ENJOYING THE 50TH STATE

Adrienne and I visited Honolulu last week for a few days. We’d visited Maui a few years ago and wanted to give Oahu a try. Great move on our part. I have found that no matter how much you research a destination; it takes putting feet on the ground to breathe it in and truly experience it.

The weather was beautiful when we arrived. We flew nonstop on a Delta 777 from San Francisco, which is a very comfortable airplane. Our flight was slightly less than 5 hours. Since we had rented a car, we took a shuttle from the airport to the rental car lot; it only took 10 minutes. Since we had a reservation the pickup process was quick and easy. Before long we were in our midsize car heading down H1 en route to Waikiki. The first thing that we noticed was the traffic. Honolulu is a busy city and we were in rush hour traffic.

Our resort was the Hilton Waikiki Beach and as we road along Kuhio Avenue we noticed the vibrant energy of the area. It was buzzing with activity and people – designer shops, restaurants, souvenir shops and of course throngs of tourists. After about an hour we finally arrived at our hotel. We were welcomed warmly by the hotel staff, and checked into our room. Once we deposited our luggage, we were off to explore this new destination.

Here are some of the things that we discovered about it:

GETTING AROUND – We rented a car so that we could see as much of the island as possible. That had its pluses and minuses. The first minus was the traffic. Honolulu is congested so there are lots of drivers – many of them tourists who are not familiar with the area. The second is that parking is in short supply and very expensive. Even our hotel charged a $35/night parking fee. It’s actually very easy to get around the city on public transportation and it is highly recommended. The Waikiki Trolley runs frequently, covers much of the city and there are six different lines to choose from. Taxis, Uber and Lyft are also available.

SHOPPING – The shopping was as good as any that we’ve seen during our world travels. One shopping center that we really enjoyed was the International Marketplace that features more than 100 retailers including Saks Fifth Avenue, Burberry, Swarovski, and Balenciaga. The Grand Lanai offers outdoor seating at seven signature restaurants. The history and culture of Waikiki are woven throughout with flowing water features, lush landscaping and a banyan tree that is 160 years old.

For affordable shopping, ABC Stores are everywhere, almost one per block. They are more than just convenience stores – think 7 Eleven on steroids. You can purchase daily essentials, beach items, groceries and even fine wines and spirits.

DINING – Eating in Waikiki is expensive, it’s not a place to eat on the cheap. However, there are some typical fast food spots and familiar places like Cheesecake Factory and Hard Rock Café. Dining choices are too numerous to list, but include restaurants like Eggs’n Things, Noi Thai Cuisine, Goma Tei Ramen and Tanaka of Tokyo. All of the hotels and resorts have a plethora of dining choices and all of the malls have great food courts.

While exploring other parts of the island like North Shore we discovered several food truck areas. Shrimp trucks are especially popular. We even saw several roadside vendors who sold pickled mangos. We plan to try them on our next visit.

ACTIVITIES & ATTRACTIONS – Honolulu has many festivals, parades and celebrations throughout the year. We had the chance to experience the Pan Pacific Festival. It’s  an annual three-day cultural celebration that features an eclectic assortment of cultural arts, crafts, food and stage performances in a variety of settings in and around Waikiki throughout the weekend.

There is one activity that is an absolute must-do. Be sure to take the time to watch a sunset. Hawaii has some of the world’s most spectacular sunsets.

Having a car was a plus since it allowed us to get out of the city and see much of the island – but we only scratched the surface. Some of the sites that we recommend are Diamond Head Crater, Halona Cove, Hanauma Bay Lookout, the Honolulu Museum of Art, Pearl Harbor, Foster Botanical Garden, Lolani Palace, the Polynesian Cultural Center, North Shore and the Dole Pineapple Plantation.

Oahu offers an amazing travel experience. It is rare to find a destination that offers beautiful weather, pristine beaches, jaw-dropping sunsets, designer shopping and gourmet dining. It is also very family-friendly. We plan to visit regularly to take in more of this island paradise.

LONDON – Things to Know Before You Go

London is one of the world’s most-visited cities. It’s a 21st-century city whose history stretches all the way back to Roman times. This sprawling metropolis has so much to offer; including theater, food, history, art, literature, and fashion. It is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world encompassing more than 270 nationalities and 300 languages.        

If you’re planning a trip to the UK, here are a few practical things to know before you go:

PASSPORTS & VISAS – While some countries impose minimum passport validity for arriving passengers, the UK has no such requirement. If you’re an American or Canadian tourist, you’ll be able to travel visa-free throughout the UK, as long as you have a valid passport and your reason meets the immigration rules. For more details, visit these websites: ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk and gov.uk.

CLIMATE – The weather in Britain overall is temperate. In spring, from March to June, the climate is rainy and the average temperature is between 59 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. From mid-June to August, the climate is hot and humid with temperatures averaging 79 degrees Fahrenheit. In October the temperatures fall between 59-68 degrees and in December temperatures range from 35-48 degrees Fahrenheit.

MEDICAL TREATMENT – No inoculations are required to visit the UK. It is important to find out if your medical insurance covers you internationally. If not, it is wise to get adequate coverage before you go. If you’re taking prescribed drugs, carry a copy of your prescription, described by the generic name, along with a cover letter from your doctor, in case you need additional supplies.

MOBILE PHONES – The UK network uses the 900 or 1800 GSM system, so visitors from North America (where the system is 800 or 1900 MHz band) will need to get a tri-or quad-band set. Check with your service provider for details. It’s easier and cheaper to purchase a SIM card locally and top it up with credit.

INTERNET – Most cities in the UK offer some form of public access to the Internet. Some hotels include free WI-FI with reservations. Free WI-FI can also be found at libraries, pubs, cafes and museums.

TIME ZONE – There is only one time zone in Britain. In March the clocks change for Daylight Saving and revert back in October.

COMMUNICATION – The international dialing code is +44.

CURRENCY – Britain does not use the Euro, the British currency is the pound sterling (GBP). We prefer to exchange currency before we leave the U.S., but you can also do so at banks when you arrive. Many branches have 24-hour ATM facilities. ATM machines can also be found in some supermarkets, post offices, gas stations, train stations and London Underground stations. If you plan to use credit cards, be sure to notify your bank/credit card company that you will be traveling internationally. This will keep them from placing a temporary block on your credit card if fraud is suspected due to the change in location.

DINING – Along with the ethnic diversity, London offers a variety of dining experiences. There is much more than roast beef and Yorkshire puddings or fish and chips. Chicken tikka masala is also listed as a national dish. There are LOTS of restaurant choices – from Michelin Star restaurants to street eats.

My favorite dish was a bowl of Japanese noodles. Visiting the Food Halls at Harrods is a unique culinary experience – offering delicacies from around the globe. I was literally able to eat my way around the world.

Supermarkets are also a good option. We stayed in the Kensington district near a Waitrose market that sold really delicious hot and cold items.

ELECTRIC EQUIPMENT – The standard voltage is 230 AC, 50Hz. North Americans will need a square, three-pronged plug adapter/converter to use their appliances.

EMERGENCY – If you need police, ambulance or fire service, find a telephone and dial 999, and indicate which service you need.

TIPPING & SERVICE CHARGES – Tipping is not always appropriate. If you get exceptional service and want to show appreciation here’s a guide to customary practice:

Hotels: Most hotel bills include a service charge, usually 12.5%. When a service charge is not included in a hotel restaurant’s bill, it’s customary to tip 10%-15%.

Restaurants: Service charges are often included. If it is not, it is customary to leave a tip of 10%-15%. Some restaurants now include a suggested tip in the bill total.

Pubs and Bars: Tips are not expected, but are always appreciated.

Taxis: 10%-15% of the fare is customary, but it is acceptable to round up to the nearest pound.

Getting the most out of London definitely requires more than one visit. During our visit we did many of the top “touristy” activities; London Eye, Thames River cruise, Tower of London, watching the Changing of the Guard, shopping at Harrods; but felt like we barely experienced on all that there was to see and do. For example, Harrods is the largest department store in Europe occupies 5 acres, has 330 departments and covers 1.1 million square feet. We spent several hours there and didn’t nearly see enough. We look forward to going back to experience more of the diversity and excitement of that vibrant city.

 

MSC SEASIDE – SHIP REVIEW

Recently we took a western Caribbean cruise on the MSC Seaside. Although we had taken 25 cruises, we’d never been on MSC so we were eager to experience the brand. As always we did considerable research so that we’d have an idea of what to expect. What we found was nothing short of amazing. It was one of the most beautiful ships we’d ever cruised on. MSC is an Italian-owned company that has mostly focused on other areas of the globe, but it’s new to the Caribbean. They plan to move 4 ships to the North American market in the next few years, with a focus on Caribbean itineraries. So the newest ships have been designed with that focus in mind.

MSC Seaside is their newest mega smart ship, and it is truly a sun-lover’s paradise, with a revolutionary industry-first elegant Miami Beach condo design; specifically designed for warmer climates. She is the first of a new class of ships, designed to bring guests closer to the sea and can carry more than 5000 passengers. The ship has a very open feel and is the first ship we’ve sailed on that has an outdoor seafront promenade. It circles the entire ship on Deck 8. We were amazed at all of the things to do on that deck; places to eat, drink, shop, swim and sunbathe.

From the moment we got onboard we were captivated by the beauty of the immense double deck Atrium that is the center of onboard activity, and the heart of the ship. It stretches over two decks, creating an atmospheric venue for live entertainment with spectacular ocean views.

It is also an impromptu, multi-media, multi-level stage that features a variety of entertainment including, dancers, acrobats, flash mobs, light shows, live entertainment and one of the best DJs at sea. The crowning glory of the Atrium is the staircase where the surface is lit up as if inlaid with sparkling gems.

The interior design of the ship rivaled that of a 5 star luxury hotel. The colors, light and design elements were well balanced. Many of the sitting/lounge areas had great views of the ocean and all were extremely comfortable. Although there were more than 5000 passengers onboard, we never felt cramped or crowded. The entire ship was designed for comfortable navigation on the walking surfaces and even the many staircases were easy to climb – not too steep.

The elevators were smaller than those on some of the other new mega ships and were often crowded. So at times it was easier just to take the steps; great way to burn off extra calories.

ENTERTAINMENT – The entertainment was top level some of the best we’ve seen at sea. With 115 different nationalities onboard they did an excellent job of providing entertainment that everyone could enjoy.

There was a different show in the Metropolitan Theater every night, typically a high-h energy production, covering a variety of musical styles, dancing and acrobatics, and only 30 minutes long. There were 3 performances per night. Shows are free but guests are encouraged to make reservations. Our favorite was Starwalker, a tribute to Michael Jackson where the talent was amazing!

The cruise director and his staff did an excellent job of facilitating the activities and kept a high level of energy. They hosted games shows, and theme nights; Gatsby Party, 70s night and a white party that began in the Atrium then moved to an outdoor deck where we partied ALL night long.

BARS – There are 20 large bars in various locations throughout the ship; each with a great staff of bartenders and service was great. Robert and I managed to visit them all but we each had our favorites. His was the Sports Bar, and mine was the Venchi Chocolate Bar where they served not only chocolate but also gelato and crepes. We both were pleased with the quality of the wines, beers and liquors.

DINING – We had heard mixed reviews about the dining on MSC ships so we definitely wanted to do our own review. There are 11 dining venues onboard including the main dining room, 2 buffets and specialty restaurants. We only ate in the buffets and main dining room. The food in the main dining room was not as good as food that we’ve eaten on other cruise lines; there were fewer menu choices and the food was somewhat bland. We chose to eat most of our meals at the buffets, where there were more choices. The quality of the food overall was very high – fresh and well prepared without the additives, preservatives and GMO ingredients that are prevalent on many cruise lines. The desserts were exceptional and so was the pizza (to be expected since MSC is an Italian cruise line).

ONBOARD ACTIVITIES – There are so many activities to choose from that we didn’t have time to do all of them. There are 4 pools, 4 waterslides, and several hot tubs. There are also plenty of deck chairs for sunbathing. The zip line is 350 feet – the longest at sea.

There are two unique glass-floored catwalks and a 131 ft. high ‘Bridge of Sighs’ where we had a view of the ocean like never before. A waterfront boardwalk, the widest on any ship ever built, wraps around the ship, while panoramic elevators connect everything together.

Other activities include trivia, dance classes, Ping-Pong tournaments, scavenger hunts, and art auctions. Extra-fee activities include a self-leveling pool table, an arcade with a Formula One simulator, a 4-D cinema, dual bowling lanes and an air hockey table.

Of course there is a well-equipped casino where we spent quite a bit of time.

The Seaside is designated as non-smoking, except for certain areas, but we never came into contact with any smoke – even in the casino.

AUREA SPA – The Aurea Spa offers a large menu of services; massages, body treatments, facials, manicures/pedicures, haircuts, color and styling, waxing and men’s grooming. One of the highlights is the thermal suite (available for an extra fee), featuring sensory steam rooms, sauna, aromatherapy, a Thalassotherapy pool and a cold room with real snow. Outside of the spa there is a private sundeck for use exclusively by passengers who have booked spa treatments.

FITNESS – There is a large, well-equipped fitness center with state of the art equipment, heavy bags, free weights, cardio machines and rings. They offer classes like yoga, stretching, spin and Thai boxing as well as personal training (available for an extra fee). There are women’s and men’s locker rooms with showers, changing areas and saunas. Although we work out regularly at home, we didn’t spend much time in the fitness area – but we burned plenty of calories climbing stairs and just walking around that huge ship.

STATEROOMS – We had a mid-ship balcony cabin on Deck 15 and were pleased with the location. The cabin size was good, although there wasn’t much storage/drawer space. However, it did have a bathtub. The linens were high quality and the mattress was particularly comfortable. There were no miniature toiletries, but the soap, shampoo and shower gel dispensers were refilled daily.

Since the Seaside is a smart ship, it offers the latest in onboard technology.

The MSC for Me app is the digital innovation program that uses the latest cutting-edge technology to connect travelers seamlessly with the experiences that matter to them, whether at sea or on land. We downloaded the app onto our smartphones and found that it made it easy to navigate the ship, connect to WI-FI, and book shows. There are several WI-FI packages to choose from, but you’ll get the best pricing by booking online before you sail.

FAMILY FRIENDLY – It is a family-friendly ship and there were lots of children onboard. They were able to enjoy the full-sized bowling alley, a dedicated kids only restaurant, and the most interactive, multi-story water park at sea featuring four different water slides, an AquaPlay™ area designed for tots and an adventure trail. In addition, MSC Seaside boasts colorful kids’ play areas created in partnership with LEGO® and Chicco®. So it’s a great option for a multi-generational vacation.

One of the aspects that we enjoyed most was the international vibe. With 115 different nationalities onboard, there were guests and staff from all over the globe. All of the announcements were given in several languages including Italian, Spanish, English, German, and French. All of the staff that we met was multi-lingual and communicated with guests easily. We were invited to a cocktail party with the captain and his officers and he gave his remarks in 4 different languages. Even passengers who looked like us didn’t necessarily speak English. Some spoke Spanish, others spoke French or Portuguese.

EMBARKATION/DEBARKATION – We found the embarkation process to be smooth and seamless. We decided to arrive at 1:00pm and there were no lines. We got through the process in less than 10 minutes. So we recommend arriving around that time. People who arrived earlier got caught up in the mix of departing and arriving guests. Our staterooms were ready by 2pm and our luggage was delivered before 4pm. The debarkation process was just as smooth.

One of my least- favorite first day activities has always been the safety/muster drill. As a long-time cruiser I have memories of having to don a lifejacket and stand on the deck until the drill was completed. But it was not like that on the Seaside. Our muster station was actually at the Champagne Bar – how good is that? The drill took less than 30 minutes.

CUSTOMER SERVICE – Customer service was excellent; from our cabin steward, to the dining staff, guest relation’s staff – everyone we met was pleasant and efficient.

Other lines that we’ve cruised on connect your credit card to your reservation during the online check-in or embarkation process. However on the Seaside it’s different; there are ATM machines located in various locations throughout the ship where you do it yourself. So if you plan to pay your onboard expenses with a credit card, be sure to do that as soon as you board. It was easy.

In summary, we would definitely sail MSC again, but only on one of their newer ships. As an overall grade, we would give our Seaside experience a B+.

Don’t Listen to What They Say, Go See

 

 

 

 

 

 

All of us are different and we experience travel differently. While reading reviews, and listening to others’ advice is helpful when planning a trip, the only way to really experience a destination is to go see it for yourself. People are different, and their opinions vary widely. Here are a few of the opinions that I’ve heard about destinations:

THE FOOD IN ITALY IS BAD: Italy is comprised of many major cities – Rome, Milan, Naples, Florence, Genoa, Bologna, Palermo, Venice and Pisa are just a few. The cuisine varies by region. So it was hard for me to believe that ALL of the food was bad. As one of the world’s most beloved cuisines, it is much more than pizza and spaghetti. We made a point of tasting food in in several cities, including Rome, Naples, Florence, Venice, Capri and Vernazza. We had one of our best meals ever, at a picturesque little restaurant in Positano while driving along the Amalfi coast. The limoncello on Capri was fresh and flavorsome. The olives in Monterosso were like none I’ve ever tasted anywhere else. The pasta dishes were excellent everywhere we went. And don’t even get me started on the gelato.

THE PEOPLE IN PARIS ARE RUDE: I was very concerned about being treated badly in the “City of Lights”, especially since we don’t speak French. But bonjour, Au revoir, merci and big smiles went a long way…. We have been twice and shopped at stores, eaten at cafes, visited museums, even ridden on public transportation. We didn’t find Parisians particularly rude – no more than any other city we’ve visited.

PEOPLE IN CHINA TREAT BLACK PEOPLE LIKE ATTRACTIONS: I’ve heard people say that Chinese people pointed, stared and tried to touch their hair….and other body parts. I’m not disputing them, just saying that we didn’t have that experience. We went to Beijing, Suzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai in 2015 and again in 2016 (there’s so much to see that it takes more than one trip to experience it all). Some people were curious and even asked to take pictures with us, but it didn’t make us feel like “attractions”. Many of the people in the major cities were Chinese tourists who appeared to be from outlying areas and probably had not seen many black folks. But it wasn’t too intrusive. In Suzhou we even explored the neighborhoods near the Grand Canal and no one even paid us any attention. After a while I even asked some of them to take pictures with us. It was fun.

THERE’S NOTHING FOR BLACK PEOPLE IN EUROPE: We have a rich history in Europe that would take years to study. For example, in 711 the Moors from northern Africa invaded what is modern day Spain and Portugal. Their rule in the region lasted until 1492 with the 8-month siege of Granada. When we visited Granada (in southern Spain) we toured the magnificent Alhambra Palace and fortress complex. It was constructed in 889 and converted into a royal palace in 1333 by Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada. Moorish poets described it as “a pearl set in emeralds”. Touring those grounds was like walking back in history. We have visited several European countries and have seen black people everywhere we’ve gone. I met this young sister in Monaco. I don’t speak French and she didn’t speak English….but we managed to connect.

We’ve had some very positive travel experiences – and some negative ones too. No travel destination is perfect. But we never base our opinions on anyone else’s experiences. We prefer to draw our own conclusions.

Talk is cheap and everyone’s experience is different, so don’t listen to what they say, go see for yourself.

Travel Now, and Then

Our love of travel began more than 30 years ago, in 1988 we booked our very first cruise, and we’ve been globetrotting ever since.

 

Over the course of those 30 years we’ve seen lots of changes in the travel industry. Here are just a few:

PRE-CRUISE HOTEL STAY – Cruise lines used to include a one night pre-cruise hotel stay and transportation to the cruise port in the price of the cruise fare. In 1988 we flew from San Francisco to Miami, stayed at a lovely hotel and were transported to the cruise dock the next morning to board the ship for our Caribbean cruise.

AIRLINE TICKETS – Airline tickets were paper (not e-docs) and could only be purchased at an airport or travel agency.

AIRLINE BAGGAGE FEES – There were none. The price of the airline ticket included transporting you….and your luggage. Imagine that!

AIRLINE SCHEDULES – Airlines attempted to stick to published schedules. Now when you make a reservation, all bets are off. If you happen to make a reservation that’s a few months away it’s very likely that your flight time, seat choice and even aircraft type will be changed. Or sometimes they just cancel a flight altogether and re-route you. Their right to do that is spelled out in the fine print of their terms and conditions…which few passengers actually read. A few months ago we purposely booked nonstop flights between San Francisco and Fort Lauderdale. When I re-checked the reservation a few weeks later, I found that they had cancelled those nonstop flights and put us on flights with one stop each way that were routed through Chicago….in the dead of winter (high likelihood for weather delay). I called the airline and was able to get them to re-route us through a different city. – for no charge. It’s a good thing I checked. Always remember to check….and re-check.

AIRLINE CHANGE FEES – What can I say about those that hasn’t already been said? It is understandable that they can’t allow people to book reservations and make changes at a whim. But you can pay exorbitant fees to make even the smallest change…like one letter in the spelling of a name. It now costs $200 to change or cancel a non-refundable airfare on the remaining “legacy” U.S. airlines (American, Delta, United), and a bit less on some other carriers. Changing or canceling an international ticket can cost much more. Why do they do it? Change fees are a healthy source of revenue for the U.S. airline industry. During the first half of 2010, the 19 largest domestic airlines collected $1.1 billion in cancellation and change fees, according to the Transportation Department. Delta made the most ($347 million) followed by American Airlines ($235 million), and United Airlines $158 million). So why do they do it? Because they can.

TRANSPORTATION SECURITY ADMINISTRATION (TSA) – The TSA is an agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that was created after the September 11, 2001 attacks. TSA employs screening officers in airports, armed Federal Air Marshals on planes, and mobile teams of dog handlers and explosives specialists, to protect air travel. When we flew in 1988 we could not have imagined that air travel would one day require disrobing in front of strangers, removing our shoes and walking through a metal detector or even having a “secondary screening”. If you’ve ever gotten the “SSSS” on your boarding pass you know what I mean. There are a variety of reasons that can cause you to be selected for this type of screening:

  • Sometimes it’s because the specific itinerary you’re on is unusual; this could include flights booked last minute, international one-way tickets, travel originating in “high-risk” countries, etc. Perhaps that’s why it happened to me last year when we were returning from Istanbul, Turkey. Let me tell you, they were quite thorough. I managed to grin and bear it, while my beloved travel partner/husband sat at the gate idly reading a newspaper, seemingly oblivious to my plight.
  • Sometimes it’s because you’re on some sort of a list; I have no clue what causes people to get on lists, though I suspect for some people it’s because of their travel patterns, for others it’s because of their names, and for others it’s because they’re being watched more carefully for whatever reason.
  • Sometimes it’s completely random.

Purchasing the TSA Pre Check allows for a lesser screening experience (you can keep your shoes on and don’t have to take out your computer). The cost is $85 and it is good for 5 years.

TRAVEL FASHION – Remember when people used to dress up to travel? Whether you were traveling by airplane or train, you put on your Sunday best. These days that’s not usually the case. Traveling economy has become such a contact sport that you need to “suit up”. No more Stacy Adams, stetsons,  pumps or pearls. Honey, now it’s all about Nike shoes and sweats.

LAS VEGAS – We fell in love with Las Vegas in 1989 when we went to the Sugar Ray Leonard/Thomas Hearns fight (The War) at Caesars Palace. Boy has the Strip changed since then. Gone are the days of cheap eats, free drinks and statuesque show girls. Las Vegas has gone through several metamorphoses in the last 30 years. In the 1990s there was even an attempt to make it more family-friendly with an amusement park at MGM. There are still some thrill rides at New York, New York and Stratosphere. But much of the emphasis these days is on high-end shopping and designer boutiques including Chanel, Dior, and Louis Vuitton. The Strip has also become a mecca for gourmet dining with restaurants by a veritable who’s-who of top chefs including Gordon Ramsay, Huber Keller, Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, and Bobby Flay – some even have more than one restaurant on the Strip. If you’re looking for an exceptional dining experience, visit Joël Robuchon’s unparalleled French restaurant. This unforgettable Three Michelin Star restaurant caters to a sophisticated palate and was designed to resemble a luxurious Art Deco townhouse complete with a lush garden terrace and marble floors. Whether enjoying the 16-course degustation menu on the picturesque Parisian Terrace or relaxing in the elegant Aperitif Lounge, Joël Robuchon Restaurant provides an unparalleled dining experience.

Yes, the Las Vegas Strip has come a long way from the $5.99 steak dinner and the shrimp cocktail. But more affordable taste treats can still be found at off-Strip restaurants and diners. It’s still possible to find a really good hamburger, even on the Strip. One of our favorites is Bobby Flay’s Burger Palace.

GROUND TRANSPORTATION – Landing in a new city meant catching a taxi to your hotel – and hoping that the driver didn’t take the long way so that he’d get a higher fare. I dreaded watching the meter that seemed to keep climbing higher…and higher…even at stop lights. With the increasing number of ride share services, travelers have other choices like Uber and Lyft. Despite opposition they operate in an increasing number of cities in the Unites States and around the world. It’s a convenient, cashless way to get around a city. It’s also helpful when you don’t speak the local language. Last fall we used Uber in Mexico City quite successfully, even though our Spanish language skills are sketchy, at best.

LODGING – Besides hotels and vacation rental homes, the shared economy has encouraged the development of companies like Airbnb where travelers can rent homes, villas, condominiums, rooms and even campers. I saw a listing for an Airstream trailer on a beach that would accommodate 3 people, for $650 per night. And then there’s Couchsurfing, which Wikipedia describes as “a hospitality and social networking service accessible via a website and mobile app. Members can use the service to arrange homestays, offer lodging and hospitality, and join events such as “Couch Crashes”. So whatever your lodging choice, there’s an app for that.

TRAVEL BOOKING – Planning a trip used to begin with a visit to the local travel agent’s office to thumb through brochures. Now it’s just a matter of logging onto your computer or mobile device and looking at websites or taking virtual tours of hotels and resorts. YouTube is an excellent way to get destination information. If you know where you want to go, you can purchase an airline ticket, book a hotel room or rent a car with just a click of a mouse. Online travel agencies (OTAs) like Expedia and Travelocity work well for simple itineraries. But for more complicated trips, perhaps with large groups or multiple stops, many people still turn to their travel agents.

Today’s travel agents still provide valuable services to busy travelers who don’t have time to book their travel or affluent travelers who simply want to take advantage of the customer service offered by expert travel advisors.

LOYALTY PROGRAMS– It pays to be loyal….Airlines, hotels, cruise lines  and even credit cards provide travel perks to their loyal customers. As Honors members we’ve gotten upgrades and free Wi-FI at Hilton hotels in many cities.  As Diamond Level members of Royal Caribbean’s Crown and Anchor Society, we enjoy great benefits every time we cruise….like backstage theater tours, ship bridge tours and  nightly private cocktail parties with unlimited drinks.

During the past 30 years we’ve seen lots of changes and racked up lots of travel miles. No doubt, the travel industry will continue to change…..and we’ll continue to travel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Black Man Abroad

Leroy Tyler is one of our youngest and most widely-traveled group members. He has visited more than 27 countries. After following his travel posts for quite I while I was curious to find out how he came to be such a globetrotter. Here’s what he told me.

“When I was a kid, around 8 or 9, my mother got me a kids encyclopedia. I read through it, and got to the geography section, and was instantly hooked on all the buildings and stuff I saw. I made it a mission to go see those places I read about when I got older. When my mother died in 2005, I made it even more of a personal mission to see those places she never made it to, along with the fact that it helped with the ongoing depression from losing her to cancer. The rest is history….”

His travels include trips to Iceland, Ireland, England, France, Germany, Netherlands, Ukraine, Czech republic, Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, UAE, South Africa, Puerto Rico, Thailand, Cambodia, China, and Canada.

Recently he traveled to Ukraine. The following is how it all went.

Everyone knows something about Chernobyl. Any disaster with such horrifying implications tends to leave a mark on history. But Chernobyl is different. It has struck a chord with us somehow, and has become the inspiration for countless media and art, allowing us to venture off into fantasy worlds.

This wasn’t a fantasy world. This place exists.

Are the depictions in pictures and media true to life? Something out of a post apocalyptic movie? See for yourself.

But first, you have to get there, and you can’t go at will. You need to book a tour.

I booked mine with SoloEast, the oldest tour company that provides tours to the exclusion zone.

Upon arrival at the meeting point, the Kozatskiy hotel, I was greeted by my guide Andrew Vasylievych. Once the rest of the group arrived, we departed for Chernobyl, which is about 2 hours from Kiev.

When we got there, we entered the first checkpoint, where they checked our passports and entrance tickets. Once confirmed, we were allowed to enter. Upon entry I noticed a TON of stray dogs.

Our first stop was a kindergarten. When we walked in, we could just feel the desolation of this place.

I’ve never seen anything like it. Children’s beds with toys left behind, books, dolls, and even Soviet newspapers, just sitting there for the past 32 years. While there, Andrew used his Geiger counter to test the radiation levels outside. Needless to say, the soil is STILL pretty contaminated.

After that, we were provided lunch, consisting of soup, bread, chicken, and salad. Lunch was included in the tour package.

After lunch we entered the 2nd checkpoint. From there, we went to the giant steel structure that houses reactor 4 (the one that exploded). The fog was intense.

Andrew showed us before and after photos of what the reactor looked like, as well as teaching us about the radioactive mass in the basement of the reactor, called the Elephants Foot. This is deemed the most radioactive spot on earth!

From the reactor, we entered the abandoned city of Pripyat, where we explored an abandoned cafeteria with stained glass windows still intact, an amusement park that NEVER got to open, a sports complex, and the infamous swimming pool. We didn’t get to visit the hospital because there was way too much ice on the stairs and railings. Safety is paramount in the exclusion zone.

Our final stop was to Chernobyl 2, a secret military base that houses the decommissioned Duga Radar.During the dying days of the Cold War, the Soviet Union built an early warning detection system to listen out for NATO and U.S. ballistic missiles. This was used for that. The fog added a creepiness to the scene. This thing is MASSIVE!

Upon exit of the exclusion zone, we had to go through radiation detectors to check our radiation levels, then we drove back to Kiev. That 12 hour day was packed with history, great photo opportunities, and an amazing guide.

I highly recommend that everyone visit Chernobyl with SoloEast. Andrew is a phenomenal guide, hysterical and knowledgeable. When you go, tell him I sent you.

If you’d like to see more of Leroy’s travels, follow him on Instagram @ablackmanabroad, or subscribe to his YouTube channel www.youtube.com/leroy30590.

 

 

BFTT 2019 GROUP TRIP – BEST OF SOUTH AFRICA

MAY 18-26, 2019

9 Day Tour from Johannesburg to Cape Town

Join Black Folks Travel Too as we journey to South Africa.  From the history of Johannesburg to exploring Kruger National Park and Cape Town’s highlights, this tour of South Africa will be an adventure like no other. We’ll begin in Johannesburg’s Soweto Township to learn about its turbulent past, and hopeful future.

Visit the thought-provoking Apartheid Museum and Mandela House, located in the former neighborhood of Nobel Peace Prize winners, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela.

This  escorted African vacation continues through some of the world’s most sweeping and dramatic landscapes on your way to Kruger National Park area. Marvel at God’s Window (a forested ravine and majestic cliffs), and the stunning cascades of Lisbon and Berlin Falls. Your guided African safari begins in the Kruger Park area with morning and afternoon game drives through the homes of the big cats, giraffe, cheetah, hyena, gazelle, and more. You’ll visit Cape Town and ascend to Table Mountain via cable car for spectacular views. On boulders Beach, you’ll observe a colony of endangered penguins, then venture to Cape Point Nature Reserve, the Cape of Good Hope, and Cape Point at the continent’s most southwestern tip.

This South Africa tour is an adventure into historic heritage and wilderness wonder of this spectacular part of the continent.

PRICE:  $2919 PER PERSON (based on double occupancy), land only

Includes:

  • 11 meals
  • First class hotels
  • Pre-paid gratuities
  • IntraTour Air (Kruger area to Capetown)
  • Travel Protection Insurance
  • Air Taxes

Prices are per person, based on double room occupancy. The price listed does not include your international airfare, taxes or fees. You can book your own international air reservations or we can provide a quote from the tour company.

Single Room Supplement: $440

Triple Rooms are not available.

Extra Nights per person in Johannesburg: in single room $165; in twin room $96

Extra Nights per person in Cape Town: in single room $139; in twin room $81

PAYMENT SCHEDULE:

DEPOSIT: $250 PER PERSON (NON-REFUNDABLE)    January 18, 2019

If air is booked through tour company deposit is $550 ($250 for land and $300 for international air)

FINAL PAYMENT: March 13, 2019

Travel Terms & Conditions

Please ensure that you read carefully and understand the Terms & Conditions prior to booking. These Terms & Conditions cover Deposit & Final Payment information.

The following charges are not included in the land vacation price unless otherwise noted:

  • Airfare to and from the start of your vacation; Intra-vacation air unless specified in the itinerary
  • Airline baggage fees including checked and/or excess baggage fees
  • Federal inspection fees for the Federal U.S. Customs and Immigrations; International Air Transportation tax; agricultural tax
  • Other per-person taxes imposed by government entities; airport taxes and fees including the September 11th Security fee up to $11.20 per person, passenger facility charges up to $18 per person, Federal domestic flight segment fees up to $4.00per segment, and U.S. and International arrival and departure and other government-imposed added by the airline and applicable at time of booking
  • Port taxes
  • Passports; visas
  • Vaccinations
  • Tips to your Tour Director, Local Host, driver, Local Guides, gratuities on ferries, trains, and cruise ships
  • Laundry
  • Telephone
  • Minibar
  • Alcohol, beverages, and food outside of the contracted itinerary as presented at a hotel or restaurant or onboard your vessel (these extra items will be billed to you before leaving the hotel, ship, or restaurant)
  • Airport transfers on non-qualifying flights
  • Optional excursions
  • Porterage at airports and train stations
  • Travel Protection; and all other items of a personal nature

Space is limited, so contact us today to book your reservation. Email blackfolkstravel2@gmail.com.

Cruising the Mediterranean

Malaga….Marseille…Morocco…..these are just a few of the ports that Sylvia Keys and her friends visited during their recent Mediterranean cruise that  sailed from Lisbon, Portugal. The itinerary also included  Barcelona, Spain and Genoa, Italy.     

These ladies have been globetrotting together for some time and have been to Dubai, the ABC Islands, Australia and Fiji. They work in various professions and each brings her special skills and talents to the group. Sylvia is the group leader and researcher who finds the trips, studies the travel books and scopes out the best shopping deals wherever they go (like the Jade Market in Tokyo).  The financial analyst maps out the costs of each trip.  Several of the ladies work in the medical field and focus on keeping everyone healthy. One is a doctor who has loads of Marriott points (a great benefit to everyone).

They selected MSC, an Italian-owned cruise line because it offered an itinerary with the ports that they all wanted to visit.

Since the ship sailed from Lisbon, they spent time exploring the city and learning about its rich history. Before long it was time to board the ship and set sail on the MSC Preziosa.

As an  experienced cruiser, Sylvia provided good information about the Preziosa and their onboard experience. The other passengers were mostly from Russia, Eastern Europe, Australia, Brazil, Japan, Malaysia and Portugal. There were only ~10 other Americans onboard. There were only 18 Black people, all total. The ship was large and very well maintained.

The  cabins were comfortable with large showers and large balconies. They even cleaned the balcony doors several times when the ship was in port.

Customer service was excellent and Sylvia described the staff as FABULOUS. Most of them were from Madagascar, South Africa and the Caribbean; all spoke several languages.

Entertainment was different from other cruises they’d experienced – no musical or comedy shows – probably due to the fact that the passengers spoke so many different languages. Other onboard amenities were standard and included swimming pools, a casino, spa, hair salon and even a 4D movie theater.

Food was fresh and included fresh fish, Indian food and burgers.      As much as they enjoyed the shipboard experiences, the real fun began when they docked. Barcelona was the first port of call and they enjoyed its many sites, including La Sagrada Familia. Sylvia even remembered to send regards to our BFTT group.

In France they explored the port city of Marseille, gateway to the Provence region. Even though it rained some,  that did not dampen their spirits.

Then it was on to Genoa, one of Italy’s most underrated gems. One of the highlights of the trip (and there were many) was visiting Morocco. In Casablanca they shopped in the bazaar for about four hours, visiting vendors who sold herbs, textiles, rugs, Goyard items and other souvenirs. The bazaar can get pretty hectic, but they found someone who guided and protected them from the more aggressive vendors, and even helped them find ATMs and taxis.    The bazaar has ~400 kiosks, shops and stores. It really was the shopping experience of a lifetime.

It really sounds like these ladies had the trip of a lifetime. It must be great to have travel buddies that you can travel with regularly. If you’ve ever traveled with a group, you know that group dynamics can be “interesting”. But even with five different personalities and mindsets, these ladies seem to have it figured out. As a matter of fact they are already making plans for their 2019 trip.

 

My Favorite Place

 

 

 

 

 

My husband and I have been globetrotting for more than 30 years. In that time we have seen some breathtaking sights and had some amazing travel experiences. When people find out how much traveling we have done, they often ask, “What is your favorite travel destination?” We’ve had so many enjoyable experiences that it is difficult to pick just one. But after lots of thought and consideration, I’ve decided to answer that question. My favorite destination in the entire world is…..Istanbul, Turkey.

This bustling metropolis is one of the world’s most exciting cities. It is a kaleidoscope of culture, history, ancient architecture, modern urban energy, and fresh, delectable cuisine.

Experiences like watching the sun rise over the Bosphorus, shopping at the Grand Bazaar and hearing the call to prayer as we entered the Blue Mosque are indelibly etched into our travel memories. Yes, Istanbul is my favorite destination.

But wait….after our recent trip, I can’t possibly leave out Thailand.

The azure waters, balmy breezes and lush scenery of that tropical paradise are almost too beautiful to be believed. After a hair-raising speedboat ride we spent a perfect afternoon sailing around the islands and sunning ourselves on powdery white sand beaches.

Yes, that idyllic paradise has to be my very favorite travel destination.

But wait….when I think about azure waters and white sand beaches, I can’t possibly leave out another tropical destination….the island of Jamaica.

After viewing this beautiful beach in Montego Bay, it was easy to see why Stella got her groove back here. There are plenty of other ways to enjoy the island. We’ve partied on the beach, climbed up Dunns River Falls and zip lined through the tree tops at high speed what a rush!

We’ve also eaten the most delicious jerk chicken, Jamaican patties and washed it all down with ice cold Red Stripe Beer…and of course, rum punch.So without a doubt, Jamaica is my favorite travel destination.

But wait…how can I forget about China? In 2015 we visited Beijing, Suzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai.

We were captivated by the architecture and history of this ancient country. In addition to the Forbidden City, Summer Palace and Lingering Garden we shopped and dined in the modern metropolis of Shanghai. We even toured jade, silk and pearl factories. The highlight of the visit had to be climbing the Great Wall of China. I expected it to be amazing, but the experience was beyond anything that I’d imagined. I’d hear other people describe going up on a gondola, so I was prepared to see breathtaking vistas. What I wasn’t prepared for was the actual climb. Our tour guide took us to Juyongguan Pass, a section of the wall where there was no gondola. So it was all about the climb….and those 2000 year old stone steps were no joke.

But it was well worth it – the views from the top were spectacular! The experience was even more special since we shared it as a family.

But wait? I can’t possibly forget about Spain. There is so much to see and do in this country that I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve been there. With cities like Barcelona, Valencia, Mallorca, Malaga, Vigo, La Coruna, Cartagena, Valencia, Marbella, Sitges and Puerto Banus it is impossible to see it all in one, or even two visits.

Barcelona is a city that has to be experienced to be fully appreciated. Its edgy, urban energy reminded us of San Francisco with the restaurants, street performers, street art and designer shops. The Gothic Quarter is a winding maze of narrow alleys that open onto charming plazas where you can hear street musicians, watch flamenco dancers or just sit and people watch, while sipping sangria. There are also great destinations to visit outside of the city. Two of our favorites are the Penedes Wine region, home to the Freixenet Cava caves and several other world-class wineries. We also enjoyed visiting the Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey, nestled high on a mountain peak; it’s only an hour train ride from Barcelona and home of the famous Black Madonna.

Malaga is another one of our favorite destinations in Spain. It’s a port city on southern Spain’s Costa del Sol, near the continent of Africa, Morocco is only a 70-minute ferry ride away. We were particularly intrigued by evidence of Moorish history. We toured the Alcazaba, a hilltop citadel and the nearby Alhambra Palace, another fortress built in the 13th century.

We’ve always been fascinated by Moorish history and discovered that the Spanish occupation by the Moors began in 711 AD when an African army, under their leader Tariq ibn-Ziyad, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from northern Africa and invaded the Iberian peninsula ‘Andalus’ (Spain under the Visigoths). So visiting this palace complex was like walking in the footsteps of those great warriors.

So that’s it…..Spain is my absolute favorite travel destination. Unless I overlook Italy….and I couldn’t possibly do that. From Rome, to Venice, to Florence to Capri, to the Cinque Terre, we’ve lived “la dolce vita” all over that country.

Although many of the famous sites (Colosseum, Leaning Tower of Pisa, Trevi Fountain) are often overrun by tourists, they are still amazing to visit. Regardless of religious beliefs, the museums and St. Peter’s Basilica of Vatican City are simply awesome. During our most recent visit we got an inside tour of the Colosseum and actually got to see it from a gladiator’s perspective. Wow!

Whenever we visit Florence, we take a day trip to the Cinque Terre, 5 charming coastal villages accessible by boat or train.

Whether you choose to hike between the villages or take the train, the views are simply stunning!

Foodies, can we talk? Italy is hands down one of the world’s top culinary destinations. We’ve enjoyed delicious meals at small trattorias, fine dining restaurants and neighborhood cafeterias. There’s much more to Italian cuisine than gelato, pizza and pasta. But I’ll admit that I could actually eat my weight in pasta….and have done so on occasion.

No matter where you are in Italy, eating gelato daily is a must….

 

So that settles it, Italy is my favorite travel destination.

Who am I kidding? I can’t pick one single destination as my absolute favorite. Each place offers something special that is unique to that destination. So I’ll just plan to keep traveling around the world…..discovering new “favorites”.

What Ever Happened to Travel Agents?

What ever happened to travel agents, do they still exist? Are they extinct? Absolutely not, they are alive and thriving. Like many other industries, the internet has affected the way that travel advisors work. Years ago trip planning always included visiting a travel agency, flipping through brochures and having an agent book the trip. Now much of the booking can be done online, so many travel agents have closed their brick-and-mortar offices and do most of their business remotely.

 

 

When would someone use the services of a travel agent? Some people say always, others say never. In truth, it’s not an always or never situation. It really depends on the type of trip you’re booking. A simple airline ticket, hotel room or even a cruise can be booked online with the click of a mouse. But if the itinerary is more complicated or you’re trying to coordinate group travel, a good travel advisor can save you time – and money. Here are some examples of when you can benefit from using a travel advisor:

– Trip planning: Some people know exactly when and where they want to go. Others have no clue. They may only know that they want to take their family to a warm destination sometime between June and August. A good travel agent uses a survey/interview process to help the client determine what will work best – and will offer several options. They partner with the client to custom design the vacation.

– In recent weeks we’ve seen an unprecedented amount of natural disasters that have resulted in flight/hotel cancellations, cruise ship re-routing and much more. Stranded travelers have had great difficulty getting through to airlines, or the online travel agencies (Expedia, Travelocity, etc) to make adjustments. Many have been kept on hold until their cell phone battery died; then they have to start all over again. Those who had travel agents just had to make one call to let them handle the issues from their office. Agents have access to inside personnel at hotels, cruise lines, etc. who can get much quicker resolutions. They are your best advocates.

– Specialty trips: Some trips are lengthy, more complicated and may have multiple destinations or multiple modes of transportation. A travel agent can ensure that all of the connections and fine details mesh.

 

– Group travel: Have you ever tried to coordinate a group trip or family reunion? It can be like herding cats. A travel agent can serve as the central point of contact and communicate itineraries, payment deadlines and so much more. They also handle all of the accounting – keeping track of who has paid, how much people still owe and what’s outstanding. When a group is small 5-10 people, it’s no problem. But when the group is large, 20 or more, it becomes much more difficult. Group members may be hesitant to give you their credit card information, so it’s much easier to use a trusted travel professional.

– Busy professionals: I’ve seen commercials for OTA (Online Travel Agencies) that will allow you to search hundreds of travel websites. In today’s fast-paced world, many people are too busy to search hundreds of travel websites. One call to a travel advisor can simply that process.

The travel landscape is constantly changing. There are daily changes to airline fees, hotel policies, TSA requirements and much more. People who only travel once or twice a year may not be aware of those changes. Travel agents study trends daily and can inform their clients about how the changes will affect them. When is a passport required? Which countries require visas? What regions require immunizations? This is information that a travel advisor can provide. Here are some examples of valuable information:

– Some American citizens don’t feel the need to get a passport since they don’t travel outside of the United States, but that is all going to change in 2018. Starting at the beginning of next year, residents in nine states will need to have passports in order to take any kind of flight, whether it is international or domestic. Those states are: Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Washington.

– Many countries require that your passport be valid for 6 months beyond your travel date. So even if your passport is still valid, but will expire in 3 or 4 months, you won’t make it through immigration.

– Travel agents can give advice about dress codes and what is acceptable. Some countries require women to cover their heads before entering a church or mosque. In others, showing too much skin is frowned upon – so no tank tops or shorts for men or women. I few months ago I visited the Monaco Casino and they do no allow running/tennis shoes or ripped jeans. I saw several people turned away.

I’ve heard people say, “I don’t use a travel agent, I just book online.” Newsflash, if you book on a website like Expedia, Travelocity or Hotwire, your using an online travel agent (OTA). Often they are in another country, working from home or a call center.

Aren’t travel agents expensive? No. Most of their services are free to clients, since they are paid commissions by the travel vendors (except for airlines, who do not pay commissions). Some agents might charge a service fee for complicated bookings, or airline bookings, but they’ll let you know that right up front. Here’s another newsflash – you pay fees even when you book online since those fees are built into the price. For example, if you ask your travel agent to book a hotel room for you, he/she may find a rate of $199 per night, and the commission will be paid out of that rate. But if you book the same hotel room through an OTA, or directly with the hotel the rate will be the same. You’ll still pay the commission – they just keep it instead of paying the travel agent. You won’t get any additional discount for booking directly.

The same thing happens with cruise bookings. You can book directly with the cruise line. But travel agents often have access to discounted rates and extra perks that the cruise lines don’t tell customers about.

So why not take advantage of the free services offered by the travel agent?

How do you select a travel agent? Are they all the same? No, all travel agents are not “created equal”. Unfortunately, it is a loosely regulated profession. So it is important to shop around and thoroughly vet an agent before trusting them with planning your vacation. Even if someone tells you that they are a “certified travel agent” that’s not enough. They may actually have extensive experience and knowledge – or they may have just paid $99 and taken an online class to get that “certification”.

Here are some guidelines:

  • Make sure they have a website.
  • Make sure they have a social media presence.
  • Get references from past clients, customer reviews, Yelp, etc.
  • Make sure that they actually travel – a good travel agent has real travel experience.
  • Find one that has knowledge about the destination(s) that you plan to visit and the type of travel that you want to do. For example, if you’re planning a destination wedding, a safari specialist won’t be of much help to you. If you want to cruise, make sure that they can give you information about several cruise lines, ships, etc.
  • Find someone with a broad range of travel expertise, in hotels, resorts, cruises and current trends.
  • Ask them what they specialize in. Although all travel agents have access selling all travel products, most tend to specialize in destinations or types of travel. You’ll get better service when dealing with someone who is a specialist in your desired destination.

Working with a travel advisor is not right for everyone – or for every trip. But working with the right one can be priceless.