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No Lacking for Luxury in Miami

The problem with planning a trip to Miami is not finding a hotel, it’s trying to decide on which one, as there are over 15 Virtuoso properties in the Miami area!  So during my 3 night trip in January, I was thrilled to visit several, so that I could understand how to match the right property to my client.

To the beach!

My home hotel was the Faena, centrally located on Miami Beach. If you like technology, then you’ll love this hotel, which doesn’t even have buttons in the elevator.  You enter your floor number and then a private elevator arrives to whisk you nonstop to your destination.Rooms have high tech toilets and central control panels for lighting.  My spacious junior suite could really be called a 1 bedroom as it had a door separating the living area.

The ‘wow’ factor:  a $16M gold-plated woolly mammoth on prominent display in the garden.

No guessing which hotel this is!

The Miami Beach EDITION, a Ritz-Carlton hotel, was a just a few minutes down the beach walk.  The rooms have a minimalist style, perfect for the beach.   Rooms in the bungalow section overlook the retro pool, and include bi-level loft suites with over 1500 sq ft of space for families.

My clients will enjoy their complimentary breakfast here.

I loved the lush grounds which offered plenty of shade, a lovely deck overlooking the main pool, an outdoor poolside bar, and sandy play area for kids.  The fun continues inside with a bowling alley and the smallest ice rink I have ever seen!  A great option for families with kids of all ages.

Parents will strike it big when the kids see this.

When you enter The Setai, you’ll want to stay here even before seeing the rooms, as the lobby lounge and restaurant are stunning.

I could have stayed here all night.

No worries, though, as this all-suite hotel offers spacious luxury suites with kitchens (starting at 600 sq ft), plus 3 infinity pools, and the best views in Miami Beach, since it was built before height restrictions were put in place.

The worst suite you can get at The Setai.

And the best, the 40th floor Penthouse with gorgeous panoramic views.

Upgrade your stay by booking into the Ocean Suite Tower, and you’ll get a 45 min spa treatment, beverages replenished in your suite daily, and complimentary valet parking and car service.

For travelers seeking a quieter beach location, then Acqualina Resort is your dream come true, on Sunny Isles Beach about 30 minutes away from Miami Beach.   It’s just as fantastic, but it’s a residential area without a oceanside promenade, so guests practically have the beach to themselves.

Watch the kids without getting sand between your toes!

Acqualina features some of the largest residential style suites available in the area, in up to 4 bedroom configurations, so it’s perfect for an extended family. And on property amenities include a beachfront grill only available to guests, who can dine by the water or by the pool.

I’d say “home away from home” but my home doesn’t look anything like this.

Suite dreams!

All ages will be happy with amenities including 3 oceanfront pools, the 20,000 sq ft ESPA spa, and AcquaMarine, an innovative ( and complimentary)  marine biology-based children’s program.

If you need me, I’ll be here.

My clients receive the following Virtuoso amenities at these resorts (and sometimes more) when I book their stay:

  • Upgrade on arrival, subject to availability
  • Breakfast daily for up to two in-room guests
  • $100 Hotel credit
  • Early check-in/late check-out,subject to availability
  • Complimentary Wi-Fi

My trip wasn’t all work and no play.  I got to enjoy an educational and yummy food tour…

When I saw this at the first stop on our food tour, I regretted having breakfast.

…then headed out to the Everglades with some Brownell Travel buddies to see alligators and ride an airboat.

You don’t have to tell me twice.

I highly recommend staying  long enough to enjoy some of the many fun activities Miami has to offer.  It’s important to book early, especially for peak periods like the holidays!

My 10 min of beach time at days’ end.

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2017 Travel Year in Review

2017 was a year of clients traveling to places I had never booked before, plus plenty of old favorites.  Here is a gallery of some favorite pics from their travels and mine.

Tuscany

Gorgeous May colors.

A beautiful home away from home in Italy.

The rooftops of Florence.

Boston

A Fenway Park tour is a “must do.”

As well as a stop at Luke’s Lobster.

Alaska

A full view of Denali that even impressed the park rangers.

Lindblad’s new family itinerary was a hit.

Not your average hike.

Hot tubbing alongside glaciers.

Lake Tahoe

The best way to enjoy the scenery is via catamaran.

London

Big smiles by Big Ben.

Shhh!

Disney Baltic Cruise

Feeling the Disney love!

Charming Estonia.

Van Gogh painting lesson in Amsterdam.

History lesson in Berlin.

Paris

How to upgrade a chocolate tasting tour?

Add a private photographer!

Fountains of Versailles

Galapagos

Blue footed boobies galore.

One of Santa Cruz Island’s most famous residents.

Man overboard!

Sunset at the equator.

Thailand

Going for a spin in Bangkok.

Azamara Med Cruise

Cruising the Greek Isles.

Amazing Amalfi Coast.

Vesuvius peekaboo.

Small ship luxury.

Napa

Los Alcobas, one of the newest Virtuoso hotels.

Vineyard at sunset.

Svalbard (Norway)

Polar bear spotting – look closely!

Hawaii

Infinity pool paradise at Four Seasons Ko’Olina

Honeymoon on Hanalei Bay

Waipio Valley on the Big Island.

 

Where will you go in 2018??

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Spring Break Inspiration Part 2 – Adventure

Looking for a family vacation that’s full of adventure?  Love wildlife encounters and spectacular natural scenery?  Here are 4 popular destinations for families who like to be on the go and get up close to nature.

Galapagos

Don’t let the small geographic footprint fool you.  It’s packed with incredibly diverse scenery and wildlife, some which cannot be seen anywhere else on the planet.   A Galapagos cruise offers the best variety for families with different interests and ability levels.  You can be on the go from breakfast to dinner,  or take some time to relax on deck and enjoy the scenery.   You can explore underwater or sightsee from a boat, choose between a hike or a paddle, or even get up early for yoga.

Getting the toys ready!

Showing us the love

I had the opportunity to experience Lindblad Expeditions’ new ship in the Galapagos in March, which is great for multi-generational groups because it offers the broadest range of activities, including a glass bottom boat for non-snorkelers.  And their new children’s program developed in partnership with National Geographic is fantastic, even the adults wanted to participate.

Kids are kept busy with scavenger hunts, zodiac driving lessons, photography and video workshops, and even a pizza & movie night.

Mexico

I firmly believe Mexico is underrated as an adventure destination.  If you want to stay at a traditional full service beach resort, yet have some off-property adventures, then this is the place to be.  And there are so many choices for places to stay, you can go back again and again.

The Riviera Maya offers archaeological ruins, cenotes, and fantastic snorkeling, and a huge selection of resorts from large all-inclusives to luxury boutique hotels.

This snorkel trip requires a hard hat!

The Baja peninsula has a more arid climate, and some of the best whale watching and snorkeling in the world.  Other outdoor activities include ATV tours, hiking, and kayaking.

How many kids can brag that they got to pet a gray whale on vacation?

Travelers who aren’t interested in the beach can go on a hiking expedition visiting wilderness lodges in the Copper Canyon, or enjoy cultural sites in colonial cities such as Oaxaca and San Miguel de Allende.

Oaxaca is world famous for its food, my son wants to go back just for these street tacos.

Costa Rica

Sloths and monkeys and iguanas, oh my!  If you want nonstop action and scenery ranging from volcanoes to rainforests to beaches, this is the place to go.  Clients never complain about being bored, if anything they have trouble fitting everything in!

So ugly he’s cute.

Most clients can visit 2 or 3 locations during a 8-10 day trip, if they don’t mind moving around. This allows them to experience a variety of locations like Arenal volcano and Manuel Antonio National Park.  But the resort area of Guanacaste is great for families who prefer to stay in one location, have a traditional resort vacation, but still have access to adventure activities like rafting and ziplining.

Even little ones can have big adventures!

Peru

If you like to combine cultural exploration with outdoor activities, then consider a trip to Peru including visits to Cuzco, Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu, which can be done in a 7-10 day itinerary. Families can enjoy short nature walks to full day hikes, purchase crafts at local markets, explore archaeological ruins and temples, or paddle around a lake spotting wildlife.

I don’t want to feed the llama.    Said nobody ever.

 

They won’t ever forget this view.

And if you have the time, this is a great add-on to a Galapagos cruise!

Contact me to start designing a fantastic adventure for your family!

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Back in Time in Boston

If you follow me on social media, you already know that I have the pleasure of visiting Boston several times a year because my son attends Boston University.  (And plays goal for the BU Club Ice Hockey team – Roll Pups!)

Visitors are steeped in history wherever they go in Boston, but this time I got some new history lessons in the Back Bay and Kenmore neighborhoods.

The Fairmont Copley Plaza is an institution in Boston, and you feel it as soon as you walk in the front door. It’s evident in the architectural details and photographs on the wall, and it’s no surprise the Fairmont is included in Historic Hotels of America.

A grand entrance!

If only I had a wide angle lens to capture all the details.

But rest assured, the rooms have modern amenities, and the junior suites are especially spacious! For something really unique, check out their Signature Suites!

Who says historic hotels have to have tiny rooms?

Virtuoso amenities for my clients are:

  • Upgrade on arrival, subject to availability
  • Full breakfast daily for up to two in-room guests, in OAK Long Bar & Kitchen
  • $100 Hotel credit
  • Complimentary Wi-fi
  • Early check-in/late check-out, subject to availability

I toured the hotel with a staff member who pointed out many interesting features, such as the ballroom built during the Prohibition, the tracks in OAK from an old carousel, and autographed pictures of past Presidents and celebrities.

Can you guess what is hidden behind one of these panels?

Wish I could have seen this in person!

Especially dear to my heart are the hotel’s canine ambassadors. On my first visit, I got to meet Catie, who passed away in May. She was beloved by the entire city, and has been honored in many ways, including having one of the famous Duck Boats named after her. (It’s the white one with paw prints.)

Catie on the job in 2014.

We had less time for sightseeing on this trip, so we were struggling to with how to spend the few hours we had left. Then we remembered: Fenway Park offers tours! I am not a baseball fan at all, but even this appealed to me, because I have seen the famous landmark in many movies.

I was not disappointed. The tour was very interesting, as we learned about the history of the park, the team, and the neighborhood. There were gorgeous views of the Boston skyline, and the highlight was getting to sit on top of the Green Monster.

Gorgeous day, gorgeous view.

On top of the monstah!

My insider tip: Go on a game day. The Red Sox were playing the Toronto Blue Jays, so it was even more fun to experience the game day vibe around the stadium and see the teams warm up on the field.

For dining, we went to some old favorites like Luke’s Lobster and Flour Bakery. We also tried some new places including Audubon near Fenway, and La Piazza in Eataly.

Crab, shrimp, lobster AND chowder for those who can’t decide.

Don’t be scared away by the line at Flour, it moves fast & it’s worth the wait.

Nobody ever has to worry about finding a good place to eat in Boston, but you do need to make reservations very far in advance for weekends and holidays at popular restaurants!

I’ve visited all the luxury hotels in Boston, plus a few solid 4 star hotels, so I can help you find the best option for your trip, and share more of my insider tips.  Email me at suzette@suzettemacktravel.com, or use the Contact button in the top menu.

 

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Why Families Love Lindblad Expeditions in the Galapagos

When I was given the opportunity to travel on Lindblad’s new ship, the National Geographic Endeavour II, I jumped at it.  Not just because they pioneered tourism in the Galapagos. (It’s their 50th anniversary this year!) Or that they are a leader in expedition cruising.  But because they also have a reputation for exceptional family experiences, and I wanted to see for myself what families could expect.

Our beautiful ship!
Excited to board!  And one of my colleagues can confirm
that these do inflate when dropped in the water. (Oops!)

Here are the features that make Lindblad Expeditions a great choice for families, including multi-generational groups:

 
Personal Service – Every crew member pitched in to make sure all guests were cared for. Above and beyond gestures were common, such as soup being delivered to a passenger confined to his cabin because of a severe cold, or my roommate’s camera being retrieved after she left it on the plane from the mainland. One guide even made it his personal mission to ensure a guest got over her fear of snorkeling, and she did! So parents can be assured the staff will go out of their way to accommodate their special needs.

Embarrassed to admit I spent a good hour hunting for my reading glasses.
First snorkel of the trip for me and my buddies!


Onboard amenities
 – Being one of the largest ships in the islands, the Nat Geo Endeavour II offered lots of common areas for people to spread out including:
  

– A library with equipped with books, board games, puzzles, and computers. It was a favorite place for kids to gather.
 
– A spacious lounge at the front of the ship which offered a gathering place to socialize, with beautiful views, and a fully stocked bar.

Early risers got this view stepping outside from the lounge.


– A fitness center so nobody had to miss a workout, and even a spa so parents could get some pampering.

I will confess this is the only time I was in this room.


– A spacious top deck equipped with tables, umbrellas, and chairs, chaise lounges, and couches.  It was perfect for sunbathing, socializing, and a “pirate” cocktail party held at sunset while crossing the equator. It was a fantastic location for early morning yoga classes, too.  


They daily loading and unloading of equipment can be fascinating for kids to watch.
A typical afternoon before dinner.
My reading nook 

Family-friendly cabins – There was plenty of room for storing belongings, including ample space under the bed for empty suitcases. Connecting cabins are available on all decks, plus there are larger suites that sleep three. All beds can push together to form a queen or split apart into two singles. 

The floor stayed this clear the entire trip!
Book this suite if you want more elbow room in the bathroom


Activities for everyone – The broad variety of activities ensured everyone could find something to do, no matter their age or fitness level. There were usually two hiking options of varying length and difficulty.  Water sports included kayaking, paddle boarding, and of course snorkeling, sometimes twice a day.  Zodiac and glass bottom boat rides were available for anyone who wasn’t comfortable being in the water.

Yes, you could get this close, and sometimes closer.
Zodiac boats rides are fun for all ages!

And of course,


The children’s program – Already regarded as one of the best in the industry, it was re-introduced this year as the National Geographic Global Explorers program. Kids received an expedition guide, had daily challenges, and participated in photography and video workshops. (Even parents wanted to sit in on these!) There were other onboard activities led by the staff, culminating in zodiac driving lessons.

Hot off the presses!
Nobody seemed to mind this homework
Learning how the islands formed

Though it is the largest boat allowed in the Galapagos (96 passengers) it didn’t feel too crowded, and we became one big happy family.  We got to know other passengers by name, and the kids had soon started reserving their own table in the dining room. At the farewell party, we hugged and thanked our guides as we laughed over shared memories.

Javier, one of our fantastic guides.
Families who want to travel to the Galapagos need to plan aheadHoliday periods and summer months book up early, often more than a year in advance, and connecting cabins and suites are very limited.

Selfies with giant tortoises are a must!
Families also need to be aware of the travel logistics before committing to flights.  Working with a Galapagos specialist can help ensure a seamless and hassle-free trip, plus you’ll get insider tips on packing, what to expect, and more.  They can also advise on relatively easy “add-on” destinations like the Amazon or Machu Picchu.


For more information about travel to the Galapagos, send an email to suzette@family-treks.com.

This youngster agrees, the Galapagos is great for families!
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High Adrenaline Hawaii

I recently vacationed on the Big Island of Hawaii with my family which includes two teens.  We had not been there since they were very young, so this time we got to experience some more active adventures.

This island has a large variety of unique activities, so if you are looking for more to do than just lay on the beach or by the pool, it could be the perfect destination for you.  Check out some of the fun things we did:
Stargazing at Mauna Kea
While looking through telescopes is not a high energy activity, getting to the top of the volcano does take some effort.   The Visitor Information Center is at 9200 ft, and at nightfall temperatures drop into the 50’s or below.  So we packed long pants, hats, gloves, and sweatshirts along with our bathing suits.   If you have a “true” 4WD drive vehicle you can drive to the  14000 ft summit on a steep gravel road (check safety guidelines first). 
Setting up the telescopes
Here you have one of the clearest night sky views on the planet, we could easily see the Milky Way with the naked eye.  We also  saw Jupiter, Mars and Saturn through telescopes, and watched deep space images on video monitors.
 

The Milky Way seen from Mauna Kea


Zodiac Raft Trip to Kealakekua Bay
Inacessible by car, Kealakekua Bay is one of the most protected harbors on the island and has exceptionally clear water. It is also the site of the Captain Cook Monument, the only foreign-owned land in the United States.  The crew will fill you in on the whole story.  You can also book catamaran trips and kayak trips, but if you like speed and watching dolphins surf next to you, the zodiac boat is the way to go.
Chasing a fish off a volcano
Exploring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
There is a lot to see here, and I generally recommend my clients spend a night or two at the summit. (I review the pros and cons with my clients as we design their itinerary.) 

Checking out a steam vent with a GoPro
Walk through a lava tube
We powered through a full day trip from our resort, and were still able to drive the entire length of Chain of Craters Road, have dinner, then go back to see the glow in the caldera after dark.
Kilauea by day and night
What’s exciting right now is a new lava flow which started right before our arrival.  It does require  advance planning as views are only accessible from a parking area about 45 minutes outside the park entrance, and you must hike a few miles along an emergency road.
Note: Lava conditions can change in hours, so visitors need to read the current updates on the NPS website, and talk to rangers before heading out on any hikes.
Lava arches at the end of the road

Night Snorkel With Manta Rays

This was not only the highlight of our trip, but could very well be one of the most amazing wildlife encounters we will have in our lifetime. Because of the particular tour we booked, we had at least a dozen huge manta rays (3-10 ft. wing span) swimming within inches of us.  Yes, it was scary at first, but it didn’t take long to relax, realize we were safe, and enjoy the experience.  You can see a video my son took with his GoPro here.

This isn’t a spaceship, it’s the underside of a manta ray!


And More Snorkeling!
The Big Island is known for some of the best snorkeling in Hawaii and we were not disappointed.  This is one of our favorite activities (we call ourselves “snorkel snobs”), so we chose a resort that had good snorkeling on site and several good beaches nearby, including one with black sand.  There were also lots of turtles at our resort, so it was not unusual to see them in and out of the water. 

Great snorkeling right at our resort
Lots of coral reefs and fish like this Moorish idol
Naptime!
There are many other fun adventures on the Big Island that we didn’t have time to fit in our trip:


Waterfall zip line ~ ATV or horseback riding at Waipio Valley ~ Swim with dolphins

Akaka Falls


Helicopter flightseeing  ~ Lava hike ~  Bicycling tours ~ Scuba and SNUBA


Lava fields

For more information about how to plan a fun Hawaii vacation for your family, send an email to suzette@family-treks.com.

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The Best Luxury Resort Values in Hawaii

There are so many great resorts in Hawaii, how do you pick one? Hopefully this guide will help you find the best value for your money!

Oahu: The Modern Honolulu
A member of the Ritz Carlton hotel group, The Modern is cosmopolitan and chic, with a splash of Hawaiian whimsy.  It’s luxurious and intimate, yet has all the amenities one expects of a luxury hotel including spa, nightclub, and two pools.  The oceanfront location is close to great beaches, shopping, and restaurants.
If you book an ocean view room through a Ritz Carlton STARS agency, you are automatically upgraded to a Studio Suite if available, which has a king bed, sofa bed, and a private terrace.  And there are no resort fees, even high speed internet is included!
 

Modern rooms at The Modern Honolul

Insider Tip:  Several Daybed Experience Packages are offered which include unlimited use of a daybed for the entire day,a 3-5 course tasting menu, and wine or cocktails.  You can upgrade to add a 30 min couples massage.
Pearl Harbor
Kauai: St. Regis Princeville / Grand Hyatt Resort & Spa
Frankly, there are limited 5 star options on Kauai, so the rates don’t vary dramatically, and they offer the same Virtuoso amenities:  daily breakfast for two, amenity valued at $100, upgrade on arrival if available.  But they offer two different experiences.
The St Regis Princeville is perched on Hanalei Bay, boasting one of the most scenic views in the world, perfect for a romantic getaway.  The north shore is known for its spectacular unspoiled scenery, which is why many movies have been filmed here (and many celebrities have made it their second home).  It also offers some of the best adventure activities and snorkeling on the island.
 

Hanalei Bay

The Grand Hyatt Resort and Spa has a slight edge if traveling with young children, with its lagoon style pool and fun waterslide, plus they will guarantee connecting rooms in advance.  There is plenty of on-property entertainment, and a luau is offered twice a week.   It is not on a swimmable beach, but they have a sandy lagoon, and are only a few minutes from Poipu Beach.  The island’s south shore is a good location in the winter months, as the north shore beaches are not safe for swimming with the high surf. 

Grand Hyatt waterslide
The island is not that big, so no matter where you stay, it’s not a long drive to any activity or attraction
Insider Tip:  Take a snorkeling cruise to the Napali Coast in the morning, then drive up Waimea Canyon in the afternoon to get a birds’ eye view of the same coastline.
 

Napali Coast

Big Island: Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows

This low key resort on a beautiful white sand beach is a lesser known gem, but guests tend to return over and over because of the great service and authentic Hawaiian ambiance.  Rates are some of the best for a resort of this caliber, and Virtuoso clients are upgraded at time of booking if possible, making it an even better deal.  Daily breakfast and $100 resort credit are also included in the Virtuoso amenity package. The resort fee is also one of the most inclusive to be found.
 

One of the nicest Big Island beaches

They recently announced the Bungalow Inclusive Experience which includes accommodations in a 2 bedroom bungalow, private roundtrip airport transfers (or a rental car), daily $500 spa or golf credit, and 3 meals a day for up to six people!  The bungalows are 2,700 sq. ft. including two master bedrooms, wet bar and full kitchen, and a large private outdoor space with jacuzzi and heated swimming pool.
 

Snorkeling with turtles is always a highlight

Insider Tip: Baby turtles are raised in salt water ponds on the property.  If you visit during the Fourth of July holiday, you can watch them be released into the ocean.

Maui: The Fairmont Kea Lani
This is not only the best value on Maui, but possibly the best value in all of Hawaii.  Suites command premium rates at most resorts due to limited availability.  But every room at the Kea Lani is an 800 sq ft one-bedroom suite!  With huge bathrooms, entry foyer for stashing gear, queen size sofa sleeper, wet bar, and spacious lanai, they are perfect for families.  Larger groups or couples traveling together will appreciate the space and privacy of villas near the beach, which have a full kitchen, dining area, and private plunge pool.
Virtuoso guests receive complimentary daily breakfast, $100 spa credit, and upgrade on arrival if available.
 

Two level family pool with water slide

Insider Tip:  If you have young children, book one of the twelve poolside suites which is just steps from the family pool. 

Haleakala
You may be thinking “What about Lanai?”  Well, you really don’t have much choice there, but what a choice it is!  The Four Seasons Manele Bay is re-opening on Feb 1 after a renovation, and they are celebrating with a 4th night free offer and guaranteed upgrade at time of booking (through April 30), exclusive to clients of Four Seasons Preferred Partner agencies. Four Seasons resorts are always a great value, because they include so much in the rates, such as internet, snorkeling gear, and the Kids For All Seasons program.
 

Four Seasons Lanai beach


If you’re ready to head to Hawaii then click here!
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Private Guides – Your Best Travel Investment

On our trip to Italy this summer, I tried out several companies we use for private tours.  My expectations were exceeded, and our experience was so much better than if we had done it alone.

Vatican Museums – The crowds were so overwhelming, I could not imagine visiting without a private guide.  She was able to pull us aside as dozens of large tour groups filed by with headsets on, and then show us something interesting (even for the kids) that everyone else was missing.  

Couldn’t even see the pictures when the hall was filled with tour groups

While many people just popped their heads in the papal apartments, we were learning how different Raphael and Michelangelo were both in artistic style and personality. Before entering the Sistine Chapel, we relaxed in the beautiful courtyard as our guided explained what to look for when we got inside.

Prepping for the Sistine Chapel

Pompeii– We took a day trip to Naples from Rome, and I previously wrote about our experience hiring a private driver.  Before we headed off for our drive along the Amalfi coast, he dropped us off for a 2 hour tour of Pompeii with a guide. I had heard it was huge but had no idea until I saw it for myself.  It literally is a city, with block after block of streets that all look alike, and minimal signage. 


The streets go on and on and on…

Most guests take a self-guided tour with headsets, which can run out on the busiest days.  Our guide, who also led school field trips, expertly led us around the site so we could understand what life was like for residents. Often other visitors nearby leaned in to listen, as the stories she told were not found on any signs.

Learning about the “McDonalds” of Pompeii

Tuscany– We explored with our own car most of the time, but one day we had the luxury of a private driver.  Finally my husband and I both got to relax and enjoy the scenery rather than focus on a map and scan for road signs.  

Wouldn’t you rather enjoy this view while someone else drives?

We visited a honey farm, a cheese farm, and a winery where we had a wonderful lunch prepared by the owner.  He also took us to the hilltop village of Montalcino so we could see the fort.  He dropped us off outside the castle so we could enjoy the scenery rather than waste time in the car looking for parking.

This Brunello wine came home with us.
Say cheese!

One day we drove ourselves to Volterra, where we met another guide who grew up there.  She showed us around the ancient Etruscan village, and took us to the shop of an alabaster artisan I had met in San Francisco, when his replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa was put on display.

If this looks familiar you may have seen it in a Twilight movie,
this is the home of the Volturi
A master in alabaster

Florence– We day tripped by train from our resort, so our time was limited.  The guide we hired for a city orientation tour met us at the train station, and she took a few minutes to get a feel for how we’d like to spend our time. Since we had seen enough churches and museums, she took us to the food market, which we would have never discovered on our own. 

Before the lunch rush.

Then she led us on a tour of the city, guiding us through side streets so we avoided the worst of the crowds.  She pointed out where Leonardo di Vinci and Michelangelo once stayed, and told the back story on funny signs we saw everywhere. 

Hunting for these signs amused the kids.

We planned to visit the Accademia on our own, so she had done us the favor of reserving our tickets in advance.   She ended our tour at the will call window (which was practically impossible to find unless pointed out), made sure we got in the right line (there were 3 very long ones), and recommended a nearby cafe for lunch.

The original David

When you hire a private guide, you will save time, you will learn more, your kids will have fewer melt downs, and overall you will have a better experience.  Whenever we’ve visited a town or museum on our own, we found ourselves wandering a bit aimlessly. (And in the summer heat, efficiency is key, you want to make every step count!) 


Wish we had a guide at the Colosseum, very few signs here

If you have a special interest in art, history, food, etc., then you’ll really appreciate having a guide who is an expert in that field, rather than taking a generic city tour where the guide is reciting a memorized spiel.


Beautiful Florence, one day is not enough!

You don’t have to hire a guide everywhere you go.  But consider investing some of your travel dollars in locations where a private guide will make the difference between a good vacation, and a great vacation.

Water taxi to the Venice airport, another worthwhile splurge
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Ten Tips for Driving in Tuscany

After a week of driving all over Tuscany this summer, I compiled this list of tips.  (Kudos to my husband who enjoys the challenge of navigating in a foreign country, can drive a stick shift, and is good at parking in very tight spaces.)

  1. Get an international driver’s license – If stopped without it, you can be fined, or even threatened with confiscation of the car. Note that it must be used with a valid driver’s license from your home country, so don’t leave your US license at home.
    Ready to go!

  2. Consider manual transmission – It can be much less expensive than renting an automatic.  But you need to be very comfortable driving a stick shift, because there are lots of hills.  Add car rental coverage to your travel insurance policy, it’s cheaper than buying the rental company’s insurance.  (You are getting a travel insurance policy, aren’t you??)
    The views are worth the climb!

  3. Look for alternate car pick up locations – If you are not picking up a car on the day you fly in, you don’t have to make a trip back to the airport. Consider taking a train to a town near your final hotel or villa and picking up a car there.  But be sure to book early and check the rental location hours.
    Great place to start the trip.

  4. Take a GPS – Unless you have unlimited data, it’ll get very expensive to rely on your phone.   Some car rental companies, like Auto Europe, offer GPS with their rentals.  We also rented a personal wifi hotspot with unlimited data, so we were able to use both while navigating.  The GPS gave us step by step directions, and the maps app gave us an overview of the area when the GPS directions didn’t seem to make sense and we needed to improvise.
    The scenery goes on and on…

  5. Get a good map – It’s likely you’ll get lost at some point, or run into a dead end, even with a GPS.  A map can help you get back on course, and also it’s easier to ask for help from a non-English speaking local with a map to point to.
    Uh, are we sure we’re supposed to turn here?

  6. Preload GPS coordinates – These are especially handy for rural destinations.  To find them, right click on the red pin icon in Google Maps, and select “What’s here.”  A screen will pop up with the GPS coordinates.
    Hidden gem!

  7. Plan your strategy– Review the route in advance, and check the GPS (or your map app) against a physical map so you can get your bearings. By in advance, I mean the night before, not 15 min before you leave. 
    Typical Tuscan “highway”

  8. Search for parking garages or other landmarks – This is often more helpful than just entering the name of a city, which will lead you to the center of town.  For example, there are several ways to approach Siena, and it’s confusing to know which highway exit to take.  We looked up the name of a garage that had plenty of parking and an escalator, and the GPS took us right to it. (However in Pisa, we had a hard time finding the public parking lot and basically stumbled across it by accident.  The best laid plans…)
    We could see dirt in-between the stones
    from the Palio Horse Race a week earlier.

  9. Be prepared for roundabouts – They are not difficult, just different if not used to them. They are well marked, you just have to pay attention to which exit you need. The good news is, if you miss it you can just go around again.
    No pics of roundabouts so will have to
    make do with this view.

  10. Plan for the unexpected – Getting lost is inevitable, but that’s half the fun. Allow plenty of time for your outings so an unplanned detour is a fun adventure rather than source of stress!

Is any trip to Tuscany complete
 without a visit to the Leaning Tower of Pisa?
,

What Not to Do When Visiting the Amalfi Coast

On our trip to Italy this summer, we did not have enough time in our schedule to spend a few nights on the Amalfi Coast, but we did have time for a day trip from Rome.  It’s really easy logistically, a little more than one hour train ride.  But the easy logistics end once you get to the Naples train station.


If you do not hire a car and driver/guide to take care of you from the moment you arrive to the moment you depart, you will likely end up regretting it.  This is one place where you simply cannot “wing it.”

A few days before our arrival, construction shut down several roads around the train station, causing gridlock in all directions.  As a result, our driver/guide, Gianluca, had to allow an extra hour of driving time on each end of our visit.  (There went two hours out of our day.  First lesson learned, plan for delays.)  But thanks to his insider knowledge of the streets around the train station, he expertly got us out of the city, though at times I did need to shut my eyes.  

The scenery only gets better from here.
Once out of town, we got to relax and enjoy the views of Vesuvius and the coastline as we headed to Pompeii, where he dropped us off to meet our guide.  I have always heard that  the size of the ruins surprises tourists, and yet I was still surprised.  And very happy to have a guide who expertly led us to specific areas to explain daily life in the ancient city in a way that kept my teens engaged. 

Pompeii is so big, it doesn’t appear crowded even
during peak season.  Except if following the
people wearing audio headsets.

Block after block of city streets, and few signs
explaining what you see.
Our guide’s visual aids helped bring the ruins to life.
After our tour, Gianluca was waiting to whisk us off to Sorrento, his home town.  Since we were behind schedule due to the chaos in Naples and we would soon have hangry kids, he called ahead to a restaurant so that we would be seated and served immediately.  Within 45 min we had ordered, eaten, received our complimentary limoncello shots (another good reason not to drive), and were back out the door.   For anyone who has eaten in a restaurant in Italy, you know what an amazing feat that is!

How could we not order pizza??
Yes four glasses, drinking age limits are loose.
Kids weren’t interested so mom & dad got two each!
The next few hours were spent shopping and sightseeing in Sorrento and Positano. There was absolutely no parking, but Gianluca has connections.  He called ahead to have them hold us a spot right in the center of town then we hopped out, had time to stroll, shop, and get limone granitas.
Beautiful ceramics in Sorrento

One of the few flat areas in Positano
After many stairs, we reached the Positano beach


Afterwards we hopped back in the car and enjoyed the stunning scenery while Gianluca dealt with the jam-packed streets, tour buses backing up to negotiate hairpin turns, and motorbikes and pedestrians who seemed to appear out of nowhere.  (I glanced back to see my son grinning ear to ear with his phone held up to the window recording it all.)

Gianluca didn’t slow down!
Until we got here

We arrived at the train station with time to spare, bid a fond farewell to Gianluca, and were back in Rome just in time for dinner.

So no matter how experienced a traveler you are, here is my advice if you are considering exploring the Amalfi Coast on your own:  Don’t do it!  Whether you arrive by train, plane, or cruise ship, it pays to hire a local expert so you can have a fun and stress-free experience.   And whether you have 4 hours or 4 days, I can work with my local experts to plan a great itinerary maximizing your time in this beautiful area.


Aaaah-malfi, I can’t wait to see you again.