glad to take the cart one night,  because our driver spotted this colorful little guy:

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Only in Costa Rica:  the red-eyed tree frog

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The path outside our villa in the evening

There are several restaurants on the property, ¬†which also offers evening entertainment. ¬†Because of the dark, mountainous terrain, ¬†it’s probably advisable to stay on property in the evening unless you are very comfortable with that kind of driving. ¬†We enjoyed meals at Mis Amores, a Latin bistro where breakfast is served, Asia Luna, a fusion restaurant, Nostalgia wine & tapas bar, and our favorite: Amor Loco, a sumptuous fine food restaurant with purple velvet seating – ¬†quite a contrast to the surrounding rainforest!

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That is a serious fruit plate – breakfast at Mis Amores

 

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Our waiter at Amor Loco preparing some kind of flaming drink

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Evening entertainment at Nayara Springs

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Returning to our villa,  well lit steps show just how secluded we were

Finally, ¬† ¬†I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the ¬†spa at Nayara Springs. ¬†Yes, I know, ¬†we went to the spa at Andaz … but Nayara was offering some kind of discount on their massages so we ended up going not once, but twice, ¬†squeezing in a second treatment on our last day. ¬†The spa at Nayara is open air, ¬†so rather than piped in nature sounds, what you hear is an actual rainforest! ¬†Try the chocolate scrub – ¬†wonderful.

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spa entrance at Nayara Springs

The resort was so beautiful, we spent most of our four days there enjoying its delights. ¬†However, we did manage to get off the property during the day a few times. ¬†I pre-booked a pass at Eco Termales Hot Springs. ¬†I don’t have any photos of this experience, because once arriving all electronics were stored safely in a locker. ¬†But we did enjoy the multiple thermal, sulfuric pools. ¬†The resort was clean, ¬†not at all crowded, and peaceful.

We also arranged a day tour through the resort: ¬†a private horseback riding and hanging bridges trek at ¬†Mistico Park in La Fortuna. Note that this tour is not featured on Nayara Springs’ website – ¬†be sure to ask the concierge about your choices. We were able to book just a a couple of days in advance. We paid $73 per person including transportation to and from the park.

If you want to be truly immersed in the treetops of the rainforest, and aren’t too afraid of heights, a hanging bridge trek is a great way to learn more about the flora and fauna of the area. There is a fair bit of hiking on uneven paths on this tour, and some up and downhill walking, ¬†so be prepared to be active (and to sweat) and wear good trekking shoes.

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View into the rainforest canopy

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Hanging on a bridge

Our horses, Tequila and Indio, were amazingly well trained and stable on steep and narrow pathways.  Once again we enjoyed the services of a fantastic local guide, Francisco.  Francisco hailed from Nicaragua, and has 17 Рseventeen!  brothers and sisters.  With so many siblings, he needed to support himself at a young age and migrated to Costa Rica, finding a home near Arenal where he became an excellent horseman.   We felt extremely safe with him and these horses.

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du du du du du DU du – TEQUILA!

 

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hey there, Indio!

During our tour we saw wild pigs,  a sloth, and a toucan in the wild. Francisco also pointed out an amazing Sleeping Plant (the dormilona),  also known as a Touch Me Not, that folds in upon itself when touched, to protect itself against predators and harsh weather.

Low clouds made the first part of our journey very foggy,  obscuring the views Рthe photo below actually looks over a hill, toward Lake Arenal and the volcano (just trust me):

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Francisco in the Fog

But, within less than 30 minutes,  the clouds partially cleared.  Francisco was kind enough to take us back to the scenic hilltop for more photos:

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Arenal volcano, partially obscured by clouds, in the background

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We hated to leave Nayara and the rainforest.  I admit, although I knew the resort was going to be very nice based on the reviews and awards, I was surprised Р I thought it would be too buggy and humid for me to really enjoy.  But the amenities, people, and natural beauty far outweighed any negatives. We will be back!

We flew home from San Jose airport, about a 2 1/2 hour drive from the Arenal area but a bit less adventurous,  mostly via highway.  We have incredible memories of Costa Rica. Pura Vida!

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Pura Vida says it all in Costa Rica

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eco-friendly Costa Rica: Tico Tours Private Palo Verde Tour Review

First, a little thought on day tours. While I enjoy being an independent traveler and exploring at my own pace,¬† there is something to be said for a guided day tour, particularly when visiting a place to which you’ve never traveled.¬† There are two basic types of day tours –¬† group tours,¬† which take place on a bus or minibus and can include anywhere from 8 – 50 people,¬† and private tours which are, you guessed it, private and catered only to your group.¬† The latter can be a more expensive option, although if your group is more than 4 people,¬† not necessarily on a per person basis.¬† Group tours certainly have their place:¬† less pricy,¬† typically including all of the well researched highlights of a region, meeting fellow travelers, well trained guides with a microphone or headset. Reviews abound.¬† ¬†They are simply … predictable.¬† Private tours, on the other hand,¬† offer the traveler the ability to design a “bespoke” day (I hate that word, btw,¬† followed closely by “curated”) –¬† seeing and doing exactly what you want to do.¬† Stop to take a picture of that cute cow. Stop for water or the toilet.¬† Grab lunch when you’re hungry, or skip it entirely.¬† But of course, that flexibility comes at a cost –¬† not only a financial one, but the risk of a little less predictability. The quality and knowledge of the guide makes a huge difference here.

With that said,¬† Husband and I were very pleased we chose to take a private tour, arranged by¬†Tico Tours Guanacaste (which offers both types of tours),¬† called¬†the Palo Verde tour.¬† If you click on the “rates” section of the tour page,¬† you will see the choice between group or private touring. This tour included a visit to its namesake National Park,¬† Palo Verde,¬† full of local wildlife,¬† a boat ride down the Tempisque river, cultural stops and information, and lunch at a hacienda once owned by a former President of Costa Rica.

And so,¬† we’re off!

Our guide, Mario, actually majored in becoming a tour guide.¬† His knowledge was evident as he told us a little about Costa Rica’s history:¬† first, a reminder that the Americas weren’t discovered by Christopher Columbus, but by the Chinese, as evident on maps made well before 1492.¬† Then, the interesting note that unlike much of Central and South America,¬† Costa Rica was not initially populated by the Spanish.¬† Why?¬† Because there wasn’t any gold.

While Costa Rica’s abundant farmland produces cantaloupe, pineapple, palm oil, bananas, coffee, watermelon, and citrus fruits, an important crop is sugar cane.¬† Did you know that sugar cane can be used to make a wide variety of products, including molasses, fuel, and paper?¬† We didn’t! We stopped to watch migrants from Nicaragua harvest the sugar cane by hand, using machetes.¬† Apologies for the distance of the photo, but I didn’t want to get that close…

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Workers harvesting sugar cane in Guanacaste, Costa Rica

The Nicaraguan workers toiling under the hot sun are paid by the square meter harvested,¬† and as a result they move surprisingly fast given the heat. Mario explained that the majority of the workers are migrants, because the native Costa Ricans are financially well off and don’t need to do this type of hard labor.¬† He credits the excellent public education,¬† government provided healthcare, and the tourism industry for giving Costa Rica such a strong economy for the area.¬† The 9.16% income tax covers not only healthcare, but retirement pensions,¬† for residents of Costa Rica.¬† No wonder that many foreigners, especially Americans, are making Costa Rica home.

Our next stop was a visit along the Tempisque river, where oxen assist in dredging the riverbed for dirt and sand that will be used in making concrete:

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A fascinating, old world process…

Concrete is an essential product in Costa Rica, where most homes are built of concrete –¬† wood is too quickly rotted by termites here. Mario explained that using oxen to mine the cement base is more environmentally friendly,¬† maintains tradition, and keeps the profit in the pocket of local families rather than large corporations.

On our way to the hacienda lunch, Mario had a quiz for us.  He picked what appeared to be a fruit off a tree, and asked us what we thought it was:

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What is it?

A pepper? No.

A tomato of some sort?  No.

A sweet fruit like a mango or papaya? No.

We didn’t guess correctly until we were offered a number of clues:¬† It starts with a C. It’s sold at almost any grocery. It contains protein. It often comes in a can.¬† Finally….. it’s a nut.¬† What?¬† That “fruit” above is the casing for one, single cashew nut!¬† ¬†And by the way,¬† the rind has a nasty taste.¬† Amazing –¬† Every day I realize how much I don’t know,¬† and even more so when I travel.

Our next stop was a hacienda where we were led, along with other Tico Tours guests, on a cultural experience led by Ramon and Juanita,  a couple dressed in traditional clothing who run this small tourist attraction.  First, we watched the traditional process of extracting sugar cane, using oxen:

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yoked oxen walk in a circle, grinding pulp into sugar cane using a long pole

Ramon and Juanita also treated us to “puntalita”,¬† little corn-based snacks,¬† and taught me how to make a tortilla in preparation for a delicious, authentic lunch.

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Time to make the tortillas!

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I was a little intimidated by the hot, hot pan used to cook the tortillas

After lunch, we continued our journey,¬† deeper in to Palo Verde National Park,¬† where we embarked on our jungle river cruise.¬† Thanks to Mario’s eagle eyes,¬† on the way we were treated to a very special sight in the adjacent wetlands: the Jabiru.¬† Less than 100 of these stork-like birds remain in the wild in Costa Rica. Wow!

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A jabiru in Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Mario made note that Costa Rica has a very environmentally conscious wetlands law:  wetlands are not taxed,  and if kept wild,  owners actually receive a stipend from the government.

We embarked on a small boat for our eco-tour of the river, where our captain helped us spot various wildlife:

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Blue Heron

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Basilisk,¬† aka “Jesus Christ Lizard”, because they can walk on water

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Hello monkey!

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Crocodile on the move

On this highly informative tour,  we learned is that despite growing wealth through tourism and real estate development, Costa Ricans desire to preserve the many natural wonders that surround them. Moreover, Costa Ricans have a sense that their country is special.  And we agree!

Guanacaste, Costa Rica: bringing the heat – and the chill

For our 10th Anniversary,  Husband and I treated ourselves to a first class trip to Costa Rica.  Our first stop in this beautiful and friendly country was dry, sunny Peninsula Papagayo.

We flew directly from Newark to Liberia, ¬†the smaller of Costa Rica’s two major international airports, ¬†located in the country’s dry northwest. ¬† ¬†While I usually use points for flights, ¬†we were able to secure first class seats on United for the 5 hour flight, ¬†for under $500 each, ¬†by flying on a Wednesday. ¬† Note that for this trip we chose an “open jaw” route, ¬†flying into Liberia and home from San Jose, ¬†Costa Rica’s capital. ¬†I often search for this type of route, ¬†which allows flexibility in finding the cheapest/ lowest point flight choices, ¬†and also allows for movement within the trip without backtracking.

We secured a rental car through Vamos, ¬†a local company. ¬†The rental car experience felt very local … we were shuttled to a small office that could have (and probably did) double as someone’s home. ¬†There was a short wait for the car, a 4 wheel drive Dihatsu – ¬†which helped us acclimate to “Costa Rica time” – ¬†and then we were off to the beautiful¬†Andaz Costa Rica Resort at Peninsula Papagayo.

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Andaz Resort Lobby

Shout out to an article on The Points Guy,  a very helpful and friendly website for those who want to maximize the use of credit card points,  for making me aware of an excellent deal using Hyatt Points via my Chase Sapphire Reserve card.  For only 15,000 points per night,  we booked our room at the Andaz,  a beautiful resort situated on a steep hillside overlooking Culebra Bay on the Gulf of Papagayo.   A tremendous bargain, as the rooms typically go for up to $700 per night.

The points deal was supposed to offer us only a “Forest View”, ¬†but we were very pleased with the view we had, which included Culebra bay. ¬†Bright morning sunlight awoke us each morning, but the sunrise was worth the early waking time.

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Morning View from our covered balcony

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Our room at the Andaz

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A complementary Anniversary treat in our room at the Andaz

A few things to know about Papagayo,  if you plan to go:

  • It is close to Libera airport – less than an hour by car
  • It is extremely hot and sunny in March, and really, ¬†for most of the year. ¬†See this link:¬†Annual Average Weather for Peninsula Papagayo.
  • If you’re afraid of monkeys, ¬†staying there may be difficult; ¬†they are everywhere in the trees and even visited us by the pool once or twice. ¬†We were warned not to leave anything on the open balcony of our room, because the monkeys can be a little grabby…
  • The peninsula is developed as a luxury destination; ¬†while there is dry forest wilderness surrounding each resort, ¬†there are also luxuriously landscaped grounds and golf courses. ¬†Other nearby resorts include the Four Seasons, Secrets, and the Kasaiiya Papagayo Luxury Wilderness Retreat . ¬†In fact, the entire peninsula is gated and available only to guests or visitors to these resorts. We went through two sets of gates to get to the Andaz.
  • Because of the gated, resort nature of the area, ¬†there is no town or city to wander to find restaurants, bars, and nightlife. ¬†Therefore, ¬†it’s likely that you will end up dining at your hotel most evenings for dinner. ¬†Quiet relaxation is the order of the day.

We enjoyed each of the Andaz’ 3 main restaurants, Chao Pescao, a small plates venue; Rio Bhongo, which was the only restaurant serving breakfast; and Ostra, ¬†the resort’s special occasion, seafood specialty restaurant which served us the most amazing ceviche I’ve ever had. ¬†Because we had noted our anniversary on the reservation, we were treated to a bottle of champagne and special treat with our meal at Ostra:

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A Sweet anniversary

We also pampered ourselves with spa treatments,  a specialty at many of the resorts in this area. Pricey but worthwhile.  The spa includes its own small, shaded outdoor pool,  where Husband and I were the only occupants for several hours.

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Shaded spa pool at Andaz

When we visited the resort’s main pool one afternoon, we were treated to a visit from a family of Capuchin monkeys. ¬†They seemed quite comfortable posing for the camera and entertaining the resort’s guests.

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this little guy scared the bejeezus out of a lady sitting nearby

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well hello there little fella!

Despite the heat, relaxation, and excellent dining, we did manage to leave the resort a few times. ¬†We booked two private day tours with ¬†Tico Tours, a local company. ¬† The first was their “Palo Verde” tour. This tour was so informative and interesting, ¬†I wrote a separate post about it! ¬†Click here for my review of Tico Tours’ Palo Verde tour. Highly recommend. The other tour was an ATV tour of the vistas and beaches, found here on Tico’s website: ¬†Tico Dune Buggy Tour We enjoyed this tour too – ¬†plan to get dirty though!

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Following the leader

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Husband modeling the buff and goggles that protected our faces from the dirt.  Also looking ready to drive the Dune Buggy!

The Dune Buggy tour included a stop at an excellent beach bar/restaurant called Aquasport in the tiny enclave of Playa Hermosa. This is the kind of place I could spend many, many hours …¬† couldn’t you?

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Another day, ¬†we chose to drive ourselves around the Guanacaste area, ¬†discovering the small beach town of Playa Coco. ¬†The vibe in Playa Coco was truly unique; ¬†extremely casual, ¬†full of extremely suntanned surfers, locals, and a number of Americans, ¬†many of whom have relocated to Costa Rica permanently, or “snowbird” there during the winter. ¬†Each bar and venue we stopped at (and we stopped at several!) felt like Cheers – ¬†it seemed that everyone knew one another’s name.

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Coconutz Sport Bar,  Playa Coco

We even found an “Irish” pub in Playa Coco –¬† a necessary stop, because it was St. Patrick’s Day!

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We’re all a little Irish on St. Patrick’s Day!

Our stay in Guanacaste was an excellent introduction to northwestern Costa Rica. What we were soon to learn, however, is that it’s the diversity of Costa Rica’s experiences that make it such a fantastic destination. ¬†There is just so much more to uncover – ¬†and while Guanacaste is a very friendly, ¬†relatively developed, and not particularly remote beach area, ¬†its scenery and experiences are far less dramatic than much of the country has to offer. ¬†Click here to read about our next Costa Rican stop, ¬†which included¬†The. Best. Resort. I’ve. EVER. Visited.

Multigenerational Cruising on the Edge

I’ve been on over a dozen cruises, and have often seen large family groups cruising together, ¬†but never participated before – ¬†usually it’s just me and my husband, or me, husband and our kids. ¬†These big groups always seemed to be having a blast, ¬†and they are hard to miss because they often take up a lot of seats at the bar or pool.

In January, I finally had the opportunity to be part of “that group”. ¬† I cruised with 19 other extended family members, aged 19 – 88, ¬†on the beautiful Celebrity Edge. ¬† The ship and itinerary was chosen by the oldest of the group (“Nanny and Pop Pop”), ¬†who have limited mobility but wanted to find a way to spend time with their grandchildren that would be fun for all. ¬†We scheduled the trip just after Christmas, ¬†when several of the younger generation who attend college were on break.

Pros and Cons of Large Group Cruising:

 

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Con: it’s really hard to get a good group photo

I’ll get to my review of the Edge in a minute, but first I wanted to outline what I see as the advantages and disadvantages of cruising for a multigenerational group:

First, the positives of large group cruising:

  • There are enough activities to interest everyone in the group
  • If the group wants to break up and enjoy different areas of the ship according to interest, they can. ¬†When I’m with Husband, sometimes I find myself alone – ¬†he likes a sunny spot by the pool, I like a quieter spot in the shade, ¬†for example- ¬†that never happened on this trip. ¬† Similarly, ¬†if one of your party is tired and wants to rest in the room or sleep in, ¬†the other can still find things to do and people to do them with. ¬†And in our case, ¬†Nanny and Pop Pop didn’t need or want to visit the ports – they’ve seen them all before – ¬†but the rest of us could, and they still had things to do they enjoy such as the buffet and trivia.
  • Once you’re onboard, ¬†transportation isn’t a concern (unless you visit a port).
  • We all had the Beverage Package included in our cruise fare – ¬†so since dining is also included, there was no worry about splitting tabs.
  • Unlike, say, ¬†a beach rental house, ¬†no one has to cook or clean.
  • With set dining times, ¬†you are guaranteed seating for your large group at a specific time each night. ¬†In our case, we had two adjacent tables in the Cyprus dining room at 6:00pm.
  • Because there were so many of us, ¬†you could always find someone in the group ¬†by checking a few specific areas: ¬†for us, ¬†the Pool Bar, the Martini Bar, the Casino, or the Club. ¬†When hitting the buffet, we always tried to stay in one area so we could find each other.
  • You have an automatic cheering section whenever you play a game or sing karaoke!

Now, a few negative considerations / challenges with a large group:

  • While set dining works, ¬†it can get a little boring, ¬†and it’s difficult to try out “select” or “anytime” dining (where you aren’t scheduled) or specialty restaurants unless you split up the group. We were able to try a couple of the other main dining rooms (the Edge has 4), but only with a very early 5:30 reservation time. ¬†It was important to Nanny and Pop Pop that we all come together for dinner, ¬†so 5:30 or 6:00 it was.
  • We had a group text to communicate, ¬†but it was only partially useful as the Wifi on the ship was spotty (as I have found with virtually every cruise ship – it would be great if they figured this out once and for all).
  • Outside of cruise sponsored excursions, ¬†it wasn’t that easy to explore the islands with such a large group. ¬†We did take taxis to a beach club in Cozumel, which suited everyone, ¬†but at other ports it was more challenging to find something of interest, within everyone’s budget, ¬†along with the necessary transportation. ¬†See below for thoughts on our ports and what we did.

Review of Celebrity Edge:

Market segment: On to my thoughts on the Edge! I haven’t sailed with Celebrity since before I had children so that’s…. a long time. ¬†Celebrity is positioned as a slightly more upscale sister to Royal Caribbean, ¬†a mass market line that in my opinion is one of the best for families with children. ¬†Royal’s ships usually include waterslides, climbing rocks, zippiness, bungee or ropes courses, and other family-friendly features. Norwegian Cruise Lines, ¬†on which we have also sailed a number of times, ¬†is very comparable to Royal Caribbean. ¬†Celebrity, on the other hand, ¬†seems to be geared to a slightly older clientele, ¬†with more lounge, bar, and restaurant space and fewer child-friendly activities. ¬† The other passengers on board tended to average a bit older.

Public spaces: The ship itself is beautiful and very modern, ¬†dominated by gray and tan decor and beautiful lighting throughout. ¬†Debuting in 2019, ¬†the Edge, like most newer cruise ships, ¬†features unique and original spaces designed to separate them from other ships. ¬†On Edge, ¬†one unique feature is the “Magic Carpet”, ¬†a moveable open deck that hangs off one side of the ship. ¬† The Magic Carpet is utilized as a bar/lounge during the day, and a restaurant at night. ¬†It was worth visiting, just for the intrigue of being “off the Edge”. ¬†We didn’t love the Home Depot orange color of the Magic Carpet, ¬†which made it seem like it was under construction – ¬†not what you want when you’re 14 stories above the water. ¬†Another space, “Eden”, ¬†is a multistory, windowed space on the back of the ship that is filled with plants and flowers. ¬†It’s a lounge during the day, and there are shows at night that are choreographed to take advantage of the multiple stories and decks.

Our group, ¬†which included a large number of young twenty-somethings, found ourselves often in the Club, ¬†where dance parties and karaoke were the evening norm. Even Nanny joined in the dancing fun. ¬† The Club is a two story space designed to look like a clubbing space in the city, ¬†with a large dance floor, dark lighting, and many places to lounge around a bar. ¬† The Casino was also a popular spot in the evenings – ¬†Nanny and Pop Pop love their blackjack and Texas Hold’em, ¬†and the relatively low table minimums meant even the young’uns could participate and learn. ¬†Best of all, the Casino is non-smoking – ¬†a huge plus for us.

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Embarkation Day Drinks on the Magic Carpet

 

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Rooftop Garden restaurant

 

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Watching football on the Rooftop Garden

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The pool on Embarkation Day, before the crowds

 

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Eden Lounge

Overall, this ship felt less crowded than others I’ve been on, ¬†particularly on the two Sea Days. ¬†There were 2800 passengers, ¬†but we generally found at least a few seats wherever we wanted, even during prime time.

Food: ¬† Food taste is very subjective, ¬†but Husband and Oldest son all agreed that this was the best cruise ship food we’ve had. ¬†We never dined in a specialty restaurant, ¬†due to the group size; ¬†on other ships we’ve found that’s where the better food is as compared to “Main Dining”. ¬†On the Edge, ¬†Main Dining is split between 4 restaurants, each with a different theme: ¬†Cyprus (Mediterranean); ¬†Normandie (French); Tuscan (Italian); and Cosmopolitan (New American). ¬†While each menu leaned toward the theme, ¬†there were also non-theme items available. ¬†And, ¬†the special menu changed each night, ¬†which made it easier to dine in the same place nearly every night without getting bored. ¬† We were told that it’s possible to dine in one restaurant and order from another, but I don’t believe any in our group needed to do this. ¬† As a comparison, ¬†on Norwegian, ¬†the main dining restaurant menus do not change night to night, ¬†which is meant to encourage passengers to try alternative (upcharge) restaurants.

 

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Nanny and Pop Pop and “the kids” at dinner

We also found that the buffet, ¬†a cruise ship staple (I actually typed “stable”, ¬†which is adjacent to “hog trough”, ¬†which is what it is on some ships!). was of far better quality than we have experienced elsewhere. ¬†Instead of one long buffet counter, ¬†it was separated into stations, ¬†and at lunch time these stations changed each day. ¬†While there was always a deli, pizza, and grille counter, ¬†one day there was Indian food; ¬†another day Mexican, ¬† providing for plenty of variation. The “eggs your way” station at breakfast was crowded but they made an excellent poached egg. ¬† We never had a problem finding seating – ¬†something that can be an issue on other ships.

One small negative on this front: the bars were not well staffed.  Nearly everyone on board as a drink package,  so there was often quite a wait for drinks at the hotspots.

Cabins: Everyone in our group booked the same cabin type, ¬†an “Infinite Veranda”, and we were all near one another on Deck 7 near the main elevators. ¬†Deck 7 location was great – ¬†an easy walk down to the Martini Bar/ Club/ Restaurant areas on deck 4. ¬† I should also note that the Edge’s elevators seemed generally less crowded than we have experienced on other, larger ships. ¬†The only time there was a wait was on returning to the ship from port.

The cabins themselves are interesting. ¬†Typically, a cruise ship balcony cabin includes a sliding door to an outdoor balcony, ¬†which is partially encased by the ship’s exoskeleton above and below. ¬† On the Edge, ¬†there is no strict outdoor area, ¬†but the entire exterior wall of the cabin is glassed, ¬†and the top half can be lowered creating a “railing” like effect. ¬†There is also a room darkening shade for use at night, ¬†as well as a folding divider to close a balcony-sized area off from the rest of the room if you so choose – ¬†we never used this feature, ¬†but I can imagine that if one of the party wants to enjoy fresh air while the other is sleeping, ¬†it could be useful. ¬† The Infinite Veranda bathroom and shower were very well-sized, ¬†although I would say that some of the space was stolen from the closet, which we found small. ¬†There were plenty of areas in the cabin to store folded clothes, ¬†but the number of hangers and long-hanging space was limited.

I didn’t take any photos of our cabin, ¬†but here’s a great YouTube link showing how they work: ¬†Celebrity Edge Infinite Veranda Review

Activities:¬† It’s impossible to take advantage of every activity on a cruise ship, ¬†even if you stayed on board all week. ¬†But here are a few that our group particularly enjoyed:

  • Karaoke
  • Abba and Queen-themed dance parties, with song lyrics on a big screen for everyone to sing along
  • Trivia – we came in 3rd!? how is that possible?
  • Line dancing by the pool
  • Watching the “pool olympics”
  • Silent Disco – ¬†participants are given headphones which can be switched to one of three channels, ¬†led by DJs. Only those with the headphones can hear the music, so it’s funny to watch (and sometimes painful to listen). ¬†They created a kind of contest between the three channels, trying to get people to switch channels and sing along (imagine a large crowd, one third ¬†singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” another “Don’t Stop Believing” and the other third belting out “Sweet Caroline”).
  • Shows: ¬†our group saw one of the musical shows and a comedy show, and were divided on the quality. ¬†We generally enjoyed spending evening time in places where we could talk (and sing, and dance).

 

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Oldest and Nanny singing their hearts out

 

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Line Dancing by the Pool

 

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Pool dancing to “Hey Baby”

A few things we missed:  Wine and whiskey tasting,  entertainment in Eden, Deal or NO Deal game, Newlywed game, behind-the-scenes ship tours, art auctions, acupuncture, footprint analysis, and a few of the shows. Note that some of these activities require an extra cost,  or they are trying to sell you something (as with almost everything sponsored by the Spa).

Western Caribbean ports:  I was the designated planner, and provided suggestions, but we arranged a teleconference to make some group decisions.  We chose the following for each port on our itinerary:

    • Key West, Florida: ¬†We wandered the downtown area individually and meet up at Hogs Breath bar. ¬†Some of our group ended up renting bikes too.
    • Costa Maya, Mexico: This man made cruise port doesn’t really have a lot to do, other than the beach. ¬†We all met up at the large beach/pool/shopping area just at the end of the dock. ¬†This worked because we all arrived at separate times, ¬†some as early as 9:00am and others didn’t wander off the ship until noon.
    • Cozumel, Mexico: Here we booked Nachi Cocom¬†beach club, ¬†an all inclusive experience with a pool, beach, Mexican food, drinks, and optional water sports and massages. ¬†There were 8 (eight!) ships in port that day, so we were very glad to have a reserved place to go. ¬† We had no problem getting into the taxi queue and finding 2 van taxis for the group of 16 that attended.
    • Grand Cayman: ¬†We had booked a cruise ship excursion to Sting Ray City, ¬†a well-known sandbar where the tame stingrays swim around. ¬†Unfortunately, ¬†we were notified the day prior that the excursion was cancelled due to weather concerns, as there was rain in the forecast. ¬† It actually didn’t end up raining, so this was a bit of a disappointment; ¬†our group made their way independently to Calico Jack’s on Seven Mile Beach and enjoyed the beach itself but found Calico Jack’s to be overpriced and crowded. ¬†All agreed that it’s an island we would like to revisit with better plans.

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The view from Costa Maya’s port beach area. ¬†3 big ships!

 

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Relaxing at Nachi Cocom, Cozumel

 

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That’s the idea!

I’ve been to all of these ports before, so I can’t say I was either overly amazed or disappointed in any of them – ¬†they are all, unfortunately, a bit overrun with cruise ship passengers. ¬†It’s a conundrum for the cruise lines, ¬†because the large ships can only dock or tender at certain ports – ¬†if you want a more unique itinerary, ¬†take a much smaller ship.

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Nanny & Grandsons in The Club: Multigenerational Cruising at its best!

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