Tuesday, February 5, 2013


I love the water and enjoy the atmosphere on ocean cruises.  However, I must tell you that I would enjoy cruising on a blow-up raft!  That, is how much I love being in, on and around the water!!
While training to be a river cruise specialist, I knew that taking classes, tests, watching videos and talking to people could only go so far when trying to explain to others the reality of a river cruise.  I needed to experience a river cruise.  With much anticipation, I was able to get on my first river cruise with AmaWaterways in November 2012.  I had high expectations and hoped that I didn’t jinx myself.  I can, without a doubt, say that I had the most amazing experience, and I will continue to learn more about the ships, itineraries, and promotions to give others the chance to get onboard.
In addition to cruising down the Rhine from Amsterdam to Switzerland, I had the opportunity to sail on a themed cruise titled, “Culture and Wine Legacy of the Rhine”.  This themed cruise offered opportunities to participate in wine tasting and lectures on board the ship, special visits, tours and tastings at wineries at many port stops and a paired dinner opportunity hosted by our wine cruise specialist, Stephen Stolsiak from Rodney Strong Vineyards.  There were no extra fees to participate in any of these wine events.  Pretty much everything is included on a river cruise.  The only thing I could find to purchase on board was something from the gift shop, a service at the spa, or a specialty cocktail at the bar.  Beer, wine and champagne were included for toasts and poured generously during dinner. 
My other concern was that I would not be able to find enough to do on these small ships. Let’s just say that I enjoyed laying my head down on the pillow each night.  There was more than enough to do on my trip. 
 We flew out of Philadelphia on a nonstop flight to Amsterdam.  We found our bags and looked for the AMAWaterways representative for our ship transfers.  The airport is huge.  Had I read my book that AMA sent with directions to the representative, I would have saved some time but it still worked out.  We had purchased transfers and the bus was waiting for us.  The ship was located in the center of town.  We checked in at the small lobby and were told rooms would be ready in about two hours and we were invited to sit in the front room and have lunch and relax. 
The ship was classy, yet, comfortable.  The staff made themselves available; they were charming, helpful, accommodating, and thorough.  There is an intimate and genuine environment onboard that was intoxicating in itself.   The lounge area was large with a bar, a specialty drink area for tea and coffees (self-serve day and night- loved this!), panoramic windows for amazing views, and a variety of seating areas ranging from lounge chairs, sofas, small tables and large tables.  It was a large open space available any time.  There were four decks on the ship accommodating the 148 passengers.  The lowest deck (piano deck) has the fewest cabins at the lowest price.  These cabins are below the water line with windows at the top of the room showing the water line and the sky.  These rooms are tolerable but I chose to upgrade before we left because I really wanted to see the castles and vineyards from a French balcony while we cruised!  The cello and the violin decks offer the French balconies. 
 The rooms were small.  They were very nice but small at 170 sq. ft.  Everything was updated and offered all the amenities you would need, even if you left everything at home.  I needed an additional power adapter and they loaned one to me at the reception desk.  The flat screen televisions offer regular channels, movies on demand for free, and the option to use the screen and keyboard on the desk as a computer.  Wifi is included but very weak and only worked part of the time.  It was unreliable and took long periods of time to do normal tasks.  We were told that the service was weak in the countryside and in lock areas. 
The ship’s sun deck had a life size chess set, various sitting areas, a hot tub, a track for exercise, and a canopy for shade.  Breakfast was offered three times.  Early risers could get a continental breakfast in the lounge, main breakfast was offered in the main dining room and was exceptional, and late risers could get the similar continental in the lounge.  A lite lunch of soup, pasta, appetizers and desserts was offered in the lounge while a full meal was offered in the main dining.  Dinner was always offered in the main dining.  There were a couple musicians on board that played the baby grand piano and other instruments before and after dinner.  We did have other musicians come on board at the different port stops and perform for us after dinner a couple evenings.  Dinner was spectacular every night.  You are able to sit anywhere for any meal.  Some areas offer small tables and others offer larger tables.  We found a group of people that we quickly bonded with and sat as a group every night.  You get to know people quickly on these intimate cruises and we were joking and laughing by the second night.  The food was delicious, the presentation was amazing and the quality was superb. 
Our itinerary took us from Amsterdam to Germany (Cologne, Koblenz, Rudesheim, Speyer & Heidelberg) to France (Strasbourg, Colmar, & Riquewhir) with disembarkation in Basel, Switzerland.  Sometimes, we were able to visit two of these cute cobblestoned towns in the same day.  For example, one morning we woke up near Cologne.  We enjoyed a wonderful guided walking tour through the city with educated guides and we were able to participate in a beer and potato pancake tasting at a beautiful beer house on the center square.  Our ship had reserved the whole cellar floor for our group.  We had unlimited beer and potato cakes. 
After our tour, we had time to walk around for about an hour and then we were onboard for lunch as we sailed to Koblenz.  Once we were docked, it was time for dinner. Our cruise director, Nick, asked how many of us were interested in a guided tour of Koblenz.  Many of us raised our hands and then he asked what type of tour we wanted.  Some wanted to sample the beer houses, others wanted a historical tour, and some wanted a little bit of both.  This is a perfect example of AMA’s accommodating nature and their ability to make everyone happy.  I must add that I did see other cruise tours in the various cities and it appeared that they were put in large groups.  For most of our tours, we put in small manageable groups.  THIS was one of the best parts of experiencing the cities. There were always options on the type of tour you could sign up for.  If we needed to ride a bus, it was always on time and it was clean and updated. 
They also had bikes available for guided tours.  I had to try one and it was perfect for me.  We stopped at various sites while our guide provided the history of the different areas. 
AMA pays attention to detail on and off the ship.  They hand pick their port stops and tours for their guests.  They listen to their guests and make modifications when needed.  The entire trip was smooth and exhilarating.  Every town was unique.  Traveling in November was cool but there were no crowds and the landscape with the changing leaves provided breathtaking backdrops.  The wineries were gorgeous and the castles on the hills overlooking the Rhine made for fantastic photography.  Most of the towns were getting ready for their Christmas Markets.  They had the whole community out setting up.  The small quaint towns had wonderful energy, unique shops, quaint architecture, and as they set up for the Christmas markets, it took all I had to not book another cruise back for December!  

Upon Disembarkation in Basel, we called for a taxi to take us to our hotel for the night.  Many of the guests onboard took the post-cruise extension to Lucerne and Zurich for four nights but I had to get back home to family or I would have stayed longer!  The hotel was St. Gottard and I highly recommend this hotel for location, the breakfast and the large beautiful and updated room (we had two bathrooms!).  The resident dog was friendly and very well trained!  We were across the street from the train station and before noon we were on a train to Lucerne.  The ride was one hour.  We spent the day in the Alps on the lake in this inspiring city.  I definitely need more time in this town.   This picture shows us in Lucerne on the lake. I will be back! 
Basel is a small clean town full of art.  It is home to more than 24 museums.  The city offers a free transportation pass to use their trains throughout the city during your stay.  This allowed us to use the train to get back to the airport in Basel for our flight home. 
I hope you can tell from my review that I love river cruising.  I can’t imagine getting back on a bus to travel from city to city in Europe.  If you have never been to Europe or if you want a new way to experience Europe, you will love all that river cruising has to offer.  I stand by AMAWaterways and plan to sail with them again. 
The statistics may say that the average age of a river cruise guest is about 55 years old, but at 40 years old I am here to tell you that well-traveled teenagers and 80 year-olds would enjoy this experience.  It isn’t a place for young children and people with mobility issues could have some trouble. 
I have a group sailing in NOV 2013 on AMA’s brand new ship:  AMAPrima.   She is sailing on the Danube from Budapest to Prague.  I still have rooms available! 
Check out the AMAWaterways itineraries here under Destinations:  http://www.amawaterways.com/

Feel free to email me if you have any questions. 

Monday, September 17, 2012


When family members move to picturesque locations, they have to know that their relatives will plan a visit. My husband and I both have family in Denver, and it has given us wonderful opportunities to explore the many things to do in the Denver area. This summer, we spent our time in the Denver area exploring coins, tubes, tea, baseball, animals, a weather station, shopping, hiking and eating! Downtown Denver is home to one of the US Mints. We were able to reserve tickets to tour the Denver Mint. We learned about the history of trade and coins in our country. We watched how coins are made today and learned about the history of the metals used to make coins. I thought it was interesting to learn that it costs 2.5 cents to produce each penny. Go figure! After our tour, we walked downtown to eat at the Hard Rock Café. Hey, we had six teenagers with us!
The restaurant is located in the beautiful pedestrian shopping area of 16th Street Mall. After lunch, we spent some time shopping and then headed out for some frozen yogurt and fun toppings! In the evening, we headed east of Denver to the Wild Animal Sanctuary. This is a must see if you love animals and want to support an organization established to rescue abused carnivores. This massive complex allows visitors to walk the mile long elevated cat-walk serving as an observatory to view the rescued animals.
We had a birds- eye view of tigers, bears, wolves, lions, and leopards. We watched the lions relax with each other as they enjoyed the cool evening breeze. The tigers were pacing and wanted to play. The bears were wondering around their playground and some were heading to their cave for the night. The wolves were howling beautifully in their packs. There are posted signs that inform guests about the animals, and why they were rescued and brought to this facility. It felt good to see these animals so healthy and better knowing that our visit would help keep them in this safe place.
We normally go white water rafting while in Colorado but the water level was low this year so we decided to float in tubes down the Boulder River. Sounds peaceful, right? Well, with a steady flow and, true to the namesake, boulders in the river, we were in survival mode as we were tossed and turned downstream avoiding contact with the boulders and our heads. My brother-in-law and I originally planned on a couple passes and quickly decided that we would count our blessings and turn in our tubes and head to downtown Boulder to shop and eat! Boulder is a short drive from Denver and sits in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. It is home to the University of Colorado, Pearl Street Mall, Celestial Tea, history, arts, and outdoor activities to enjoy daily! Pearl Street mall has boutiques, delicious local eateries, and benches to sit and stare at the beautiful scenery.
The next day we were back in Boulder to tour and sample the teas at Celestial. I highly recommend this free tour. The sample room has a plethora of teas to sample before embarking on journey through the interesting tea factory.
The gift shop has a beautiful selection of products, and they have a delicious café to enjoy a nice lunch. Afterward, we headed to the Mesa Laboratory where the National Center for Atmospheric Research is located so my nephew could get up close and personal with the super computer and check out the scientists at work.
The next day we decided to drive up the mountain and do some hiking. There are many places to hike and it is hard to narrow down what peak to explore. For this hike, we drove 30 miles to Clear Creek Canyon and after driving the narrow winding roads for an hour and having my six teens start to feel a bit nauseated; we pulled out at the ranger station and started our hike. No matter where you choose to hike in the Colorado Mountains, you will not be disappointed. The views are indescribable (check out the first picture in this blog), quite possibly due to your mind being purified by the clean air! After our hike, we headed into the tiny town of Idaho Springs so we could eat at one of our favorite pizza places: Beau Jo’s Pizza with their delicious crust and local honey on the side as a dip. I felt like Pooh Bear after dinner here! The next day we headed out to ride horses. My husband has a cousin that shows horses. We took a quick lesson and bathed our horse.
It was nice to get this experience. We got cleaned up and headed out to watch the Rockies play some baseball. We lived the sweet life in a suite for the game! It is hard to go back to regular seats after being pampered!
The stadium is beautiful and located in downtown Denver. We had another wonderful time in Denver with family and we can’t wait to return! Many thanks to Jerry and Rick for taking care of us all!!  I highly recommend taking time to hike, shop, eat, visit Celestial Tea, the Wild Animal Sanctuary, The Denver Mint, and depending on the season, either skiing or rafting. Notice how I didn’t say tube down the Boulder River!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Eastern Mediterranean Ports

For our June 2012 itinerary aboard the new and luxurious MSC Divina, we sailed out of Venice to Bari, Italy, Katakolon, Greece, Izmir, Turkey, Istanbul, Turkey and Dubrovnik, Croatia. For a 7-night cruise, that is a lot of stops and only one day at sea. However, that is exactly why we chose this itinerary! I must mention that we did enjoy our day at sea and really used this day as a “lazy Sunday”. I spent time reading about the ports and reading port reviews on the individual port websites, the MSC Cruise line website, and my website because we have a contract with Shore Excursion Group (SEG), and cruisecritic.com. I really wanted to know if we would benefit from an organized shore excursion or if we would be better off exploring on our own. After all my research, here are the results:
Bari, Italy~ This southern shore town is an authentic Italian seaside community. Initially, we saw that our cruise line provided a shuttle to the town center and decided to utilize this to get into town and explore on our own. It would have been lovely had it not been a Sunday. All the shops were closed in Old Town. Old Town was the original town center that is nestled behind the walls closing off this portion from the rest of the seaside city. It was a quiet day and we enjoyed walking down the concrete path along the ocean watching the men fishing and showing off their catch. Most of what we saw was octopus. One man stood by the shore banging his octopus on the concrete over and over; we decided he was tenderizing his dinner.
There was a seafood market with men showing off their morning catch and waiting for an offer. We walked through the city to get to the opening into Old Town and stopped at a local food mart for water and a snack and headed back to the ship. We only spent a couple hours walking around and if you are there on a Sunday, I recommend taking an organized excursion or going for a long walk along the ocean. We saw people swimming at a beach in the distance but it looked to be a 2-3 mile walk from the port drop off.
Katakolon, Greece~ Without a doubt we knew we wanted an organized tour to visit the ancient ruins of Olympia to see where the first Olympics were held. We wanted a small group tour and knew that booking through our cruise line would land us in a group of 50 or more, so I researched other companies. When you research companies, make sure they offer a guarantee back to port before purchasing your tour. CruiseOne’s, SEG on my website, did not offer a tour for our itinerary here and I found a lovely tour through Cruising Excursions based in London. They offer a guarantee, fair prices and small group tours. We arrived at the tiny and quiet port and walked out to the main road and found our guides. It was just the four of us in a large van and we had two guides. We drove about 30 minutes to the Olympic site and purchased our entry tickets to the ruins and the museum. It was 11 euro total. Our guide did not enter and we used a map and followed the path reading about each site. This area is peaceful and open to the hot sun but it is surrounded by trees on the perimeter. After touring the grounds, we walked with our guide to the museum and spent an hour looking at the excavated items found at the ancient site.
It was an amazing experience. Outside, the “boys” got a Greek beer as we headed into Katakolon near the port to get our shopping on! We noticed that the stores all had similar items and started to narrow down what we wanted to purchase. Although plentiful, we passed on the olive-branched/toga wearing men and women portraying XXX-rated poses on the coasters and card sets. We did have many laughs though. As we walked down this seaside road toward the port, I realized that I could see myself sitting at one of the small restaurants enjoying a drink watching the water and the scenery.
Although our guide did not escort us into the grounds, she was very knowledgeable about the area and the ancient ruins. Most importantly, we felt safe and enjoyed being able to have conversations with our local guides.
Izmir, Turkey~ After reading port reviews, we knew, without a doubt, that we wanted to be in Ephesus to explore the ancient Roman city and see the current excavation being done on the Terraced Houses. I didn’t spend any time in Izmir but I am sure there are plenty of things to do in this large city. It is an hour drive to Ephesus and we wanted a private tour. Again, we found Cruising Excursions offered the best deal for our itinerary. The port seemed to be in a very busy part of town and we didn’t have to walk far to get to the parking area outside of the terminal. Our driver was waiting with our names on a sign and he walked us down the street to his van. We had two guides and they were very knowledgeable. We learned a lot as we asked many questions on our way out of Izmir toward Ephesus.
Once we arrived, it appeared we were in a country setting that was dry and hilly. Our guide had our tickets to enter the site and we started at the top of the city and worked our way down the main road to the end. Our guide talked with us the whole time and explained the ruins to us and their significance. A little over half-way down, I noticed a large enclosed area off to the side that looked like a tiered glass house. This was the entrance to the Terraced Houses. Tickets must be pre-purchased and they only allow a certain number of entries per day.
Inside, the archeologists were at work. We walked through the maze of rooms up the steep hill on modern-steel staircases giving us amazing views of the excavation being done. This is where the wealthy lived during the BC and early AD years.
We also saw the Temple of Artemis, Saint John’s Basilica and the Virgin Mary House. There were areas to shop for souvenirs and the store men are very persuasive to get you inside. Our next stop was a school that teaches women the art of making Turkish rugs. The manager gave us a tour and we saw the whole process beginning with the removal of the silk from the cocoons to the actual weaving and trimming. We were given traditional Turkish apple tea and lead to the showroom to view the many finished rugs.
After the tour, we made our way back to the port just in time to watch the port in the distance as we sailed away.
Istanbul, Turkey~ I woke up and saw the sunlight coming through the window, opened the balcony door and stood in amazement as we entered the Istanbul port. I was so excited to explore this bustling city where Europe and Asia meet in the land once known and Constantinople! The waterways surrounding the city were busy like a morning commute on a freeway. My senses were on fire with the scenery, sounds, and smells. Istanbul is a city that you could easily spend a week exploring. We had one day to visit and chose a shore excursion combined with some time on our own.
I chose my company’s Shore Excursions Group because, again, we offer small group tours. The port terminal was nestled downtown in a safe and walkable area. Our tour guides were waiting with a sign so we knew we were in the right place. We were in a small bus and there were about 10 people in our group.
Our guides escorted us to The Hagia Sopia, The Blue Mosque, The Hippodrome, and the Grand Bazaar.
We enjoyed the diversity and uniqueness that comes from feeling so far away from home. I will say that these areas are very busy and the Grand Bazaar is so grand, that even my mother and I had met our match and couldn’t handle the massive nature of this shopping venue.
I left with some pillow covers and knew that if I really wanted to tackle the Grand Bazaar, I would need at least three days to walk through this labyrinth of 60 streets and 5,000 stores. We asked the driver to drop us off at the Spice Market after the tour and we would walk home-aka the ship. The organized tour was fantastic and educational but the Spice Market was my favorite!
It was a little bit easier to explore and each booth was full of Turkish delights, overflowing colorful spices, food and novelties arranged as if the shop owners were all artists. We made some lovely purchases and headed out for more adventure. We were surrounded by mosques and, yet, felt comfortable with the diversity of the people. We stopped and listened to the call to prayer on the speakers. We sat by the water and tasted some local treats while people watching.
We walked across the bridge and back to our ship which was visible in the background. This was the most “foreign” of all our port stops but I felt comfortable walking around the city and would love to go back and explore more of this unique area.
Dubrovnik, Croatia~ This was one of my favorite port stops and could be a tie with Istanbul but they are both very different. Dubrovnik is a sleepy sea side town with Italian/Greek architecture, a medieval walled city, clear and warm inviting water and breathtaking views on the mountain tops. Just looking at the landscapes reminded me a bit of Catalina Island or Sausalito except all the homes are the beautiful white stucco with the red-tiled roofs.
After reading about 40 pages of the Dubrovnik Travel Lady’s forum, we knew we wanted to take a taxi to the Old City and take the cable car up the steep mountain for unbelievable views. There are two gates to enter the Old City; we chose the less popular Ploce gate because it was close to the cable car entrance. My parents went shopping in the Old City and my husband and I headed up the mountain. Afterward, we entered the city gate and explored the town. It reminded me of the walled cities in Tuscany.
The narrow alleys were plentiful but not as busy as the main roads (which seemed like large stone walkways) where all the tourists flocked.
As we wondered the walled city, we found ourselves at the main Pile gate and went outside the walls to walk along the water. The water was clear and inviting. I was truly sad I wasn’t wearing my bathing suit. We walked up a small hill for more breathtaking views and saw that there was a swimming area on the other side. We walked through quiet residential area that was clean and felt almost fairy-tale like. Walking through tiny hallways we finally made it to the swimming area. I wasn’t sure if it was private but there were no signs and I felt as if I was in heaven and decided I would take my chances on getting asked to leave (which never happened!) There were about 10 people swimming and I had to get in that water! Rolling up my pant legs, I made the journey to a rock and it was worth it. Just amazing! I could have spent the entire day here.
Their water was so calm and warm and clean. Oh, but how good things must come to an end. We headed back to the walled city and met my parents for a drink and a snack in one of those alleys and then made our way to the taxi stand to head back to the ship. There were some shops at the terminal and once we made another purchase, we headed to our room to watch the view as we left this amazing sea side town that I promised to return to!
Feel free to email me with questions about the Eastern Mediterranean Ports!