Hotel Relais de Charme Antica Dimora alla Rocca

When traveling through Italy, forget the large corporate chains with their generic, sanitary designs and go with a local pensione to experience la dolce vita at its sweetest. Located in the southeastern side of Umbria in the hilltop town of Trevi, the 4 star Hotel Relais de Charme Antica Dimora alla Rocca is located in the heart of this medieval town which is said to have one of the best views of the Umbrian landscape.

Exterior of the hotel

The building itself dates back to the 16th century with the hotel being housed in two parallel buildings. Although much of the charm of the original architecture has been preserved, in 2012 a change of management led to a complete refurbishment. There are 32 en-suite bedrooms that feature central heating and air conditioning, LED TVs, mini-bars, room service, 24 hour access to reception, with free WiFi and internet access.

Onsite, the hotel has one restaurant, located in the old oil mill, with medieval vaulted ceilings and terracotta flooring. As well as 2 bars, one indoor and the other in a little square outside the hotel. In a small courtyard there is a swimming pool available for guests during the Summer months.

Halloween on the High Seas Cruises & MerryTime

Halloween and Christmas are fast approaching, and there’s still time to book passage aboard one of Diney Cruise Line’s ships. Rolling out new events for both holidays, these ships will cater to the whole family, including parties, parades, decorations, and seasonal treats.

Halloween on the High Seas Cruises, Sept. 22 – Oct. 31

Aboard the Disney Dream, passengers can enjoy trick-or-treating with Disney characters, a Costume parade, a Mousequerade deck party, and the Nightmare Before Christmas Sing and Scream show. For adults, the Evolution Night Club is transformed with a costume contest and a dance hosted by the Disney villains.

MerryTime, Nov. 12 – Jan. 6

On all four Disney Cruise Line ships, passengers can enjoy the transformation of the ships into a winter wonderland with a nautical theme. Kids can go to King Triton’s tree lighting ceremony. Family activities play games, dance, and celebrate with Disney Characters at a tropical holiday deck party. And, as no Christmas would be complete without them, Santa and his elves will greet guests.

We invite you to read more with the Disney Flyer

Review of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel

A recent four day stint in San Francisco had me staying at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. Located on Union Square, this boutique hotel is a part of the Kimpton line, and offers a unique experience among the many possible accommodations in the Bay Area.

The Hotel can be seen behind Saks Fifth Avenue

Here are the pros and cons of my stay:

The Hotel

The building was constructed in 1928 and stands at 21 stories tall. It features a Renaissance style with Corinthian columns, a grand staircase, and an impressive lobby. Which makes this hotel highly personable and memorable for visitors. Combined with its location only a half block away from Union Square and on the Trolley line, provides guests the opportunity to reach nearby attractions, great restaurants and shopping, and access mass transit.

The Lobby

La Scala’s Bistro/ Starlight Room

There are a couple of dining options available for guests at the Sir Francis Drake. The two most notable features are La Scala Restaurant on the ground floor and the Starlight Room on the 21st floor with views of the surrounding city. Included in the cost of accommodations were three options.

While the atmosphere in this Italian/French themed restaurant was upscale and comfortable, the portion sizes were unsatisfying, the food somewhat bland, and the prices were obscene even by San Francisco standards. With so many incredible dining experiences to be had on Union Square, not to mention cheaper prices, the La Scala Restaurant’s only appeal was that its convenience and budget considerations.

The View from the Starlight Room

The Starlight Room is billed as a festive bar with live music and great drinks. There were great views and it was festively decorated, but the cocktail prices were steep and the drink unsatisfying.

The Room

In line with the highly boutique nature of the Sir Francis Drake, the room was beautiful, the beds were comfortable, and the view exceptional. But the hotel is historic, and the rooms small and the bathroom especially so. Which bordered on the uncomfortable. Though it should be noted that the room was functional, comfortable, and offered a great view of the city.

Besides obvious pitfalls such as the waits during breakfast and the small bathroom, the Sir Francis Drake Hotel provided an overall satisfactory experience. Though it isn’t necessarily right for everyone. Last year, during our San Francisco & Wine Country tour we stayed at the Grand Hyatt located a block away from the Sir Francisco Drake Hotel. The hotel rooms were spacious, the breakfast included in our tour was expansive and satisfying, and the location offered the same advantages as the Sir Francis Drake. But on the flipside, the Grand Hyatt lacked the kind of charm that accompanies the boutique hotel experience afforded by the Sir Francis Drake.

TSA Pre Program

Whether you’re a frequent flyer or not, traveling through  airport security screenings is a hassle.   But TSA (the Travel Security Administration) has released the TSA Pre program that  will allow individuals to voluntarily be pre-screened thus allowing them to  speed through the lines and get to their flights more quickly.

Eligible for this program are US Citizens who are frequent  travelers of certain, participating airlines or members of existing Customs and  Border Protection Trusted Traveler Programs.   As are passengers 12 and younger allowed through TSA Pre lanes when  traveling with an eligible passenger.

What this program means for those who are eligible for it is  that they’d no longer need to remove their shoes, 3-1-1 compliant bag from  carry-on, laptop from bag, light outerwear/jacket, or belt.

At present, the application process involves first  registering for a CBP Global Online Enrollment System (GOES) account.  Once registered, travelers can move forward  with the enrollment in one of the CBP eligible programs.  The GOES system provides a pass ID number  after the enrollment in a trusted traveler program.  After that it’s a matter of simply supplying  the pass ID number associated with their Trusted Traveler account in the Known  Traveler Number field when booking travel.

TSA has also announced plans to implement a TSA Pre fee  based application process that will allow US citizens the opportunity to  apply for expeddited screening without a passport.  After it’s available, it will require a two  step process of filling out an online application and verifying identity and  providing fingerprints at a TSA Pre enrollment center.  The $85 fee can be paid either online or at a  participating enrollment center.  This  process will come with a 5 year eligibility after which time participants will  need to reapply.

At present there are 40 airports across the country that are participating.

Buena Vista Palace Hotel & Spa Weddings

We are happy to announce the latest addition to our Destination Weddings site’s packages page: Buena Vista Palace Hotel & Spa.

Located not far from the Disney parks in Florida, the hotel offers an excellent array of amenities, accessibility to the theme parks and golf courses, as well as a number of affordable wedding packages.

We invite you to discover what makes this an excellent destination for your wedding, anniversary, or honeymoon.

Visit our new Buena Vista Palace Hotel & Spa page on our Destination Weddings site or contact us today for more information.

All photos courtesy of Buena Vista Palace Hotel & Spa.

Interesting Dessert Spots

We love visiting interesting and landmark food destinations. Let’s face it, when we’re on vacation the diets take a backseat, and we let ourselves live a little. While we’ve traveled to several great places, and tried several great desserts that have made it possible to truly experience a destination. These are three of the interesting dessert destinations that we can’t wait to try.

Voodoo Doughnut – Portland, Oregon

For any foodie traveling to Portland, Oregon Voodoo Doughnuts is an absolute must see stop, having pioneered the now eponymous Bacon Maple Bar doughnut with maple frosting and bacon on top; their signature Voodoo Doll doughnut filled with raspberry jelly, topped with chocolate, and complete with a pretzel stake; and their Triple Chocolate Penetration doughnut with chocolate cake, chocolate frosting, and coco-puffs–among many other bizarre and, surprisingly, tasty creations.

Photo by Rockobilly

Voodoo Doughnuts is open 24 hours a day and 7 days a week with two locations in Portland but be sure to get there early. Lines have a tendency to go out the door.

Photo by Cliff Danger

Chocolate Lab – San Francisco, California

During our last trip to San Francisco, we had the opportunity to visit the Ferry Building and Recchiuti Chocolates: one any number of gourmet, high end chocolate shops located in the bay area. Since our visit, they’ve branched out and formed the Chocolate Lab which was created to highlight Michael Recchiuti’s background as a pastry chef, incorporating chocolate and caramel oriented desserts, pastries, and desserts. In true San Francisco fashion, when Chocolate Lab was created using locally sourced materials such as California grown, fallen elm for the walls, original oak floors, lighting sculpture by The Kettle Collection, Metal framed dessert bar and server station by metal smith Christopher Whitney of Object Assembly, fern glazed tiles from Heath Ceramics, and live greenery in gun metal grey metal planters from Flora Grubb.

Photos by Tom Seawall Photography

Some of their unique offerings include Chocolate Lab Cake which is a devil’s food cake layered with bittersweet ganache, wrapped in a proprietary blend of 65% semisweet chocolate, topped with caramelized cacao nibs, and sitting coffee crème anglaise; Pot de Creme’s burnt Caramel blended into a milk chocolate custard, sprinkled with sugar, melted into a brittle sugar crust, and finished with topping of hazelnut crumble and butter cookies; and Strawberry Tartlette made with organic strawberries, a Gravenstein apple vinegar glaze over vanilla bean pastry cream, sitting in a flaky tart crust, and served with house-made tarragon and strawberry sorbet.

Photos by Tom Seawall Photography

Cafe Sacher – Vienna, Austria

The Sacher-Torte can be found throughout Vienna in various coffee houses and cafes, but the genuine article was first produced by Franz Sacher for Prince Wenzel von Metternich as a special dessert in 1832 and eventually found its way to the Hotel Sacher which was founded by Eduard Sacher, Franz Sacher’s son, in 1876. The Sachertorte is composed to two layers of dense chocolate sponge cake with a thin layer of apricot jam in the middle, and coated in dark chocolate icing the top and sides, and is traditionally served with sugarless whipped cream. Although the composition remains the same, the recipe used at the Cafe Sacher Wien is a closely guarded secret and is found only at one location. Their website event has a guide for identifying an authentic Sachertorte.

Photo by SimFan34

Besides the eponymous Sachertorte, the Cafe Sacher Wien and its several sister cafes located throughout Europe also offer the Sacher Melange, called the original Viennese Coffee Experience, which is hot black coffee with foamed milk and whipped cream; an Einspanner with mocha topped with whipped cream, and served in an einspanner glass, and its own original liquor.

Although visitors can travel to Vienna to visit the Cafe Sacher in Wien, there are additional shops in Salzburg, Innsbruck, and Graz.

Viking Oceans

Viking has set the standard for European River Cruising,  having succeeded in taking its passengers to places that have been overlooked  in mainstream tourism and providing a look into parts of Europe  that have yet to be ruined by endless crowds, cheap food, and inauthentic  tourist traps.  But, though Viking River  Cruises has continued to grow and expand its fleet of longships, they  announced almost a month ago   the introduction of the Viking Star, which  will herald in their new fleet of oceangoing vessels under the brand Viking  Oceans.

The new Viking Star, © Viking Cruises

Forget the massive cruise ships that have replaced the  destination as the reason for going, Viking Oceans’ ships will bring passengers  back to exploring the cultural, historic, and culinary heart of the places they  visit.  Here’s what it will offer:

© Viking Cruises

Viking has tailored its newest brand with experienced  travelers in mind.  Its ports include  cities that appeal to experienced travelers, with more time in port, late  evenings, or overnight stays, offering guests the chance to explore a port’s  nightlife.  Each cruise fare will include  a veranda stateroom–that is, all staterooms are veranda staterooms.  Shore exursions, all onboard meals, all port  charges and government taxes, complimentary beer and wine with lunch and  dinner, wifi, self-service laundry, and 24-hour room service for all  passengers.

 © Viking Cruises

Accomodations:

Although every stateroom has a verandah there are still the  conventional room categories that range from the 270 sq. ft. standard room  which offers king sized beds, large showers, and LCD TVs to the incredibly  spacious 1163 sq. ft. explorer suites that provide wrap around verandas and  priority access to ship’s services and options.

© Viking Cruises

Dining:

Like its river cruises, the Viking Star will highlight regional  and local specialties made from locally sourced ingredientswith several  additional options onboard for passengers wanting American classic, heart  healthy options, or simply seeking to enjoy their meals al fresco.

© Viking Cruises

Activities:

Keeping in line with their alternative approach to cruising,  the ship’s activities and amenities.

  • The onboard spa offers a holistic, Scandinavian set of options such as its snowflake filled snow room.
  • Two onboard pools: one featuring a retractable roof and the other an infinity pool that’s perched off the stern of the ship.
  • Relaxing spaces such as the Explorers’ lounge with its two story panoramic windows, selection of craft beers, and Viking Deli or the Wintergarden surrounding the main pool where passengers can play witness to a tea ceremony or partake in an afternoon tea service.
  • The Star Theater will offer enrichment lectures from experts on topics of       regional history, art, and music.
  • An onboard cooking school allows passengers to not only enjoy the regional specialties that are served onboard but also how to make them.

Sailings:

Although the first ship, the Viking Star, isn’t scheduled to begin its maiden voyage unto 2015,  rooms are already filling up for its itineraries to Scandinavia and the Baltic; and Western and Eastern   Mediterranean destinations.

To learn more, we invite you to visit the Viking Oceans’ website.

Our Review of Allure of the Seas: Part 2

While the multitude of things to do aboard the Allure could fill any vacation, the ship does visit several ports of call along its Caribbean route where various shore excursions are offered. Here’s what my experience was:

Renaissance Ft. Lauderdale Cruise Port Restaurant

Jamaica

Best of Jamaica tour —We were picked up at the harbor for our drive to Dunn’s River Falls, the first stop on our tour. Jamaica is a beautiful, lush and green island. Climbing the falls is a great experience, but visitors should be prepared to get wet as they literally climb up the rocks in the falls. Though it’s not as dangerous as it sounds. Local guides help each group with the climb. After, we drove past Ocho Rios to Shaw Park Hotel designed and built in a historic plantation style. Our meal consisted of traditional Jamaican fare. Our next event was a boat ride along coast of Jamaica back to Ocho Rios for a ride back to Falmouth where the ship was docked. And, as with any cruise ship terminal, there are plenty of stores here that more or less offer the same touristy souvenirs passengers can expect at every stop along the way.

Cozumel
Swimming with the Rays – We were picked up from the pier and took a short, 5 minute ride to a resort on the beach where the stingrays are. The first ½ hour of the excursion was spent in the shallow portion of the ocean where we were able to feed, pet and learn about stingrays. The next ½ hour was the actual snorkeling in deeper water with stingrays and other fish.

Before concluding my reviews of the Alllure of the Seas and its offerings, I wanted to provide some fun facts and some useful information for anyone thinking about or planning on traveling aboard this ship.

Senor Frogs, Cozumel

Fun and useful facts:
•Princess Fiona (from Shrek) is the godmother of the ship.
•The main theater on Allure of the Seas is equipped to handle 3D movies, many of which are first-run DreamWorks films.
•All cabins feature iPod docking stations
•The Allure also has over 9800 pieces of art throughout the ship, with over 1,200 works of art in the public areas. As you explore the ship, you will find new hidden treasures everywhere. One of the best things I really liked was finding new surprises on every deck.
•TV’s in the staterooms allow you to access your personal shipboard account, see your daily calendar and make reservations if you wish.
•Though our own personal experience is perhaps not typical for all passengers, we were not forced to wait in any lines or delays in getting on and off the ship which I thought was amazing.

The Allure of the Seas is a wonderful ship with plenty of options for cruisers of all ages and families of all sizes. And while the size and the number of passengers may put off some travelers to the idea of sailing aboard it, the ship’s variety of venues afforded several opportunities to find my own little place onboard that wasn’t crowded. While the experience was enjoyable, one of the things I did note was that many times I did not feel like I was at sea but at a land based resort, and I could not feel any movement of the ship at all nor could I feel the wind. The entire crew the Allure was friendly, going out of their way to make sure every guest enjoyed their cruise; the number of dining options, both included and not, were exceptional and never once did I find myself unsatisfied with the selection or my meal; and all in all, I would do it again, just to get to everything I did not have time to experience the first time around.

Jamaica

Other useful information:

The only time the ship felt crowded was at meal times for breakfast and lunch in the Windjammer buffet and then waiting in line for the dining at 5:30pm and 8:30pm. The elevators took a while during meal times as many people were using them, and on the sea days, the pool areas were jammed packed.

Taxi from the FLL airport to the pier is about $20 and takes about 10 minutes. You can actually see the cruise port from the airport. For a really great hotel close to the pier, we stayed at the Renaissance Ft. Lauderdale Cruise Port which includes breakfast. There is a Walgreens Drug store across the street from the hotel and a lovely restaurant a very short walk from the hotel, right on the water. The hotel offers a shuttle to the pier for $6.00 per person which is about a 3 minute drive. It actually took longer to wait in line to get out of the taxi than driving from hotel. Check in was very easy and efficient, making for a quick ship boarding.

Activities Aboard the Allure of the Seas

As I mentioned in my previous posts about the Allure of the Seas, this ship has everything. Among the many amenities available aboard it includes a jogging track on Deck 5. 1 lap around is approximately 1 1/2 miles. There is also a state-of-art fitness center, 2 Flow Rider surf simulators, 2 rock-climbing walls, a zip line, a full-size basket ball court, ice-skating rink, mini golf course, 4 pools including 1 adults only pool in the Solarium, 10 whirlpools with 2 of them cantilevered overlooking the ocean, an H20 Zone kids water park. There is also a full-service spa and salon, the fitness center offers yoga and tai-chi classes. One will also find Dreamworks characters onboard ship, character dining, parades, ice shows, aqua shows and of course, the only carousel at sea.

The Solarium is a great place to relax in on the days at sea if you are looking for a quiet place on the ship. It is located at the front of the ship on Deck 15 with wonderful views of the ocean.

The other pool areas get very crowded in the late morning and early afternoons on the days at sea, so you have to get to the pool areas early to get some chairs. I found the pool spaces to be a bit too small for the number of people on the ship, but with a bit of pre-planning, it works.

There is lots of evening entertainment, the Comedy Club, the Ice Show, Chicago, Oceanaria, The Blue Planet, Casino Royale, On-Air karaoke club, live jazz club, movies under the stars, etc. You will not lack for something to do.

I definitely recommend making reservations for the nightly shows to ensure you get in. Space does “sell out”. If you do not have reservations and wish to try to get in, the shows will release all unclaimed reservations 10 minutes before showtime and allow anyone waiting to go in.

There are several great children’s and teen programs onboard the ship based on age appropriate activities as well as teen lounge areas and a disco. There are also several family friendly activities including games and contests.