Karen's Blog

  • My European Whirl with Trafalgar Tours !

    10/12/2006 9:34:05 PM Link 0 comments | Add comment

    and Other Travel Reviews

    Wow! Was I ambitious! I didn’t want a nut, I wanted the whole tree! I chose Trafalgar’s European Whirl, a tour not for the faint of heart or one with sore feet! I was convinced that I could handle it, and, afterwards I thought I should get an award. But, I saw a lot of Europe, and I figured out where I would go again, and what cities I would skip. I got over some of my culture shock and next time around I’ll know the ropes, so to speak, and that will take away some frustration.

    Things I forgot: a highlighter, to highlight my route on my Trafalgar journal, an umbrella, not only for the rain but for the sun, a three-pronged adapter for my converter to charge my camera and my computer, another book or two, I read the first one and I need another. I wish I had my binoculars, and my short wave radio would have been nice but not necessary.

    Things I wish I’d forgotten: I wish I had packed lighter. I could have used a couple less pairs of pants, less makeup, less lotions and potions, and skipped my “good” shoes. I’m really glad I brought my 3 blazers and a light jacket, a variety of shirts and enough underwear to get me through. Take my advice; the lighter you pack, the happier you will be, even though someone else is handling your luggage.

    My favorite things: I bought an outrageously expensive dark mustard leather bag in Florence, and I LOVE it! I didn’t buy the ridiculously expensive and beautiful woven gold omega, and I’m okay about that too. On my first night in Rome, I stood in St Peter’s square, illuminated and almost deserted, and I was so moved that tears streamed down my face uncontrollably. The Sistine Chapel was wonderful but I could also put it on my least favorite list because the lines were unbelievable to get in, and the chapel itself got so crowded we could barely get to the door to leave. On the other hand, it’s the most magnificent thing I have ever seen and now that it’s been restored the colors are unimaginable. And last but not my least favorite, London Theater in Covent Gardens, the musical ‘Chicago’.

    London: With all the airline security issues, my husband, Michael was a bit nervous about the flight but it went very smoothly. We arrived at Gatwick, collected our luggage and took the HotelLink Gatwick Express and Shuttle to our hotel, Copethorne Tara, in Kensington. We couldn’t check in, so we left out luggage, and went out to explore. I love London, so I couldn’t wait to get into the city. We looked for something to eat and ended up at McDonalds! So we had Egg McMuffin and Hashed Browns and Coffee, first day in London. Well this was my first culture shock, because they served “raw” bacon instead of Canadian bacon on the Egg McMuffin. When I say raw, (I mean that they put the body heat back in and slapped it on the bun), I did not eat bacon the rest of the trip, and I really can’t figure out why Europeans will eat this stuff.

    We wandered around London, and eventually used our reservations to see the Royal Mews and Buckingham Palace. Don’t ever do something like this your first day in Europe. My husband hated the Mews, although he got a nap on a bench in the courtyard, and then we dragged ourselves through the nineteen state rooms at Buckingham Palace. Although they were amazing and beautiful, we were so jet-lagged that we really could not appreciate the experience, even though it was very interesting.

    Sunday we found an ancient Catholic church at the top of Church Street and then spent the day wandering London, including a visit to Hyde Park for a great Caribbean Festival and concert. We got home early and had bread, cheese, and wine in our room for a quiet romantic dinner. We found the department store, Marks and Spencer to be a handy place, for both food and for money exchange. They had a great rate with no fee to exchange money. As a matter of fact, department stores everywhere were our best bet for money exchange. We went to Leicester Square so that we could get half priced show tickets and we were able to get tickets to “Chicago”, third row orchestra stalls. We loved the show, we loved the price, and we loved our seats. On the way, we ate in a typical London Pub, where I had some kind of meat pie, and Michael had something with a fried egg on top, which is apparently popular at dinner, along with a couple kinds of London beer.

    Monday, we joined our group for the first time for a tour of London. Although I’d been to London a couple of times, I still wanted to take the tour. I can never get enough of London.

    Paris: Tuesday, it was time to meet our tour director and start our motor coach tour. First stop Paris. We had no idea what to expect, but we dutifully arrived for the coach at the appointed time, and began to meet our fellow passengers. This is the when I think a group tour with people you already know would be the best experience, because we were strangers to everyone. But over time we would become to think of our fellow passengers as friends. The American and Australians were tied, with a South African family rounding out the bus. We were an odd lot, but we all got along great. Our tour guide explained the seat rotation system to us, and proceeded to make our trip both informative and entertaining. My next culture shock was the ferry from Dover to mainland Europe. I don’t know why it upset me, perhaps the fear of the unknown, but I did not like the ferry. It took and hour and a half, longer than I thought it would take, and I did not bring anything to do, like read a book. So, be sure to bring something along. I remembered hearing of other ferries that sank because they did not close the door properly, and that made me nervous and then we had to get back on the bus in the hold at a precise time and I was afraid to miss it, so that made me upset. But everything went well, and after many hours we arrived in Paris.

    That evening we toured Paris and were left to our own devices for a light dinner near the Arc De Triumph, and spent about $45 for a sandwich and Guinness each, which was another culture shock. Then we saw the most famous landmarks lit up and stopped for the light show at the Eiffel Tower. The next day, we saw it all again from a different perspective, and then spent the night in our room, exhausted, but sharing some French wine and cheese and bread. The difference in prices between local markets and restaurants is astounding.

    Lucerne: We left Paris and headed toward Rome. Our first stop was Lucerne. We traveled through the open fields of France and the Burgundy country and headed into the Alps. We saw French give way to German and flat land give way to mountains. The air became a bit crisper and the views a bit exhilarating. Lucerne was delightful, with the covered bridge, and Jesuit church, Rolex watches, and the magnificent Lion monument, a moving tribute to the Swiss honor guard.

    Milan: We couldn’t stay long, so we headed toward Italy, and the city of Milan. My impression of Milan was that it’s a dirty town full of residents that have absolutely no respect for the history and beauty of the city. It was dirty and full of graffiti. How anyone can put up with that is beyond my imagination. We spent some time at the Piazza del Duomo, and saw Duomo, the largest gothic cathedral in the world, and the outside of La Scala, but all I felt was disappointment.

    Confusing European things: Toilets with no toilet seats. Now I don’t like sitting on a dirty toilet seat, but I can wipe one off and use tissue to cover it before I do my business. But in many places in Europe, especially Italy, they just don’t bother to put seats on at all! So, now the bathroom is even dirtier, and the cleaning lady sits outside and collects a tip for NOT cleaning the toilets that have no seats anyway! Best advise, restrict you liquids in Europe and praise God for toilet seats. I swear I need to invent a portable throwaway toilet seat for European travel.

    Rome: Finally we arrived into the great city of Rome, and I knew instantly I would someday return. We stopped for a time at the famous Trevi fountain, and I dutifully took my turn, standing with my back to the fountain and tossed a coin over my shoulder. The water at the bottom of the fountain represents the sea and the legend says you will return to Rome if you throw a coin into the water, tossing it as I did. So, you see, I will find my way back to Rome. That evening, we took a short ride to see the sights and had dinner at a wonderful little restaurant across from the Coliseum. The dinner was an extra excursion, but worth it, with unlimited wine and food, and, I can assure you we had our fill, including much laughter. Our hosts welcomed us with live music, a bit of farcical opera, and sent us home with a small bottle of wine to savor later in the trip, and remember the good times. After dinner, we took a walk around the Colosseum when it was almost deserted.

    We stayed at Grand Hotel Palazzo Carpegna, a beautiful, yet simple historic hotel set in the Carpegna Villa gardens. This hotel was once a Convent, but it gave me a little quiet time in the beautiful church within the hotel itself. The furniture was imposing and Art Deco, and the rooms simple yet very adequate. Breakfast was plentiful, and varied, but the eggs had a weird smell, so I passed (along with the raw bacon!). I still always found plenty to eat at breakfast.

    Our second day in Rome was quite busy. It was Sunday, so I wanted to attend mass, but frankly, after a full day of sightseeing, I was too exhausted to wait a couple more hours for mass. We started out at the Colosseum, and it was busy, unlike the night before. I was disappointed that the tour did not allow time to enter, but, I don’t know how long that would have taken, because the lines were long! Our next stop was St. Peter’s. Surprisingly, the security line was short, so we entered without delay, which gave us a lot of time to see the Basilica of St Peter’s. In hindsight, I need to go back and spend an entire day here. The most memorable was Pope John XXIII tomb, and Michelangelo’s Pieta, plus the chapel of the Madonna. I did not get to see the excavations, another whole tour, and a lot of the other tombs of the popes are a blur, but still, it was magnificent.

    Our final evening in Rome, we had a wonderful Mediterranean dinner, with private entertainment, and all the wine we could consume. The food, drink, and company were memorable. It was my husband’s birthday, and everyone sang to him. We had to rise early our final day in Rome so we could get in line for the Sistine Chapel. I was amazed at the long lines of groups at 730am. The doors opened at 815am for groups and we quickly went into the Vatican museums. I had no idea it was so large, with the Sistine Chapel toward the end of the museum. Frankly, by the time we got there, I was thinking, “just show me the darn ceiling, and get me out of here”. Again, I need to go back to Rome and spend the whole day here. The Sistine Chapel was one of the highlights of the whole trip. I’m going back in the winter though next time.

    Florence and Venice: Goodbye Rome, we headed toward Florence and then Venice. The afternoon in Florence was a lot of fun, and I finally did some shopping where I bought my “chipotle mustard” leather handbag. This was my very favorite purchase. I loved the old city, and, so Florence is on my good list. After a night in a modern hotel outside of town, we were off to Venice. Well, Venice was, more than I could have imagined! Our boat ride through the waters to the Isle of Murano where we had a terrific seafood lunch and wandered through the shops of Venetian lace, was definitely a highlight. Then we crossed back to St Mark’s square, and went to a Venetian glass factory; however pretty Venetian glass is, it’s just not my taste. But St Mark’s square and a trip to the Cathedral, was definitely my taste. We endured the gondola ride through the canals, but that’s a story in itself. Apparently, you can get good ones or bad ones, and a couple of us got a bad one; mine crashed a couple of times and rocked the boat and another group’s had a driver with foul language who yelled at them. No more gondola rides for me unless I’m at the Venetian in Vegas; I think the problem with the gondola was that they put 6 passengers in a gondola that should have held four. There’s nothing like a little extra profit. Furthermore, the real experience is for two passengers, because there is only one place that a couple can sit side by side. The other seats on the boat are make-shift at best.

     Innsbruck: When we left Venice the next day and headed for Innsbruck, we passed though fields and fields of sunflowers and artichokes and vineyards. Soon we found ourselves winding into the mountains with the magnificent views and the typical half timbered houses, where we arrived in Innsbruck. I didn’t know it was such a large city, but our hotel was in the old town, a pedestrian and cobble stoned village within the city. It was absolutely charming, complete with a Bavarian dinner at a local restaurant. This was the start of a familiar and comfortable journey through Germany, with the Germanic influence here and to come.

    Germany: As we headed toward Heidelberg we stopped in Munich. Although it was a quick stop, it brought back memories of a previous trip, and reminded me to return. At this point I began craving Germanic food, but Munich seems to have only everything else. Our stop in Heidelberg brought us to another cobble stoned village where we saw the castle ruins hovering above the city. This area of the Rhine is where many castles abound by the river, so a cruise up the river was a must. But the gothic cathedral in Cologne had to be another highlight. It was bigger and fancier than I ever imagined. It’s peculiar that I was so impressed by the gothic cathedral here, when the one in Milan was bigger. Somehow I lost that feeling in Milan. The main train station in a town is always a good place to get a bite to eat and I finally found my real German food at the train station, lean bratwurst, potatoes, sweet red cabbage and Kolsch, typical Cologne beer. Yummy! I was happy.

    Amsterdam: On the way to Amsterdam we caught sight of some of the remnants of World War II, and we arrived in Amsterdam just in time to catch a canal cruise with its historic sights, including the building that housed Ann Frank, the myriad of houseboats, and our final destination, “The Sea Palace” restaurant. This was our farewell dinner and a highlight dinner that cost us about $60 per person. I would definitely skip this one. Not only was it ordinary Chinese food, served family style, (the $5.99 buffet in Katy is better), the hosts were stingy with the so-called unlimited drinks of beer and wine, and would not bring refills. Now I wasn’t out to get drunk, but a half glass of wine every half hour is not my idea of unlimited, nor my idea of hospitable, especially after the generous nature of our Italian hosts who brought bottles to the table. I asked if they could fill the glass a little fuller or bring a carafe for the table, but they refused. They were not good hosts, and the dinner was extremely overpriced. Skip this one. After dinner, we were offered a walk through the red light district. I passed but my husband enjoyed it.

    Our final day with the group, we headed back to London, where we saw a variety of windmills, more World War II fields, and then to our ferry. In the space of one day we were in four countries, Netherlands, Belgium, France, and then England.

    Home: I felt at home as we headed back to London, where we joined our new friends for drinks and fish and chips before we said our goodbyes. We made great new friends that we think of often. It’s a good thing we had a ten hour flight home. It was my first rest.

  • Universal Studios Orlando

    6/9/2006 12:39:46 PM Link 0 comments | Add comment

    and Other Travel Reviews, Hotel, Resort

    My feet are tired and the rest of me is smiling! I just returned from my first trip with grandchildren to Universal Studios in Florida! We spent two days in each of the two parks went back for more on our fly day, and we did it all! There are three parks at Universal Studios, the original Universal Studios park, with movie-themed attractions, Islands of Adventure, with fast rides, many with height requirements, and Citywalk for movies, restaurants, shopping, and night clubs.

    There are three onsite resorts. Royal Pacific Resort is the most affordable of the three, but still a AAA 4 diamond resort. It has a South Seas theme with a huge free form pool near tower three. The Hard Rock Hotel is the most “hip” with rock memorabilia, and a pool with a sandy beach, an underwater sound system and water slide. Portofino Bay Hotel is the flagship hotel and the most luxurious. It’s designed to be a Mediterranean seaside village with three distinct pools and the world class Mandara Spa. We chose to stay onsite at the Royal Pacific Resort. This was a great choice, both for the quality of the hotel and service and the convenience of staying on site. Try to book into the more convenient tower three, if possible, although crossing the lobby is no big deal. 

    There is continuous transportation to Citywalk from all three resorts by water taxi from about 8am until 2am, and by shuttle bus to Citywalk and between the hotels. With a key from any onsite hotel you have access to all three resorts. From Citywalk you either walk left for Universal Studios or right to Islands of Adventure. 

    Another advantage, and perhaps the most significant is the Express Pass. Your hotel key is your Express Pass to Universal, where you are treated like the honored guest that you are. Basically, there are short to no lines for attractions in the park when you use the Express Pass entrance. For instance, Jurassic Park had an hour wait, but for us it was five to ten minutes! This was the same with every popular ride. My granddaughter experienced her first roller coaster, and the lines for kiddies and their parents were long and hot but not for us! We walked right up and rode the coaster, and when she looked at me and shouted “Again!” we just ran around the corner and got right back on! This is instant gratification at it’s best!! The express pass will also get you priority seating at all the shows, which means seats in the front and entrance prior to the general public. You can have your purchases sent directly to your hotel room from the park, and you can use your room key to charge food and merchandise in many of the Universal Studios venues. Last but not least, you can request priority seating for dining. The popular restaurants don’t take reservations, but you can call and request priority seating, which basically moves you to the front of the line, meaning that you will be taken as soon as there is a table opens that, will accommodate your party. This reduced our wait from thirty to ten minutes at the very popular Mythos Restaurant. You can buy an express pass for about $50 per person per day on weekdays and more on weekends, during the summer, but you can only ride one time per ride with this pass, while  onsite guests have unlimited privileges. Last but not least, you get a Citywalk party pass for the length of your stay. Clubs charge $7 per person cover charge at night. So, stay at one of the onsite hotels! You’ll be glad you did! 

    Whether you book with us or book elsewhere, use the services of a travel agent who is familiar with the Universal Studios packages. There are several choices, and we can suggest the appropriate package for your family. For instance, there’s a “kids free” package or a “family free” package. We booked the “family free” and had unlimited theme park tickets and Citywalk party passes for our length of stay, paying only for the hotel.  The offers change continually, and we will offer you the best available package. 

    How does Universal Studios compare to Disney? While I love Disney, I think Universal Studios really worked for us. We took a 40 inch tall three year old and a 50 inch tall seven year old. Forty inches is the littlest child I would take, but I would say the same for Disney. There’s plenty to do for the little ones at Universal Orland, the parks are not so big and overwhelming, many choices for adults, complete with child swap so both parents can ride. I adored Dr Seuss land and I didn’t miss Disney at all. I think I’ll wait until the youngest is six for Disney. All the characters are available for pictures and autographs very often, and you don’t have to book a character breakfast for access.  There are so many characters available for photos that the lines aren’t too long. Universal Studios is a real working studio, so you might encounter filming and you might get a chance to preview a new show or movie. There are lots of water fountains and things for the kids to splash in, so bring a bathing suit or change of clothes. Stroller rental was reasonable at $10 a day, and free lockers are available outside every ride for your “stuff”. My husband lost his glasses on the Mummy ride so take advantage of the lockers on the wilder attractions. (They have a great lost and found system, and he got them back the next day.)

    Food is typically priced at the hotel for a AAA four diamond resort, expensive to very expensive. You can choose from continental breakfast, to bar and grill to gourmet at  Emeril’s Tchop Chop. Food in the park is almost reasonable and varied. There are fast food counters, sit down venues, and drink and snack stands everywhere. You can purchase a meal deal if you want all-you-can-eat, or just buy ala Carte, which worked for us. You can purchase a souvenir drink glass and get refills for $1.39 instead of $2.99. Food at Citywalk is just as varied, from Nascar Café, with it’s down home huge portions at very reasonable prices, to the very gourmet Emeril’s, where you might need to make reservations six months in advance. Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, NBA City, and Hard Rock Café, are fun for families and affordable for a crowd. Because we had little ones, we usually ate dinner by 6pm, before they got very busy. Mythos Restaurant at Islands of Adventures has been rated number one theme park restaurant three years in a row and lives up to it’s hype. It’s a gourmet experience in the midst of fast food, and was a definite treat for all of us. The restaurant is a huge cavern with very Zeus-like décor and great views of the park. I chose the risotto of the day, shrimp and asparagus with a coconut cream sauce. It was a little salty for my taste, but I’m the exception to the rule, and I really couldn’t stop eating. Others had just as satisfying dishes, such as tempura battered sushi, and a great chicken wrap. You can also get sandwiches, kid’s meals, and pizza. Looking around at other tables, all the food looked beautiful and seemed to taste just as good. Sometimes eating fancy when surrounded by ordinary is just the thing to do. 

    I loved the parks, I loved the characters, I loved the royal treatment that the Express Pass gave us, and I loved being pampered at Universal Studios. Whether you have kids or not you should consider this park for your next theme park vacation.