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 – seventeen!  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 – the 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 –  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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Sun setting over Miami.  Is there a better sunset than one at sea?

Colmar: Soggy days and Indian food – but the Oo-la-la prevails

The final stop on our fall 2019 trip was Colmar, France,  which we reached by taking the “scenic route” Alpine through southern Germany, the western edge of Austria, and Switzerland.    Unfortunately the route disappointed due to heavy rain and fog, which obscured the views of the mountains and Lake Constance, and increased the traffic.  Oh well,  now we have a reason to return…  At the very least, it was interesting crossing all of the borders –  we had to buy a vignette to drive through Switzerland,  and we got confused and bought it in Austria when we thought we were already in Switzerland.   Good thing, though,  as we avoided a long line at the Swiss border, which unlike the other borders we had crossed was manned with gates and military personnel.

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The border exiting Switzerland, back to Germany on our way to France 

After the whirlwind of Munich during Oktoberfest, the slower, off-season pace of the Alsace region  was just what the doctor ordered.  We stayed in an apartment found on Booking.com:  Les Appartements Saint-Martin.  Tucked away in a courtyard in the shadow of Eglise Saint-Martin,  our room was comfortable and well-stocked.   It was a bit of an adventure on narrow cobblestoned one-way streets finding the place, and then finding the free parking lot which was about 3/4 mile away,  but the location couldn’t have been better for wandering Colmar’s timeworn avenues.

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Rue des Marchands, where our apartment was located. Cars can actually drive on these streets (?!)

After 9 days traveling in Germany, we were looking forward to the change in cuisine from pork-and-potato heavy German food to the French-influenced Alsatian dishes and bakeries.   Our first night in Colmar,   we made our way to “Le Petite Venise”, a scenic neighborhood interspersed with canals, and were lucky to find a table at Brasserie Schwendi,  a popular cafe.     Here we tried the two house specialties:

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Tarte Flambée
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Roasti with Pork
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un biere et un petit vin – these tall, small glasses are unique to Alsace

Tarte Flambee is a flatbread made with ham, onions, and goat cheese, and Roasti with Pork,  comes in a cast iron skillet and was,  basically, pork-and-potatoes,  but with cream and cheese to make it even more fattening. We weren’t complaining, it was delicious! Oo-la-la!

We had two full days to spend in Colmar before heading toward Frankfurt and our flight home.  The first,  a Saturday,  was spent wandering the little town.  It was chilly and rainy,  so we took it pretty easy,  but my activity app still says we clocked over 6 miles.  We performed all the classic tourist Oo-la-la activities: shopping in the stylish French boutiques,  stopping for coffee and pastry in a cute bakery, visiting the cheesy gift shops, exploring the church, trying out my very limited French, and taking photos of the quaint little town.

 

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Le Petit Venise, Colmar

 

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The years have taken a toll on this pretty house

We also visited  two wine tasting rooms –  a great activity for a bad weather day when you aren’t driving!  I can recommend both  Domaine Martin Jund and Domaine Karcher.  We actually ordered wine from Domaine Karcher and shipped it home to stock our wine room with excellent, well priced whites.  The wines cost as little as $6/bottle, although shipping costs are high so it only makes sense to send a full case or two.

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Although it was decidedly not Colmar’s peak season,  it was a Saturday, and there seemed to be many visitors in the town,  primarily French and German speaking.  We didn’t have a dinner reservation – MISTAKE! –  and were surprised that a number of restaurants were “Complet” –  full and not accepting more diners,  even if we were willing to wait.  Some actually had signs on the door –  don’t even bother asking.   The better restaurants in Colmar don’t try to turn tables the way American restaurants do –  they seem satisfied with one seating per table.  After trying a number of places in the La Petite Venise area,  we wandered back toward our apartment with the intention of finding dinner at a little Italian place just across the street.  On the way, though,  we discovered Le Maharajah,  a small, family-run Indian restaurant on Grand Rue –  what a find!  Maybe we were just so tired of the pork-and-potatoes that the different cuisine woke up our taste buds,  but we really enjoyed the food here.  Online reviews of Le Maharajah (which doesn’t have a website) aren’t spectacular,  but we are glad we ignored them.

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The Maharajah menu:  short & sweet!

On our second day in Colmar,  a Sunday, all of the shops were closed as expected.  So we took to the Route-des-vins,  the Wine Road that winds through the lower Alsace region.  We didn’t go as far as Strasbourg,  which is the largest city in the area,  because we were a little citied-out after Munich.  We intended on visiting a chateau high above the little town of Riquewihr, but once again the weather daunted us, and the chateau was enveloped in clouds so we skipped it.  We also tried to stop at the harvest Wine Festival in Eguisheim, but were unable to find parking within the tiny, walled city – it was raining again, and we didn’t want to be too far from the car –  so we left in a bit of frustration.  Here are a couple of photos from our drive:

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Foreground: vineyard                     Background: Riquewihr

 

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Wine tasting: open on Sundays!
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The tiny town of Saint-Hippolyte

 

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That evening, we ended up back at Brasserie Schwendi –  not very creative,  but we seemed to hit a wall thanks to the bad weather.  We enjoyed meeting a Chinese couple who spoke excellent English;  they had been traveling for 23 days throughout France –  these are always my favorite travel moments.  I’m always jealous of those who can travel for such a long period of time.

Our 3 days and 2 nights in Colmar was dampened by, well,  the damp … but we enjoyed it enough to want to return one day in sunnier, warmer weather!  We both noticed the not-so-subtle change in culture from Germany to France:  Germans are more precise;  French are unhurried;  Germans will gladly tell you what to do;  French will laugh at your mistakes but allow you to make them; French clothing is more chic and polished.  I have both German and French lineage and it became a joke that “my German was showing” every time I tried to rush Husband or dictate our next move.  I’m not sure what happened to my French blood, because I am definitely not unhurried or stylish!  I can’t even bake well.  But,  I do enjoy wine so…  Oo-la-la!

 

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Oktoberfest: Planning Tips for Partying with the World

In a world that often seems divided,  whether by country, politics, religion, or otherwise, Munich’s Oktoberfest stands in stark contrast. Every year,  millions of patrons from around the world descend on the 16-day annual festival,  which has run since 1810 when it originated in celebration of the marriage of King Louis I (then crown prince of Bavaria)  to Princess Therese.   Today, the festival celebrates Bavarian culture including food,  dress, music, and of course, BEER! 

 

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Inside the Paulaner tent

A few fun statistics from Oktoberfest 2019 (courtesy of https://www.oktoberfesttours.travel/2019/10/10/oktoberfest-2019-beer-consumption/) 

  • 6.3 million patrons consumed 7.3 million liters of beer
  • Attendees hailed from at least 55 nations
  • Lost and Found items included 660 wallets,  420 mobile phones, and a set of dentures (oops!)  

A lot of early planning went into making our visit a success.  Here are a few tips and a review of our experience:

LODGING: Because Oktoberfest attracts so many visitors,  central Munich lodging must be booked well in advance or we would have ended up staying well outside the city.   I had booked the Platzl Hotel (https://www.platzl.de/en/) way back in January,  to ensure we would have a comfortable room in a great location walkable to the Fest. It wasn’t cheap, but the rooms were comfortable, very near Marienplatz in Munich’s Old Town and the famous Hofbraeuhaus,  and I thought it would be a reasonably close walk to the festival grounds. It was,  but just barely –  more on that below.

LOCATION AND TRANSPORTATION: Here’s a tip from my experience:   When figuring out the distance to Oktoberfest from your lodging, note that a simple Google Map routing to Thereisenweise,  the name of the park where Oktoberfest is held, will not necessarily tell you how far you are from the grounds:  Add at least 1/2 a mile.  Due to security, there are only a couple of entrances to the actual festival.  It’s easy enough to follow the crowd toward the grounds (I promise, you won’t miss it!), but once you reach the perimeter you may have to walk quite a ways,  sometimes away from the grounds through crowd barrier chutes,  to enter the park.   While our hotel was only 1.4 miles (as “the crow flies”),  we walked over 2 miles in addition to a lot of walking within the festival.   On our first day, when we also walked to Bavarian Outfitters (see below),  I clocked over 11 miles on my Apple watch!  After our second evening outing, we caved and got a cab for our tired feet.

CLOTHING: I also pre-reserved rented Trachten (his & hers traditional Bavarian clothing) from Bavarian Outfitters.   The pickup location for the clothing was on the southern edge of Old Town, and reminded me of the pop-up Halloween costume stores that seem to multiply each year at home.  It was an undecorated, rented space with racks and racks of clothing.  I also later realized that there are many similar stores around Munich during the Fest;  pre-reserving probably wasn’t necessary as we were just guessing at sizes anyway, and ended up taking something different than we had reserved.  The results,  however were worth every penny!   Whether you reserve ahead or not,  do rent or buy the clothing, you won’t be sorry!

 

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Husband and I in our Trachten

ATTEND WITH FRIENDS: Another key to the fun was meeting up with friends in Munich.  Oktoberfest is definitely a “more the merrier” type of place, and it seemed the majority of attendees were part of a larger group.  One couple joined us for our entire stay in Munich,  and we also joined forces with family friends to reserve a whole table at the Marstall tent our first night in town. 

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BEER TENT RESERVATIONS: Regarding tent table reservations:  it’s a little crazy.   Many tables are not available to the public;  think of it like season tickets for a popular sports team  – they only go to people who already have a reservation from prior years. Forget about making a reservation on Friday or Saturday, unless you choose to use a service that charges you extra.   And you can’t reserve just a few spots, you need to reserve and pay for the whole table which is 8 – 12 people.  While the tents don’t actually charge for the reservation itself,  you do need to prepay a minimum spend on the food and drink;  in our case for Marstall it was about $50/per person.   In our case,  I was able to snag a Sunday night reservation thanks to alerts from Weisnkini,  which I highly recommend subscribing to if you plan to attend Oktoberfest. I received emails regularly when table reservations became available, and we reserved literally the last table in the Marstall tent for that evening.

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Outside the Marstall tent

 

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View from the very last available table at Marstall

Google Translate was invaluable with the reservations.  While most of the tents have an English page,  the reservation confirmation and “terms and conditions” are all in German –  yikes!  Here’s my confirmation:

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WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE A TENT RESERVATION:  It would be unlikely (and expensive) to get a reservation for more than one night at the Fest.  If you plan to attend more than once, as we did,  just be prepared to go with the flow.  You won’t get a beer if you aren’t seated. Here are the best options without a reservation:

  • Go during the daytime – before 4pm
  • Avoid weekends, especially weekend evenings
  • Look for seating in the outdoor biergartens adjacent to each tent
  • Go in small groups or be prepared to split up –  there is a much better chance to squeeze into a table with 2 or 4 people than with 8 or 10
  • Be patient;  a little seat-hawking can be worth while –  when you see a group with mostly empty beer glasses, just bide your time nearby as they may be preparing to move on.  There’s still plenty of excellent people-watching activity until you get your beer!
  • Pop into a tent near the end of the night;  within an hour or so of closing,  tents start to empty and you will be able to enter and find a spot at a table
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    Biergarten fun

 

YOUTUBE THE SONG, “EIN PROZIT”.  So you don’t think they are saying “I’m frozen, I’m frozen…” like I did.   #misheardlyrics

DRINK RESPONSIBLY:  Or not.  It’s up to you.  You will be in good company if you choose to overindulge –  the medics are kept busy at Oktoberfest! But the beers are large –  not only do you want to minimize bathroom trips,  (especially for the ladies –  lines and ewwww), but you want to be able to make it home in one piece. On our walk back to the hotel, we saw a group gathered around one of their fallen compatriots –  just completely passed out on the curb.  The police were summoned,  determine he was still breathing, and moved on –  this is just not an emergency in Munich at Oktoberfest.  Another fellow was passed out inside an ATM lobby. Here are a couple of fellow partiers who didn’t quite finish the night:

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MAKE FRIENDS FROM AROUND THE WORLD:  We met people from France, Canada, Australia, Germany, the UK, and Dubai in addition to other Americans.  Whether sharing your table, or at adjacent tables, or on the dance floor,  find your inner extrovert and enjoy meeting people from all over the world!

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Our new friend, “Dubai Guy” was traveling alone.  Ready to head home in his G6

If you’re lucky,  your friend will enjoy enough beer to buy a chicken hat (press a button, and the legs move to the “chicken dance” song),  which will help you make friends!

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A 6’4″ American wearing a chicken hat is a sure hit at Oktoberfest…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tourism: Can too much be a good thing? Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany

The next leg of our trip took Husband and I to Rothenburg ob Der Tauber, a well known stop on Bavaria’s “Romantic Road”. We booked a one night stay, as a stopover on the roughly 6 hour drive between the Rhine Gorge and Munich.

I had read that “RODT”, as it’s often referred to, has become overrun with tourists since being heavily featured by European travel guru Rick Steves, along with other travel sites. https://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/germanys-fairytale-dream-town-rothenburg. I mean, “FAIRY TALE DREAM TOWN” is quite a superlative, isn’t it? No wonder everyone wants to visit. Our late September visit may not have been during peak summer season, but the city was certainly full of tourists; my guess is that many, like us, were on their way to or from Oktoberfest in Munich, which is a little over 2 hours away by car.

RODT lives up to its billing, largely because of a very well preserved medieval center, complete with intact walls that surround the inner city. We entered by driving through one of these walls onto charming cobblestone streets:

Entering Rothenburg by car

Our hotel, the Burghotel Rothenburg, is built into one of these town walls, making for interesting architecture. https://burghotel.eu/index.php?id=8&L=1 This hotel is a great example of the small, independent European inn I prefer when traveling.

Burghotel main entrance

Our suite, room 2, was conveniently located on the ground floor, and included an external door onto a patio / town wall. The only negative about this large, comfortable room was that it was right below the breakfast serving area, resulting in a lot of sliding chair noise around 7 am.

Town wall, right outside our room
Hotel gardens, as seen through the wall

Here I must highlight one of the precious experiences that define why I love travel. As usual, it involved a person rather than a tourist attraction.

Checking us into the Burghotel was an older gentleman, by my guess at least 75 years old. I later learned that he is Otto, patriarch of this independent, family-owned hotel. Tripadvisor reviews are full of mentions of Herr Otto, who clearly takes great personal pride in providing a good experience for the hotel’s guests. He was well-dressed in a proper suit and tie. We were the only guests checking in, and the process took at least 15 minutes – which was, in this case, NOT a bad thing. Slow Travel, indeed! I cannot recall the last time such attention was paid in a customer-service situation. He wasn’t staring at a screen, and he took the time to s-l-o-w-l-y handwrite a card with breakfast and checkout times. He s-l-o-w-l-y walked outside to check our car’s parking spot – the hotel offers free parking, which is key within the walls of Rothenburg. Then, even though our room was on the ground floor and only about 50 feet from the check-in desk, he offered to carry our bags. Needless to say Husband wasn’t going to let this gentleman carry them, but Otto was very insistent so I let him roll my bag down the hall. Thank you, Otto!

After settling in to the room, we set off to explore Rothenburg. It’s not a large city, but we managed to stay busy for several hours walking along the top of the medieval walls, enjoying cappuccino and a pretzel at a bustling cafe, and shopping, particularly in the rambling Kathe Wolfhart Christmas store. Here are a few photos of our afternoon expedition:

Arches and cobblestones and me, oh my!
A boutique fashion show was about to take place on this lively street
On the wall… don’t be tall
view from the wall… it’s hard to argue with the “FAIRY TALE DREAM TOWN” moniker
yum break

Christmas store = thousands of ornaments. I’m amazed we spent less than $100 here…. A few photos below:

After our walk, we grabbed a light dinner at the hotel’s restaurant across the street. After the rich food at the Castle in Oberwesel, I was ready for some schnitzel:

and schnitzel I had! along with the best fries of the trip

At 8:00pm, we walked to the main town square, and joined about 1000 other tourists for Rothenburg’s Night’s Watchman tour.

Waiting for the tour to begin

The tour is presented in English, and I thought I had read that it was free. However, the guide did request an 8€ pp payment at the end of the tour. It may have been free if you wandered away before the end, as I believe more than a few patrons did … The “Watchman” who gave the tour carried a lantern, was dressed in classic medieval garb, and spoke with what I thought of as a Monty Python-esque lisp. I didn’t get great photos in the dark, but here’s one:

As you can see, we were joined by many other visitors (although I was exaggerating about 1000), which made it a little hard to hear at times. I guess “free” has a way of attracting the masses!

Nonetheless, the guide was entertaining we learned some very interesting details about Rothenburg and medieval life in general:

  • The role of the night watchman during medieval times was not for security, but to shout “fire!” if necessary, since fire was the most destructive and dangerous threat to community life.
  • We knew that the plague that reduced Europe’s population by 60% in the 1500’s came from rats … but I didn’t realize that the rats didn’t arrive in Europe until ships carried them from China. Globalization certainly comes with its pros and cons…
  • We learned that as a merchant center, Rothenburg was one of the world’s top 20 cities during medieval times, and boasted a population of over 6000.
  • In 1640, the city was sacked by Catholic forces and never really recovered. The people of the city couldn’t afford to modernize or update their homes in the succeeding 3 centuries. This led to an unusual number of original buildings still standing in the 1890s…
  • … when, due to industrialization and improved passenger ship travel, tourists discovered Rothenburg. The advent of tourism brought enough money to enable the town to preserve the buildings and town wall against their advancing age and weather.
  • In 1945, as Allied forces marched across Germany at the end of WWII, the town was again saved from destruction due to tourism: the American general who led the charge had memories of a painting of Rothenburg in his home – because his own mother had travelled there during the early 1900s and had fond memories of the city. So, he convinced the forces not to destroy Rothenburg.

All in all, one night in Rothenburg was sufficient for us, but the town could also be used as a base to discover other nearby towns on Bavaria’s Romantic Road. FAIRY TALE DREAMS may lead to lots of tourists, but that’s not all bad.

Evening photo of Rothenburg

Fairy Tale Germany is not a Fairy Tale

So you may be familiar with those Viking River Cruise commercials, with swooping drone views of a gorgeous river surrounded by foliage, pretty towns, and castles on nearby peaks? Well, I can confirm that they didn’t fake that footage. It’s real, and it’s the “Rhine Gorge” / aka Upper Middle Rhine Valley in Germany. This picturesque area runs from Koblenz in the north to Bingen in the south, and is less than an hour from Frankfurt.

Soon after exiting the highway onto winding B9, also known as “Mainzerstrasse” in many of the German towns along the west side of the Rhine, we began to see the half-timbered buildings so prevalent in fairy tales. Our first stop was for lunch in Bacharach.

Lunch was delicious – we were the only ones in the restaurant, as it was a rainy day and not many tourists were wandering the streets of Bacharach. We didn’t mind, the staff was attentive without smothering us.

Next, we made our way to the smaller town of Oberwesel, about 20 minutes further up the B9, to our lodging for two nights: Castle Hotel Schoenburg. https://www.hotel-schoenburg.com/en/ This was a small splurge, with dinner included in our stay both nights. I’ve never stayed in a castle, and when over the summer I was sadly reminded that our days on Earth are limited, I reacted by booking one. It’s time.

This was really a WOW experience.

“I’m on my way, driving at 90 down old country lanes” – Ed Sheeran

The Castle Hotel Schoenburg doesn’t have a street address. Directions are, in essence… Drive to Oberwesel, look up, follow the road. Not good for an uptight planner like me, but we made it.

We stayed in room 20, which, like many of the hotel’s rooms, boasted river views and a small balcony.

View from Room 20
Room 20

The hotel’s public areas certainly felt authentic, even though only the original castle was burned down in 1689 and the castle was not recreated until the 19th century.

Our hotel booking included a sumptuous, 4 course tasting menu style dinner. Dishes over the 2 nights included beef carpaccio, venison pate, wild boar, lobster soup, and Black Forest cake. Very rich and very delicious.

With 2 nights in Oberwesel, we were able to spend the full day in between exploring the river on a KD Rhine hop on, hop off day cruise.

Our northbound transportation:

The day started dark and gloomy, but as we headed north by boat, we found the sun!

Scenes like this one floated by…

We passed the Lorelei, a steep rocky outcropping that has inspired its own fairy tale: the beautiful Lore Lay, betrayed by her sweetheart, is accused of bewitching men and causing their death. Rather than sentence her to death, the bishop consigns her to a nunnery. On the way thereto, accompanied by three knights, she comes to the Lorelei rock. She asks permission to climb it and view the Rhine once again. She does so and thinking that she sees her love in the Rhine, falls to her death; the rock still retained an echo of her name afterwards. (courtesy – Wikipedia). Cool story, bro!

We chose to debark in Boppard, a beautiful riverside town, about an hour from Oberwesel by water. We were in luck: the town’s annual 4-day Wine Festival was starting that very day, so the town was buzzing with local vintners and festival attendees. We wandered and shopped, and eventually settled into a table in the main town square, embarking on a beloved European activity: drinking and people watching.

Husband says Prost!
A live band!
St Severus Church looms over the wine festival tents

As the day turned to evening, the wine festival began to fill up. We ended up talking to a lovely family with two young daughters, who hailed from Colorado, for quite awhile. I admired their bravery in traveling to Europe with young children – most of my trips as the parent of young kids involved Disney or a beach. As it turned out, I had actually taken a photo of their daughter, earlier in the afternoon, as she danced and sniffed flowers in the town square. Hopefully if they read this, they don’t think I was stalking them!

It’s ALWAYS good to stop and smell the flowers.

The wine festival was just getting started, but we took a train back to Oberwesel . The river runs north, so the southbound boat trip would have been lengthy – we couldn’t miss our second castle dinner! We look forward to returning to the area and particularly Boppard, which was charming but not overrun with tourists.

A fairy tale, indeed.

Just waiting for Rapunzel….

Driving the German Autobahn: Where are the potholes?

Hooray!  Husband and I have arrived in Frankfurt, Germany at the start of a new 12 day trip that will take us to several destinations:  the Rhine Valley region,  a short stop on the Romantic Road,  Munich for Oktoberfest, a daytrip to Salzburg, Austria, and the Alsace region of France.  We rented a car for the entire trip.

We rented through a US company called Gemut.com, which specializes in  European and particularly German vehicle rentals for US citizens.  I liked the idea of having a US 1-800 number to call in an emergency, with the promise of an English speaker on the other end of the line.  Plus,  the price was good –  really good. Gamut books German rentals through a consolidator called Auto Europe, for a car rental with Europcar. The price was 10-20% less than booking directly to either of those websites.  I also priced out Sixt and Hertz,  two other big providers.  Gemut was also very responsive when I had questions prior to the trip. 

Side Note: I’m a Hertz Gold Club member through ownership of a Marriott Vacation Club property, and their prices are just never, ever competitive.  Why is that?

We found the Europcar desk and because we had arrived early,  the car I had reserved, a 4 door sedan with automatic transmission in the Premium category (BMW, Mercedes, or Audi) wasn’t available yet.  I’m not sure I believe that one would have suddenly become available in the next 45 minutes, but whatever.  The major difference in what we got was that it was not a sedan, but a station wagon.  Maybe not as “sexy” from an American point of view, but as the Europcar agent noted,  Germans looooove their station wagons.  This proved true –  there aren’t many SUVs on the roads here, but a plethora of high-end wagons.  My guess is they are more aerodynamic than a behemoth SUV. Also, the agent waived the usual charge for a second authorized driver –  we knew we both wanted to drive here. So,  no harm no foul.  5 doors instead of 4. All good.  I neglected to take a good photo of our actual car, but here is the general idea (credit bmw.com):

I declined the CDW insurance,  after reading and rereading the terms and benefits of my Sapphire card –  we were clearly covered as primary insurance,  this saved us hundreds of dollars.  Always read the fine print though :  there are exclusions,  such as not having the primary cardholder as the renter, super high-end exotic cars,  and tires and windshields. In contrast to experiences I’ve had renting cars in the US, the German Europcar agent did not press us to buy any insurance.

We spent a good 15 minutes in the rental car garage, figuring out the car’s menu, setting up bluetooth, and getting the navigation, etc. to work in English rather than German:

Eventually we got it set up and entered our first destination,  tiny Oberwesel on the Rhine River, about an hour from the airport. I don’t like to plan a long drive after a sleep-deprived overnight flight,  so I always try to keep the first destination within an hour. 

The car ended up having a “pop-up display”,  visible to the driver only, displaying the vehucle’s speed, speed limits, and navigational information including directions onto the lower windshield.  This ended up being very useful.  We drove over 1800 kilometers on this trip – about 800 miles – and experienced road closures,  border crossings, lots of construction, small cities with narrow cobblestone streets, and widely varying speed limits. 

I was impressed with the car’s technology. In addition to the pop up display,  parking sensors, and lane deviation/ correction capability, we were frequently rerouted around traffic,  and the car seemed to know where every speed limit change occurred.  On the highway,  speed limit changes were numerous and frequent, and it wouldn’t have been easy for the driver to notice every sign.  This car not only  displayed the limit,  but on both the dashboard and the pop up window,  our speed would display as red if we were over the limit, white if under it.   

Things you see on German highways, part 1

I was also impressed with German highways – the “Autobahn” in general.  Here, an important side note/ question:  am I the only American who thought there was ONE Autobahn? If so,  feel free to laugh at me.  “The German Autobahn” turns out to be any major highway starting with “A”.    And many, many miles of these “A” roads indeed have speed limits,  especially through construction zones and congested city areas. But –  then you see a speed limit with a line through it,  usually in a wide open, rural area –  and there it is – the limitless Autobahn of lore. *tingle*

Things you see on German highways, Part 2

We did experience a fair amount of traffic,  especially around Munich (Oktoberfest brings in 6,000,000+ visitors so this was hardly surprising)  and often there were brief slowdowns caused by construction.  It seems as though every 10-20 miles,  lanes were closed.  Bridges, tunnels, open stretches.  Germany is spending heavily on road infrastructure.  The result, over our 800-plus-mile journey ?  NO potholes.  And NO accidents.  The highways are correctly graded,  with minimal intersections and wide exit and entrance lanes.  We dealt with a lot of rain, but no ponding of water on the road. These roads are well maintained. 

Things you see on German highways, Part 3

So, want to hear about our little bit of adventure in the limitless Autobahn?
Both Husband and I kind of like to drive fast. We are from New Jersey, after all. But,  we also consider ourselves to be safe drivers,  never tailgating ,  minimizing lane changes, and keeping with the flow of traffic.   We’re just unlikely to be driving in the right lane,  content behind a tractor trailer. 

When we hit the limitless areas,  we typically enjoyed driving along with most of the other left lane vehicles at 150-170 kilometers per hour ( in the 80-90 mph range). It was rare, however that we could go much faster than this –  due to rain, wet roads, and congestion, we hesitated to really test out the BMW’s potential.  But , over the course of the trip,  each of us got the golden opportunity we were looking for –  a wide,  3 lane road ,  dry conditions, no cars in front of us, and a straightaway with long forward views.  When we got that chance …. yep, we punched the gas pedal. 

It should be noted that drivers in Germany are much more vigilant about the ‘keep right, pass left” laws that also exist in the States, but are rarely followed, at least where I live.  Trucks are almost never seen out of the right lane.  And when in the left lane,  if a driver sees a faster approaching car in the review mirror,  they move to the right.  How refreshing !!  

Our  top speeds were only maintained for a few seconds each, and then we returned to the safer, slightly slower speeds.  

Wheeeeee!

The display in kph added to the rush we experienced –  seeing “200” on the gauge.  Yikes!  Husband won the top speed award, hitting 219 kph (136mph!). We were both more than thrilled by the experience. 

One final note for those who might be considering driving in Germany, but traveling across country borders. In either Switzerland or Austria, a vignette (toll sticker) is required, and must be purchased either before entering the country, or immediately thereafter in the case of Austria / at the border in the case of Switzerland.

Austrian vignette on top; Swiss vignette on bottom

Vignettes are available at most gas stations and convenience stores near the border. The Austrian sticker cost about $10 for a 10-day pass; the Swiss sticker was only available for the year, and cost about $40. It will be a lucky day for any future drivers who rent the same car and want to drive into Switzerland in 2019, I guess… We were glad we purchased our vignette before crossing the Swiss border, because there was a long line for cars waiting to purchase their stickers.

Our German/Austrian/Swiss/French driving experience was, at times, all of the following:

  • Enlightening
  • Exhilarating
  • Rainy
  • Scenic
  • Fun
  • Exhausting?
It’s a good thing Husband trusts my driving…

Singapore Air Business Class: Expectations = Sky High

Hi friends!  It’s been awhile since I’ve posted – life intervenes! – and I have so many things to share with you.  In addition to our spring 2019 trip to Costa Rica,  Husband and I recently  returned from Germany and France,  achieving  a lifelong goal of attending  Oktoberfest!  I’ve also spent time with Oldest in Chicago and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware and with family and friends at our new home in nearby Lewes. Delaware. We managed to squeezed in a work-related extended trip to San Diego as well.

In the interest of getting back into the writing habit as quickly as possible,  I’m going to start with our most recent trip to Europe first, before sharing highlights from prior trips such as Costa Rica (she says hopefully). 

This post will detail our departure experience on Singapore Airlines flight # SQ25 from JFK to Frankfurt, Germany in Business Class. 

Although JFK is not our most convenient airport, often the best value-for-points flights to Europe originate there.  As I’ve noted previously,  I really REALLY prefer a lie-flat seat on an overnight flight.     For me, actual sleep is important, and  I’m saving a whole day of vacation by landing with at least some semblance of my consciousness intact on that first morning.    So,  we bit the bullet, paid the $100+ Uber fare, and headed across Manhattan at rush hour to catch the 8:55pm flight. By the way, the late time of this flight is what I usually look for when traveling to Europe – the later the flight, the more chance I’ll be tired enough to sleep shortly after takeoff.

My very first trip over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge!


It may seem odd to have a flight on Singapore Airlines that has neither an origin nor destination anywhere near Singapore.  It turns out,  this is a rather unique itinerary known as a “Fifth Freedom” route, allowing Singapore to pick up and drop off passengers on what is essentially a stopover in JFK. You can read more about Fifth Freedom flights here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/geoffwhitmore/2018/05/30/what-you-need-to-know-about-fifth-freedom-flights/#2270a7b63c85

I booked the flight using Chase Sapphire Reserve points, transferred to Singapore’s KrisFlyer program.  Singapore has a vaunted reputation for service,  and it’s easy to get excited about their beautiful suites when you click around on their website.  So much space!  So comfortable!  See, here’s the thing –  the suites are only available for First Class, not Business Class.  They would have cost a sizeable amount of additional points. So, nice,  but no.  More trips > one trip , amirite? 

So what DO you get in Business Class? Pre-flight lounge access. A short but wide, angled flatbed capable seat. Free alcoholic drinks.  Professional, courteous service. Dinner, and/or breakfast, and/or the right to be left alone and skip dining in favor of sleep (I chose the latter, Husband chose dinner only). 

We arrived well before the flight, and our tickets granted access to the King David lounge at JFK.  I was surprised,  because my research told me that the typical lounge for this flight is Swiss Airlines’ lounge, as part of the Global Alliance.  However,  the Swiss Lounge was under construction.  The King David Lounge, sponsored by El Al,  appears to seat about 85-100 people, and every seat was taken. People were sitting on the floor and window ledge.  The majority of the passengers were headed to Israel, so when that earlier flight boarded, the lounge felt much less crowded.  I’m fairly certain that the food was  Kosher, although I didn’t actually see any signage to this effect. The well-stocked buffet included mostly cold foods, such as lox and bagels,  tuna  and egg salads, and a Greek-style salad.  The wine was a very tasty red blend from Israel.  We were lucky to find an outlet to charge our devices – I would estimate there was one for every 10 or so passengers in the lounge.  I didn’t take photos in the lounge.  Lounge grade:  B-, due to being overcrowded initially with little hot food available.  

Now let’s get to the plane. Singapore flies a two-decker A 380 on this route. The Business Class seats are all on the upper deck; unlike the 747s of old, you don’t climb stairs on the plane, you simply embark on the upper level. The boxy style of the seats reminded me of the Commodore 64 computers that adorned my college computer lab.

Someone at Singapore Air really likes beige.

As to the seat itself:  I don’t claim to be the world’s most experienced overseas flatbed seat traveler,  but I’ve been on Aer Lingus, United, Virgin, and Lufthansa.   Singapore’s bed was easily the worst.   Husband and I were in middle seats (both aisles, the configuration is 1 – 2 – 1) so we could be next to each other;  seats next to the windows were singles.  They appeared to have the same dimensions as our center seats.  The seats are wide,  but the space available to lie flat is made for people 5’6” or less. 

Husband settles into the Business Class seat.

It’s not every day that my vertical challenges are an advantage, but today was that day.  The seats are in a pod style format ,  with a footwell in the seat in front – but angled toward the middle of the plane.  The “bed” is created by folding down the back of the seat toward the footwell –  you have to get out of the seat for it to become a bed.  I prefer the seats that simply recline all the way to a flat position –  it’s just easier.   A flight attendant is ready to assist, but I didn’t want to wait for that – I had taken my sleep aid and was ready to go down as soon as the plane was in the air –  so I struggled a bit but eventually figured it out by watching like-minded passengers set up their beds.

The bigger issue was the length of the bed. I am almost 5’3 and I just barely fit.  Taller people, including Husband, had really no choice but to lay in a fetal position – and due to the angled footwell,  they had to stay on one side.  I don’t know about you, but I usually move at least once or twice in a 6 hour period – middle age creeping in, after all.   I knew what to expect from reading other reviews, but I was still surprised by the discomfort.   In addition,  when upright (even when somewhat reclined) ,  my short legs barely reached the footwell –  because the seat doesn’t shift forward,  there’s nothing supporting your legs if your feet don’t  reach.  

stretching so my toes reach the footwell – not so comfortable


Husband reports that his filet mignon dinner was tasty enough, and he enjoyed a few cocktails as well.  He doesn’t need as much sleep as I do,  luckily,  because he didn’t get much. 

Also, the bed was very hard. And it would have been nice had the center console lifted up –  we both would have benefited from more space that way and could have better utilized the angles. Plus, a little snuggly time. Overall seat grade:  C+.  Only because flat was technically possible. 

The flight and service were timely, well-coordinated, and smooth,  we actually arrived in Frankfurt a full hour ahead of schedule –  a mixed blessing when jet lag looms.  Flight grade was an A.

Overall:  lest I sound like a whiner or unappreciative, there was absolutely nothing wrong with the Singapore Business Class experience.  It was good. I’ve certainly suffered through more uncomfortable flights (and more uncomfortable situations, but that’s a story for another day….).  We arrived, early, in one piece and with a little sleep to boot. Germany, here we come!