Friday, April 17, 2015

Choosing the best time to take a cruise


When should you cruise? That depends on where you want to go and what you plan to do.
Caribbean beaches are popular destinations for cruisers.
 Families generally plan vacations around school schedules—summer and holidays. Because there is little wiggle room with dates, they should book as early as possible. Summer is high season for almost all destinations because the weather is pleasant and there’s a large variety of destinations available. Because demand is strong, you should book months in advance to get the best price and itinerary options.
Couples with more flexibility may choose to skip those busy times and cruise in the fall or spring while school is still in session. You might even snag a bargain in the shoulder or low season, although the increasing popularity of cruising has minimized price differences.
Snorkeling at beautiful reefs and other water activities
are plentiful in the Caribbean. 
Caribbean
 If you like to swim, snorkel, or do other water activities, the Caribbean is ideal. The weather is almost always warm, Caribbean ports have activities year-round, and ships sail throughout the year. The only time you might choose to avoid is hurricane season from June 1 to November 1, but if no storms are on the horizon, summer is a great time to enjoy Caribbean islands.
Emerald Princess sails from Houston to Western
Caribbean ports.
Of course, cruise ships in the Caribbean can be packed with kids and teens on spring break and in early summer, so keep that in mind (It's a great  thing if you're traveling with kids or grandkids). If you’re flying into Florida around spring break time, flights and hotels may be hard to come by or expensive.

During late April to May and September to early January (except for holidays), prices are lower and crowds smaller on Caribbean sailings. Sailings longer than seven days generally attract mature cruisers because kids can’t be out of school and parents usually can’t take so much time off work.
Alaska
Glaciers in Alaska are simply spectacular.
Some destinations such as Alaska have limited sail dates. Sail to Alaska in May or September for the best rates and smaller crowds, although it’s not uncommon for helicopter or boat tours to be canceled due to weather conditions in those months, and Denali National Park may close if there’s snow. Early June or late August are other good options for an Alaska cruise, which should be on everyone's bucket list.
Special itineraries
If you want to see colorful foliage in New England or Canada, you’ll cruise in the fall, generally late September or early October. For some travelers, the Christmas markets in Europe are a big attraction even though the weather may be cold and the markets crowded. Even so, the festivities and beautiful sights, fragrant smells, and melodic sounds can really ramp up one's holiday spirit.
 
Don't miss the Sydney Opera House when cruising in Australia.
If you're looking for a tour during the winter holiday season, think south--as in Southern Hemisphere. When it's winter in the U.S. it's summer in Australia and New Zealand, so that's a delightful time to visit. Sure, Aussies are also on holiday and traveling, but that's generally not a problem on cruises.
Bargains
 If you’re looking for a real bargain and not too choosey about cabin type or location, last-minute bookings (within a few weeks of sailing) may be offered at significant savings. Just realize you may hear engine noises, feel vibrations, or be awakened by the anchor being lowered early in the morning. However, if you don’t spend much time in your cabin, waiting for prices to drop could provide an inexpensive cruise vacation. Repeat cruisers on most lines receive additional amenities such as private receptions, free internet, and onboard credits.
Overall, cruising--no matter when you go--is one of the least expensive and most convenient ways to travel--a good value for your vacation dollars.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier
 

 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Keeping Belize a natural paradise


Belize continues to gain attention as a destination for U.S. travelers. No wonder—its coral reef, second largest barrier reef in the world, is a favorite location for divers and snorkelers, and everyone enjoys its sandy beaches and lush jungle landscapes.
The coral reef is spectacular in crystal clear waters of the
coast of Belize.
But vacationing in Belize means more than just luxuriating in a beautiful setting. If you like to see conservation at work consider traveling to the MayflowerBocawina National Park in Belize. Consisting of more than 7,000 acres of pristine lowland broadleaf forest at the base of the Maya Mountains, this national park is the perfect setting for ecotourism. Not only does it offer visitors refreshing waterfalls, ancient Mayan ruins, excellent bird watching, and verdant hiking trails, but its goal is to improve the environment as well as lives of local people.

White sand beaches attract visitors to Belize.
While visitors may enjoy a variety of outdoor activities in this unspoiled paradise such as rappelling waterfalls, swimming in natural pools, exploring archeological sites, and zipping on the longest line in Central America, it’s not all rough and tumble.  When the national park was created in 2001, it completely surrounded the 50-acre Mama Noots Resort, an ecological project that runs entirely on alternative energy generated by solar panels and hydroelectric power. As a resort that is completely “off the grid,” Mama Noots utilizes a variety of sustainable practices including growing food items used in the on-site restaurant, covering buildings with thatched roofs made from locally sourced materials, and using exterior lights with motion detection to minimize light pollution that affects normal patterns of nocturnal animals.
Jungle landscape and peaceful rivers entice visitors
to the interior of Belize.
The national park and private resort have a unique symbiotic connection: Without the resort and accompanying Bocawina Adventures Company (which maps and maintains trails and provides ecotours both onsite and off site), the park wouldn’t have money to keep it safe from hunters and loggers. With limited funds available, there are only two rangers for the entire national park. But, as more people come to enjoy the beauty of this amazing ecosystem, the chances of vanishing illegal hunting and logging in the area increase.

A local documentary has been created by Duarte Dellarole to educate people about the conservation needs of the national park and efforts to keep this place as beautiful as nature created it.
https://vimeo.com/81551833

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Friday, April 10, 2015

CroisiEurope taps U.S. river cruise market


CroisiEurope, the largest and most experienced river cruise operator in Europe, has announced the addition of four new ships to its fleet for the 2016-2017 season, including two new river ships and two new canal barges.
MS Carmargue has been relaunched; it sails on the Rhone River.
Although many Americans are not really familiar with this line, it’s worth checking into. CroisiEurope has provided affordable European river cruises for nearly 40 years. Two years ago it decided to go after the American market in earnest, since there is high demand in the U.S. for European river cruises. CroisiEurope opened a U.S. call center in 2013 and has exponentially increased sales since then. In 2014, the company carried 200,000 cruise passengers, more than 8,000 of them Americans.
Based in Strasbourg, France, this family owned company operates almost 50 vessels that sail along Europe’s most famous rivers, canals and coasts. Guests are treated to an on-board gastronomic dining experience designed alongside Michelin-starred chefs, unlimited beverages, and free Wi-Fi. The line appeals to many nationalities, so most ships have an international atmosphere with an English-speaking crew.
MS Symphonie offers popular Danube River cruises.
CroisiEurope hopes to attract cruisers with lower prices (all services are handled in-house rather than contracting with third parties) and by offering different destinations than some of the larger, more well-known lines like Viking, Uniworld, and AMA Waterways.

CroisiEurope will have 39 vessels in its 2015 fleet following the additions of the Loire Princesse and the 132-passenger Gil Eanes on Portugal’s Douro River and the relaunch of the 104-passenger Camargue on the Rhone. 2016 will see the addition of four new vessels described below.
Elbe Princesse: This 80 passenger, innovative paddle wheeler will sail on the Elbe and the Moldau between Berlin and Prague beginning in Spring 2016. This ship will visit Berlin, Magdeburg, Wittenberg, Meissen, Dresden, Litoměřice and Prague; 

Apsara Princesse: This colonial-style boat will join the four other vessels already sailing along the Mekong. With a capacity of 60 passengers in 30 cabins, this ship will sail on the Mekong from Angkor to Ho Chi Minh City. This ship will visit Siem Reap, Angkor, Tonle Sap, Kampong Chhnang, Kampong Tralach, Koh Chen, Phnom Penh, Châu Đốc, Sa Đéc, Cái Bè, Mỹ Tho and Ho-Chi-Minh City; 
Daniele Barge: Sailing along the Briare Canal between Burgundy and the Loire Valley, this ship boasts 12 contemporary cabins that can accommodate 24 people. This ship will visit Briare, Léré, Ménétréol-sous-Sancerre, La Chapelle-Montlinard, Marseilles-Les-Aubigny and Nevers; 

Dining room of MS Symphonie
 Deborah Barge: With 12 cabins and a capacity of 24 passengers, this modern ship will take an unprecedented route on the Garonne Canal. The ship will visit Toulouse, Castelsarrasin, Moissac, Valence-d’Agen, Agen, Serignac-Sur-Garonne and Damazan.
If you’re looking for a cruise in Europe, Mediterranean, Russia, Vietnam or Cambodia, one of the new ships may be just what you’re looking for. For more information about CroisiEurope, visit, www.croisieuroperivercruises.com or call (800) 768-7232.

Photos from croisieuroperivercruises.com

 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Tips for women traveling on their own


Women are traveling on their own more often now, but often their motivation for going alone is different from when they travel with friends or family.

When traveling solo women seek to change routines, pamper themselves, and explore new scenes and cultures on their own schedule. Whether single or married with children, women find relaxation and inspiration when they travel alone and feel more refreshed and rested than when traveling with friends or family.
It's easy to get lost in your thoughts when there are no distractions.
Social media allows women to stay connected when they set out on their own. Still, security is a big issue that shouldn’t be overlooked. Consider these tips, so you can truly enjoy your “me” time.

Plan your trip well. Research the destination, especially if traveling abroad and you’re seeking adventure. Religious beliefs and culture of a region can directly affect how you dress and interact with locals. If relaxation is your goal, an all-inclusive resort may be the best choice.
Maps or a GPS are invaluable for planning your route in a new area.
Choose your hotel wisely.  Do not accept a room if the hotel staff says your name or room number out loud. Request a room near the elevator, but away from the emergency door, stairs, and any construction work. Be sure the room has a deadbolt and chains. If arriving at the hotel at night, ask if staff will accompany you to your room.

Pack smart.  Pack only what you can handle yourself. Lock suitcases, and put your office address on tags instead of home address. Leave expensive-looking clothes and jewelry at home. Bring a credit card, and stash your cash in multiple places.
Pack lightly--and save room for souvenirs.
Research transportation. Before leaving home, find out what transportation options are available at your destination, especially if you arrive at night. If you rent a car to drive yourself, be familiar with maps and routes you plan to take, so you won’t become a lost tourist. Always travel with your cell phone.

For safety’s sake, use common sense, be alert to your surroundings, and don’t take unnecessary chances. Then have the best vacation ever!
Photos from free sources

 

 

 

 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Seaworld San Antonio plans new dolphin habitat for 2016


SeaWorldSan Antonio will begin construction this spring on a significant addition that will open in 2016. This project will include a revolutionary new area for dolphins located in the northern part of the park.  The changes will nearly double the size of the park’s dolphin pool and the habitat will allow guests to experience these amazing mammals in two new ways: underwater viewing and a dolphin swim experience. This project reflects SeaWorld’s ongoing commitment to improve its animal habitats while providing new ways for guests to make connections with the animals in its care.
Close encounters with dolphins coming to
Sea World San Antonio in 2016

Wider Waters and Deeper Connections

Large viewing panes will allow guests to see how dolphins swim, interact and play underwater--an entirely new vantage point. A new facility will allow guests to swim with dolphins in a naturalistic environment. The new addition, named Discovery Point, will be similar to Discovery Cove® park in Orlando, Florida by offering guests a dolphin swim experience in a lush, tropical setting.

As of March 23, SeaWorld closed the northern part of the park to make way for the updates to its dolphin habitat. Access to Dolphin Cove® and the park’s Sharks/The Coral Reef attractions will be restricted until the project is completed in May 2016.

The Discovery Point Experience

When completed in May 2016, Discovery Point will become the hub for three of the park’s animal interaction programs. It will serve as a starting point for guests as they journey to Beluga Bay, Sea Lion Shallows and Dolphin Lagoon. These programs complement the park’s other interaction programs with stingrays and penguins, which will remain unchanged.

Watching dolphin perform is exciting and fascinating for the whole family.
In the dolphin swim experience, guests will meet bottlenose dolphins during an interactive adventure and learn about dolphin behavior and communication, along with SeaWorld’s dolphin research and rescue efforts. After the classroom presentation and discussion on dolphins’ natural history and physiology, guests will wade into shallow water and become acquainted with one of the dolphins through close contact during this one-on-one dolphin encounter. Then guests can interact with their dolphin in deeper water for an exciting dorsal fin tow ride back to shore.

 “Guests have asked repeatedly for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to swim with these fascinating animals,” said Dan Decker, park president of SeaWorld & Aquatica San Antonio.  “Up until now, we’ve only offered this experience in Orlando so this will make it much more accessible to guests in our region.” Paid reservations must be made for this program, and participants must be at least 6 years old to swim with dolphins. Children ages 6 to 12 must be accompanied by a paying adult who also is participating in the dolphin swim experience.

“As an accredited Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) facility and world leader in animal care, these future attractions will not only revolutionize the way our guests connect with and learn about our animals, but it will allow us to continue SeaWorld’s excellent standard of care,” Decker added.

Information and photos courtesy of SeaWorld San Antonio

 

 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Texas wildflower season will be fantastic this year


The bluebonnets are coming! Last weekend we saw our first bluebonnets on roadsides as we drove from Houston to Austin.  If predictions are accurate, 2015 should be a banner year for wildflowers in Texas.
“We’re on track for a great year based on the soaking rains that have occurred in many places every two to four weeks,” says Dr. Mark Simmons, a restoration ecologist and program director at The University of Texas at Austin’s Lady Bird JohnsonWildflower Center. He predicts bluebonnets and pink evening primroses will soon be stunning.

Fall and winter provided needed rains, moisture that is important to popular wildflowers such as bluebonnets, Indian blankets, and Texas star. With warmer weather wildflowers will begin blooming in earnest.

Already in Big Bend National Park, bluebonnets have been spotted along Hwy. 170 and particularly along the Big Bend ranch stretch.
In north San Antonio, flowers like prairie fleabane and curvepod fumewort are peaking. Other flowers are blooming along Hwy. 281 north. Goldeneye phlox and agarita are peaking in Bexar and Uvalde Counties. Northern parts of Texas had late freezes, so wildflowers will be slower to show their colors.

Along the trails at Lady Bird Lake and elsewhere in Austin, Carolina jessamine has been spotted recently along with early bluebonnets. Very soon a wonderful show of blue and red should grace IH 10 near Houston, particularly east of Columbus and around Independence, Texas.
At the LadyBird Johnson Wildflower Center near Austin, blooms from bluebonnets, Carolina jessamine, Eastern red columbine, and gray globemallow make this a worthy springtime stop. Special areas have been designated for visitors to take photos—a safer alternative than parking along state highways and dodging cacti and ants to get the best pictures.

About mid-April we’ll plan a drive along some of our favorite central Texas bluebonnet-viewing trails—and have cameras handy to record what we expect will be beautiful fields bursting with yellow, pink, orange, and white flowers as well as bright blue and red.
Information courtesy of Barbara Rodriquez, University of Texas at Austin
Photos by Beverly Burmeier

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Stacking stones at Llano's Earth Art Fest


Amazing arch formation built by David Allen at Llano Earth Art Fest
A small notice in the newspaper about the Llano Earth Art Fest piqued my interest, so Larry and I drove to Llano to check it out. What also caught my interest was the National Rock Stacking Championship that would be held as part of the festival. Having watched out guide in Tahiti create an amazing stack of balanced rocks, I was intrigued to see what participants would come up with.
Building balanced stacks in the Llano River
was an additional challenge.
I was not disappointed. Several accomplished artists who work with natural materials for a living participated. David Allen was one of these, and I talked with him awhile as he created incredible arches and other installations. “I build something with rocks almost every day,” he said, acknowledging that it takes skill, patience, and spatial awareness as well as creativity. Speaking of the other artists, Allen said on Facebook, “We all fed off each others’ creative energy, resulting in works of monumental proportion.”

Gravity is the only thing holding the
 rocks in place.
TimAnderson, another natural artist, gave several demonstrations during the day as he waded in the flowing Llano River, grabbing rocks from the river bed to stack in unusual formations. Finding the right rock and deciding how it can best be utilized is often a slow process but fascinating to watch.
Stone stacking competitions included artistic creations, height, arches, and balancing. Locals got in on the act, too; and for those not into competing, a large pile of rocks had been brought in to encourage visitors to build their own stacks.


Rock stacking demonstrations fascinated festival-goers.
For spectators like myself, there was live music throughout the day, various vendors and booths displaying eco-friendly products, plenty of food stands, children’s activities, earth art demonstrations, labyrinths, a climbing wall, and additional entertainment.
Located about 70 miles from Austin in environmentally sensitive Edwards Plateau, Llano borders on the Texas Hill Country, where you’ll find some of the prettiest landscapes in Texas. As if that’s not enough nature, it also sits on the Llano Uplift, an area filled with lots of granite.

The tallest rock stack was 74 inches high--built
in a 10-minute timeframe.
So a festival celebrating the natural beauty of the Earth was a perfect fit for this community of 3,300 people. Set beside the beautiful Llano River, the festival, free to the public, enjoyed a perfect spring day. While I marveled at the talent and patience of the artists, most of all, it was amazing to see people become creative with seemingly ordinary objects. Best of all, everyone, including kids, could get in on the fun.
Photos by Beverly Burmeier

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Summer fun at Golorado's Royal Gorge


Colorado’s Royal Gorge Bridge and Park re-opened to the public on Labor Day weekend 2014 with the completion of a new 14,500 foot Visitor Center, Silver Rock Railway (a mini-train), and the Royal Rush Skycoaster. Summer would be an ideal time for your family to check out this time-tested attraction.
Suspension bridge over the Royal Gorge in Colorado
Formation of the Royal Gorge
About 3 million years ago, as the Rocky Mountains rose from the surrounding plains, a small rivulet that would become the Arkansas River rose with them. Eventually, it cut a deep channel through the surrounding granite, at a rate of about one foot every 2,500 years, creating what we know as the Royal Gorge near Canon City, Colorado.  The gorge’s peculiar shape can be attributed to this long, direct erosion through hard rock.
With a width of 50 feet at the base of the gorge and a few hundred feet at its top, and a depth of 1,200 feet in places, the 10-mile-long canyon is a narrow, steep crevasse that has attracted visitors for more than a century.
In 1907 the federal government donated the gorge to Canon City to be used as a municipal park. As a practical measure, a bridge was needed to cross the gorge and unite the two highest points. A pedestrian bridge—the highest suspension bridge in the world--was built in 1929.  At 1260 feet long, it’s no wonder it became a tourist attraction and designation on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
Zip line adventure
Thrills abound
Get your adrenalin flowing on the Royal Rush Skycoaster, which swings out over the Royal Gorge, momentarily suspending participants 1,200 feet above the Arkansas River. Don’t forget to visit a museum and learn about the Royal Gorge region’s rich history, drive the Gold Belt Tour Scenic and Historic Byway, or walk with dinosaurs at the Garden Park Fossil Area—called the greatest dinosaur graveyard in the world.
Need more thrills? Take in a whitewater rafting adventure on the Arkansas River or go off-road on a Jeep tour. Get a true taste of adventure by zooming 1,500 feet down into the gorge in a helicopter. Not for the faint of heart, the helicopter dives and climbs the gorge, grazes the river, and skims over the bridge at speeds of 150 mph.
Or try zipping over canyon walls, the regions newest outdoor adventure. Colorado Zip Line Tours near the Royal Gorge offers 20 zip lines including classic and extreme courses. Royal Gorge Zip Line Tours offers an exhilarating tour across the Royal Gorge plateau or near the Arkansas River, where you’ll have beautiful views of the 14,000 peaks of the Sangre De Christo mountain range. 
See the gorge on a helitour.
The Mini-Train and the bridge itself will give visitors an exciting experience. The new North Visitors Center features food service, indoor and outdoor seating, and a gift shop. Lodging options in the area include everything from budget RV parks and camp grounds to guest ranches and Bed and Breakfast accommodations.
 
There’s something for everyone, at Royal Gorge Bridge and Park, from kiddos to teens to adults. All ages can experience the breathtaking views, exhilarating thrills, and historical treasures that abound in this 360-acre natural wonder.
Check the website for schedule, specials, and updates.
Photos from Royal Gorge website.   
 
   
 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A couple of Irish tales for St. Patrick's Day



Irish coffee originated in Foynes
In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I invite you to read of my Ireland stories which were published on Striped Pot, a boutique online travel site.

Visiting lesser known places, learning history of the area, and discovering beautiful art all add immensely to the enjoyment of traveling.

“Flying Boats” Made Foynes, Ireland Center of Aviation World
If you visit the Ring of Kerry and Dingle Peninsula in southern Ireland–probably the most popular tourist destinations in that country—be sure to stop at the Foynes Flying Boat Museum in County Limerick.  Here you’ll learn about the nostalgic era when Foynes was the center of the aviation world, from 1939 to 1945.


Louis Mulcahy Pottery is one of Ireland’s Best
A small sample of Louis Mulcahy pottery.

The last of the big potteries making all pieces exclusively in Ireland, Louis Mulcahy designs and makes each individual piece. I bought a large platter, one of his exclusive designs.
Photos by Beverly Burmeier









 
 
 

 

 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Travel beats bling or parties for celebrating special occasions


Mountains at Vail, Colorado
A survey by AARP Travel found that America’s 76 million baby boomers prefer to celebrate special milestones in life like anniversaries, birthdays, family reunions and weddings with travel.  That’s significant because boomers spend over $120 billion annually in leisure travel. The survey notes that 78 percent of people ages 45 and above say that they have taken or intend to take a CelebrationVacation in the next two years instead of throwing a party, getting a piece of jewelry or other item.
 “Our research shows that Celebration Vacations are replacing parties, special events, jewelry, big-ticket items for the home or new car purchases with an increasing number of people 45+ wanting to travel more with their family and friends,” said Sami Hassanyeh, AARP Chief Digital Officer. 

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Why is travel a popular way to celebrate personal milestones? Boomers reply that they enjoy getting away. Travel is a fun way to celebrate a special occasion and it allows them to spend quality time with friends and family. Thoughts of going somewhere new, doing special things, and having a romantic getaway also entice boomers to travel.
The biggest challenge for people planning a celebration vacation involves making and sticking to a budget. Other challenges are developing an itinerary, choosing dates and activities, booking airfare, communicating travel details to others, and coordinating transportation.
New York skyline at sunset

Interestingly, the research also indicates a vast majority of Celebration Vacations taken in the last two years were taken in the U.S. with the top destinations including Las Vegas, Disney, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, New Orleans, and Hawaii.

If you need help planning a vacation, AARP Travel’s range of tools and features include:
Trip Finder — a fun, smart and visual series of questions to deliver ideas and recommendations for destinations — including some unexpected ones;

Map Explorer — a detailed street-level interactive map that includes attractions, restaurants, hotels, local color and reviews for each destination;
My Trips — a personal page where users can save and organize trip ideas, itineraries and related articles in one place and add to or edit them over multiple visits;

Articles and Destinations — travel tips from AARP Travel Ambassador Samantha Brown, articles specifically geared toward the 50+ traveler and information about hundreds of domestic and international locations.
Cathedral in Madrid, Spain
Book Trips booking tools provided through AARP’s relationships with Expedia and Liberty Travel and directly to hotels and rental cars.  

Information courtesy of Monique O’Grady, AARP Travel. Photos from AARP Travel

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Paradise found in Tahiti gardens


After our cruise to multiple islands in the South Pacific on Oceania Marina, we spent a day driving around the island of Tahiti in a rental car. Since there is only one highway on this circuit, it’s an easy drive for visitors. We started just outside Papeete and headed eastward for 30 miles, stopping first at the beautiful VaipahiGardens on the south coast.

Restored in 2007, the public gardens are a serene combination of water, light, and natural beauty. We wandered through a good portion of the garden’s 2.5 acres, paying no attention to the light rain falling at the start of our excursion. Along the way, we learned about the island’s cultural heritage because the gardens include archaeological relics and signs explaining legendary traditions.

There over 75 different species of vegetation, all kept fresh by water from Lake Vaihiria in the center of the island, Tahiti’s only fresh water lake. According to ancient legend, the nearby Vaima River once played an important religious role because the spirits of the former Teva tribe considered this waterway as “the path of purification of souls” in their quest to reach paradise.

Pleasant paths invited us to walk among exquisite vegetation and sumptuous blooming flowers. Each of the three walkways takes about half an hour to traverse. One takes visitors along marked paths next to the river. Shaded by trees, the walk ends at a plateau with overhanging cliffs and a spectacular view of the entire park and gardens. True to its tropical island status, varying shades of blue shone from the lagoon and ocean.

 
Natural grottos, splashing waterfall, and exquisite tropical flora--bird of paradise, ginger, lilies, petunias, flame flower, and so many more that I don’t know the names of—made us feel like we had found a Tahitian paradise at Vaipahi Gardens.
 
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Saturday, March 7, 2015

New service for travelers: Book a massage at your hotel (or home)


As I lay on the massage table, I mentally drifted into a happy place while the therapist knead away ever-present tightness in my back and shoulders (from sitting at my computer and writing every day). I thought how wonderfully indulgent this felt.
Barkwell adjusts her table for in-home massage. Therapists
supply all necessary equipment.
Billie Jean Barkwell, a massage therapist with 10 years experience, had arrived minutes before to set up her massage table in my home. Barkwell had recently begun working with Soothe, a service new to Austin that’s finding a warm reception among wellness-oriented residents and travelers to the city.

I love a good spa session, but this was even better. Soothe is a massage-on-demand service currently available in Austin, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix/Scottsdale, and Miami. With launches planned soon in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York (and other major U.S. cities within the next two years), it will be easy to get a relaxing massage on short notice, especially welcome if you’ve just arrived in a city or need to relax after a hard day of business or touring.
Merlin Kauffman, founder and CEO of Soothe says, “When I realized that after a long day of stressful traveling I wanted a massage but wasn’t able to book an appointment at a spa on such short notice, a simple idea was born. What if an independent massage therapist with free time could help me relax with a massage at my hotel?”

Turn your hotel room into a spa.
Kauffman created an online and mobile app that connects people who want to book same-day, in-home massages with skilled, licensed massage therapists. In fact, I went online at 9:00 a.m. and booked a massage for 11:00 the same day. Therapists have the option to respond and accept an appointment if they are available or to pass if it doesn’t fit their schedule. All therapists are vetted, insured, and willing to travel to a client’s destination.

“With text messaging and a GPS, this has become the Uber of massage,” Barkwell says, referencing the popular transportation service.

“We’ve made it super convenient for a person to book a spa-quality massage via their mobile phone or computer with as little as 60 minutes advance notice,” Kauffmans says. “Soothe’s uniqueness lies in its ability to connect the client to an available therapist who can quickly come to the client’s location and deliver a 5-star service at an affordable price. We have removed all the hassle for the customer, including the issue of paying the gratuity and taxes which are included. Guests at hotels can also use this service.”

Massages are available from 9:00 a.m. through midnight each day, and clients can choose Swedish, deep tissue, sports, or couples massage in 60, 90, or 120 minute sessions. You can also select the gender of your therapist. Regardless of the type massage selected, prices of $99 (60 minute), $139 (90 minute), and $169 (120 minute) per person are the same and paid via credit card online.
“The ease of experiencing this new affordable luxury leaves our clients feeling very soothed and satisfied,” Kauffman says. I couldn't agree more!

Book 24/7 online at www.soothe.com or via the downloadable Soothe iOS app http://soothe.com/app  Or call 800-960-7668 during business hours.

Photos by Larry Burmeier



 

 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Visit atolls of Tuomotu Archipelago in the South Pacific


Oceania Marina docked offshore at Fakarava in the
Tuomotu Archipelago of French Polynesia
When people think of taking a cruise to South Pacific islands, the first place that comes to mind is oftenTahiti, with Bora Bora a distant second. These are gorgeous islands with sandy beaches, soaring mountains, and lush vegetation just like in photos you’ve seen from the French Polynesian islands.
But there’s more to explore in the South Pacific, especially if you like to snorkel or scuba dive.  Although many of the 78 atolls (narrow strips of land surrounded by reefs) scattered throughout the Tuamotu Archipelago are not easy to get to, there's a small airport at Rangiroa, if you’re traveling on your own, and cruise ships are now including several atolls as ports of call.
It's easy to see the lagoon on one side of the atoll and the
Pacific Ocean on the other side of this narrow strip of land.

Tuamotu Archipelago is the world’s largest group of coral atolls, but only 31 have passes (breaks in the reef) through which ships may enter, which means the Tuamotus are quite isolated. But accessible reefs also mean snorkeling is excellent at islands like Fakarava and Rangiroa. Luminous turquoise water teems with plentiful marine life including many fish varieties and various rays and sharks. It’s a true natural aquarium with some of the best swimming, snorkeling, and diving in the South Pacific.

Beautiful coral formations and colorful fish can be seen
snorkeling from the shore of Fakarava.
Fakarava has two ocean passes (and the largest one in the Tuamotus), which make it passable for ocean vessels and an outstanding diving and snorkeling location.  You can snorkel from the beach, but since there is little sand you’ll likely enter the water right over coral. A protected lagoon is on one side of the atoll with the deep Pacific Ocean on the other side.

Pearl farming is an important industry for Fakarava and Rangiroa..
More a strip of land than an island, Fakarava is a prime example of nature at its finest—the environment is so unspoiled it has been designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve for the preservation of rare plant species. Walk down the main street and you’ll see beautiful gardens full of colorful hibiscus, bougainvilla, and other tropical blooming flowers.

The Marina must navigate through a narrow pass (break in the reef)
 to reach the ocean
Rangiroa is the Tuamotu’s most populous atoll and one of the world’s best dive spots. Our ship entered through the Tiputa pass on the northern side of a very visible coral ring around the atoll. Resembling a string of pearls, the coral encircles a clear turquoise lagoon. The exchange of water between open sea and lagoon creates a fertile habitat for marine life, so it provided some of our best snorkeling on the trip.
Fish are plentiful in the clear turquoise water off Rangiroa.
After soaking up the palm tree-studded landscape at Rangiroa, visit Gaugin's Pearl Farm to learn how pearls are produced, how various colors are obtained, and what to look for if you want to purchase a worthy pearl. Prices are relatively inexpensive here compared to more popular Polynesian locations like Tahiti, and you may find that pearls rated a bit lower are just as lovely as the more pricey ones.

Another look at the reef surrounding the atoll.
 
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier