Sunday, December 23, 2012

Review of Club Med Sandpiper Bay

I wanted to love this resort, I really did. As the only true all inclusive in the United States, Club Med Sandpiper has a lot going for it but if you are an all inclusive junky, you will find a world of difference between this resort and most all inclusive resorts in the Caribbean.

Club Med Sandpiper is located on the St. Lucie River in Port St. Lucie, Florida. It is not on the beach and should not be considered a beach resort. There is some sand but the "beach" is actually a lake. There are water sports - paddleboards and Hobie Cats are included. Wave runners and motor boats are available at extra cost. There are three pools - one adult only at the far side of the resort, one a zero entry pool for families and a kiddie pool with small water park.

This resort just underwent a $30 million renovation but in all honesty it is difficult to understand where this money went.

Rooms are a good size for families but do not expect luxuries you would find in other resorts. You'll find them large but basic. Family rooms have a king sized bed with two sofa beds on either side of the room and a large round cocktail table in the center. There was a work desk as well. The king bed was very comfortable but unfortunately in most rooms the air conditioning vent is directly over one side of the bed and whoever sleeps on that side on the bed is going to be very cold. The pillows are also the smallest pillows I've ever seen. There are also suites available that feature bunk beds in a separate room.

The bathroom consists of two areas, one a vanity outside of the actual room with a sink and then the actual bathroom with another vanity and sink, toilet and shower and tub. The bathrooms have been refurbished but not all areas were well though out. The vanity outside the room has a makeup mirror and a chair to sit on to do your makeup. However, if you sit on the chair, you cannot get your legs under the vanity because there is an apron that hangs under it. The makeup mirror doesn't have a long enough arm to put your makeup on and the lighting is terrible. We ended up putting makeup on in the actual bathroom, where the lighting was better.

There is a huge walk in closet with dressing area. This was a nice touch for family privacy. There is also a coffee pot and refrigerator with two bottles of water. We could tell the bathrooms were refurbished, but apparently to save money the refrigerators were not and they showed their age.
The rooms were very clean, but in my room I noticed there there were dark spots on the terracotta floor. It appeared to be dirt spots that were sealed into the tile.

There are two restaurants on property, one called The Marketplace which is a buffet and Soleil, which offers salads, sandwiches and appetizers. One issue with the restaurants is that they are not open all day. The Marketplace is open for two hours in the morning, two hours for lunch and four hours for dinner. Soleil is open from 9:30 am to 10 pm but the menu offerings are very limited.
Hours for breakfast at the Marketplace were 7 am to 10 am. Lunch was noon to 2 pm, dinner from 6-9 pm.


The Marketplace food tasted very good but we felt that we were eating the same food every day, there was not much variation. Another issue we found is the set up of the buffet is awkward. The lettuce for salads are in one place and the toppings such as carrots, mushrooms, dressing are in another area. Hamburgers and hot dogs are near a grill but the rolls are in the corner of the bread area far across the room.

There were stations that prepared specialty dishes, such as oriental or French food but the chefs didn't  keep up with cooking and very often the dishes were empty. One night there was a huge line for desserts, as there was one chef slicing pies and cakes as people were on line.

One thing not to pass up is Club Med's chocolate bread. They had a light version and dark version that were out of this world. Take a few slices at breakfast and ask the chef to make French Toast with it. It is a treat you won't forget.

There is some jarred baby food available and each day a different vegetable is pureed as gourmet baby food. For instance, one day it was broccoli and leeks. I saw plenty of adults eating the daily special.

In our opinion for the price the resort charges, there should be a regular restaurant on site that serves more than sandwiches and salad and something should be available nearly 24 hours. Many people we spoke to agreed.

There is one bar on site. It is an indoor bar and is open all day and into the night. Brace yourself because children are permitted in this area, so it is not unusual to see children dancing there. Some top shelf liquor is available but I did hear a few gripes about Jack Daniels not being available as well as some beers.


If you are a golf or tennis junkie, this resort is for you. Both are available on site. There is also a kids tennis court, with small nets and appropriate rackets. And there is golf for kids.

There are three clubs for kids - the Mini-club for ages 4-10. Juniors and Teens programs for 11-17 year olds. There is also Baby Club Med. Baby Club Med is for babies 4 months to 23 months. There are two groups, one for walkers and one for non walkers. Operating hours are from 8:45 am to 5 pm. You may drop off your child during two time frames only - 8:45. - 9:30 or 2pm - 2:30. There are scheduled activities. There is also a Pajama Club available for $28 per night that operates from 7pm to 1 am so parents can have some evening time to themselves. There is also a baby bottle room with a refrigerator, microwave, sink, bottle brush, soap, filtered water, milk, yogurt and snacks.The Mini Club has two age groups - Geckos for ages 4-7 and Manatees for 8-10 year olds.

Service throughout the resort was acceptable in most areas but not exemplary. We arrived with a group and were directed to park our car on the side of the driveway for the check in process. We were quickly greeted and checked in, then directed to park our car in the parking lot and bring luggage to the check in area to be taken to our room by a porter.

I parked the car as directed, dragged my luggage to where the porters were supposed to be to find no one there. After waiting several minutes I saw a female employee pushing a luggage cart with suitcases on it. I showed her my room key and asked her how to get to my room. Instead of asking if she could help, she pointed to the direction if my room and walked away, leaving me to pull my own luggage to the farthest part of the resort myself.  No offer to take the bags. After walking to my building, I also discovered I could have parked my car in a different area much closer to the building. No one went out of their way - pointing instead of guiding if you had a question on where something was. I realized I missed hearing "My Pleasure" when thanking an employee for an answer to a question.

Many employees are also "performers" . The girl that checked me in told me she would also be performing in that night's trapeze show. I thought she was kidding until I saw her on the high wire.

Another thing many of the agents on this trip noted was the lack of areas looking "finished". For example, there was an outdoor "courtyard" area around the conference rooms. This area was not finished professionally. There was a cheap looking corrugated roof. The beams around the roof area were unfinished. Many people remarked that they felt the area looked unfinished especially after a $30 million renovation.

We carefully observed the other guests to see if they appeared to be having a good time. We noticed the most activity during outdoor Zumba classes and an evening trapeze performance (although there is no place to sit during that show, everyone was standing for the show.) Since we visited in November,  the resort was not very crowded and the air was chilly so not many were by the pool. We did see kids paddle boarding in the river on a daily basis.


Did I like the resort? Yes, I would rate it a solid three in a one to five scale. Did I love it? No. I don't consider it a four or five star resort but it is priced that way. If you expect an all inclusive resort similar to what you will find in the Caribbean you will be sorely disappointed.

Don't think of comparing this resort to anything you may have experienced in the Caribbean. If you know what to expect and you do not expect a Caribbean type of all inclusive, you won't be disappointed.

To see all our photos of Club Med, click here

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Rome Review - Tours and Best Western Art Deco Hotel

Ciao tutti!  We recently spent three nights in Rome prior to embarking on a cruise to tour Rome.  What a fabulous city!  It was all we thought it would be and more.

We arrived in Rome on a Sunday afternoon and took a shuttle to our hotel, the Best Western Art Deco.  The hotel is small, just 68 rooms and in a well located area with public transportation nearby
(The hotel is a seven minute walk from the Termini train station).

We were greeted by GianLuca, a rather brusk man with what seemed liked little patience.  It was 1:00 and he told us our room would not be ready until at least 2:00.  He handed us a map, pointed out where the Spanish Steps, Colosseum and Trevi Fountain were, took our luggage and told us to come back after 2 PM.

It is a bit startling to be less loose in an unknown area. We began wandering the streets, which were fairly deserted and did not leave us with a warm and fuzzy feeling. After a few wrong turns, we discovered the train station and stopped in some neighborhood stores.  We found a lovely place for lunch, as a reasonable 5 and 6 Euros each for a pasta dish.  One thing that is very expensive throughout Europe was soda - the least amount of money we found a can of soda for was 2.50 E and up.  Meanwhile, a bottle of water was .39E. So you know what our preferred beverage was!

We got back to the hotel at 4 PM and were told our room, number 102, was ready.  No baggage help - GianLuca pointed us to the tiny elevator and we shlepped our bags up to our room.  We initially liked the corner room, a fairly good size for a European hotel room.  Upon entering was a small "hallway" with the bathroom on the left and closets on the right.  We had a king sized bed, arm chair in the corner, t.v. and a mini bar, and a desk and chair.


The bathroom was spacious, with a toilet (and a tank high on the wall, which created a tremendose "whoosh" and creaky noises as it refilled), a bidet, high tub with jets and hand held shower.  Also a sink, but absolutely no space to leave toiletries.  We were continually bringing our toiletry bag in and out of the bathroom.  Another odd feature was that there was no control of the temperature of the water when taking a shower.  We'd set the hand held shower head at an acceptable level and were continually burned as hot water poured out and then cold. It seemed like if anyone flushed a toilet or put on the tap while you were showering, you could be guaranteed a burn.  We had to wait until we got on our cruise ship to enjoy a long shower that had the temperature remain as it should have been!

The bed was extra hard - I had no problem with it but my spouse was miserable.  The room was spotlessly clean, which is the most important factor for a hotel for us.  Even though there were some cracks in the bathroom tile and sink, everything was gleaming.

We decided to lay down and rest, as we had been up more than 24 hours between the time change and our flights and didn't wake up until 6 the next morning.

This hotel provides a free breakfast from 7 - 10:30 AM.  As you sit down, you are brought a pot of coffee (undrinkable for me, who enjoys light and sweet coffee and even difficult for spouse, who likes strong coffee).  Some mornings the coffee was as thick as mud, even if we asked for "Americano" coffee. 

There were scrambled eggs, which quickly ran out each morning, grilled meats such as prociutto instead of bacon.  Also some excellent yogurt, fruit, cereal, pastries, and juices.  The orange juice is from blood oranges, dark pink and among the best orange juice I've ever tasted.

On day two we had pre-booked a "Skip the Line" Tour of the Colosseum with Dark Rome Tours.   After breakfast, we decided to walk to the Termini Station and purchase a ticket for the Hop On, Hop Off bus to tour the city and get to the Colosseum in time for our tour.  Since we had an early morning tour of the Vatican the next day, we decided to take the two day bus ticket.

We also purchased our subway ticket for the Vatican Museum at the Termini Station the next morning. Since our tour was to  began at 8:15 the next morning, the subway was the best way to get to the Vatican.  That was the only place I had problems with the language barrier, as the girl at the information booth did not speak English at all. It all ended well as we were able to figure out what to do.

Our tour bus was the red 110 Open bus. You are handed earplugs that you insert into the plugs near your seat and turn the channel to your language.  You then hear a pre-recorded discussion of where you are (or in many cases, where you have been - the tape ran behind where we actually were and in some cases indicated something was on the left hand side of the bus when it was on the right). The first stop was Santa Maria Maggiore Church, which we discovered was walkable from our hotel. Then on to the Colosseum, Circus Maximus (which is nothing but a grass lot), Piazza Venezia, St. Peters, Ara Pacis (for shopping for high end designers), Trevi Fountain, Barberini and then back to the Termini Station.

We did the full tour, then went back to the hotel an hour or so to pick up our tour tickets, returned to the bus and got off the bus at the Colosseum. Our Skip the Line Tours for the Colosseum and Vatican were with Dark Rome tours.  The company was excellent.  We found our tour guide, Simone (a male) and were off.  Simone was an archaeology student, who gave us information on the Colosseum in detail. His English was very good and he was easy to understand.  Who knew that the Colosseum was all marble and the marble was pilfered by the ancient Popes to be relocated to the Vatican?  That made for some huge gouges in the columns and walls of the Colosseum.  It is truly fascinating to see buildings so old that are still standing.

We then went on to the Forum, which we found even more interesting as that is where the population actually lived and then on to Palantine Hill.  Simone was a great guide as far as the archeology aspect of the tour -but he didn't seem to like Americans very much. He made a few remarks about Americans, the most memorable being that the Americans who go to the American colleges in Rome cause "big problems" with their out of control drinking and trashing of things in Rome.  We were told every weekend there are reports about American students being arrested for their partying ways and that we should lower the drinking age in the U.S. so they wouldn't come to Italy and trash the country. It seemed to us Italy has enough of their own problems that student drinking couldn't possibly be the worst issue for the Italians.

When visiting any popular attractions you should purchase Skip The Line Tours.  There are thousands of people at the main sightseeing areas and the ticket lines are unbelievably long. You will save hours by purchasing your tickets before you leave.

After four hours being on our feet, we decided to take the bus back to the hotel and rest up for our tour early day the next day.  While walking back to the hotel, we found a delightful sidewalk restaurant where we had a nice three course meal for 15E each.

When we went back to the hotel, we also decided to book a night tour of the city in order to take some nice nice photos.  We booked a tour through the hotel that was to pick us up the next night after our Vatican tour.

The next day we were out of the hotel by 7 AM to take the subway to the Vatican.  As a veteran of the NYC subway system, I thought this would be a snap to take the subway in Italy - until I realized I didn't know which direction we had to go to get to the Vatican and it was rush hour. We knew we needed the red line going in the direction of Battastini but how to get there? We were pushed along with a crowd so large I had to plant myself against a wall until the first train came and took on as many people that could fit so we had a clear path to walk.   After taking a deep breathe, we easily found the correct train and were on our way.

Our tour was again through Dark Rome Tours, and the tour advised us to get off the subway at the stop marked "Cipro" - the stop after the main Vatican station.  Upon emerging from the train stop - we looked around and saw  nothing but neighborhood.  We began walking in the direction we assumed the Vatican would be and later found a sign with an arrow pointing the way.  We later asked a street vendor which way and she pointed us in the right direction.  We found our group and were ready for our tour of the Vatican.  Our tour guide (I believe her name was Francesca) was excellent.  She was enthusiastic and her English was outstanding.

We were able to go past the long lines to purchase tickets right to the Vatican Museum, which was fascinating. The many rooms are filled with historical art by Raphael and Michaelangelo, as well as Raphaels' students who finished a room that was not completed when he died.  We saw the former Popes Quarters, the door that goes to the current Pope's living space, the tapestry room and more. It is awe inspiring to be in rooms with items that go back thousands of years.

Then on to the Sistine Chapel. This was a bit of a let down only because you are unable to take any photos in the Chapel.  To see Michaelangelos spectacular paintings and not be able to take a picture is disappointing.  Do you know why pictures cannot be taken? Not because the flash will ruin the recently restored chapel, but because a Japanese company paid for the restoration and now own all the copyrights to the chapel.  How could the Italian government have allowed such a thing to occur, that thousands who come to see this work of art cannot take a single picture of it? 

On to St. Peter's Basilica where my top wish was to see Michaelangelo's Pieta.  When the Worlds Fair was held in New York in 1964/65, the Pieta was displayed and I vividly recall seeing it while I was there as a child. Francesca was delighted to meet someone who actually saw it during that time, as it is the only time the Pieta was removed from St. Peters to be displayed elsewhere.  The statue was as striking as I remembered it as a nine year old.

The rest of St. Peter's was amazing and we could have spent an additional two hours viewing all there was to view.  We thoroughly enjoyed this tour.  We walked through Vatican Square, caught the Hop On Bus and took it to the Trevi Fountain.

When we disemarked the bus at the Fountain stop, we found the fountain wasn't just around the corner, we had to do quite a bit of walking to get to it.  We stopped at a pizzeria for a pizza which we split between us. It was a four cheese pizza that was probably one of the best pizzas we've ever had.

The Trevi Fountain seems to be the most over-rated attraction in Italy.  There were thousands of people crowded around this beautiful fountain pushing to take pictures throwing their coins. I was absolutely stunned at how many people there were. The surrounding area is restaurants and souvenier shops. Lucky for us, it began raining and many people ran off, so we were able to enjoy the fountain without being pushed and prodded.

Checking our watches, we discovered we needed to get back to the hotel to get ready for our evening tour, so off we went to the bus.

The evening tour was through a company called Carrani Tours. We were to be picked up from our hotel for what was described as a 2-1/2 hour tour of Illuminated Rome. We were picked up and taken to sit at the Carrani offices until 8:15 PM when they loaded the bus from their office. Our tour was over by 9:30, after those of us who did not book the dinner option were taken back to our hotel. (The dinner tours was supposed to be 4 hours).

They drove by the sights so quickly it was impossible to take pictures. Led us on a long walk to the Trevi Fountain to take pics, sped by the Colosseum, which was magnificent yet no stop for photos. Taken to the Vatican for much too long for pictures.

Tour was not as advertised. There are many other tour companies to use in Rome - I would not put clients with this tour company.

The next day, our Rome visit was over.  We checked out of the hotel quickly with two lovely women at the front desk (only day we didn't see GianLuca) , our car service picked us up and we were off to Civitavecchia for our cruise!




Monday, September 24, 2012

Why You Need Evacuation Insurance When You Travel

No one ever thinks they may need evacuation insurance when they travel on a vacation. Yet if you are seriously injured when traveling, getting home in an emergency can cost a fortune that Medicare and most U.S. health insurance plans don't cover.

While evacuations such as this are rare, circumstances can suddenly make evacuation a necessity that can bankrupt travelers. Case in point - read this story about a man who hunts throughout the world and was severely injured when his tree stand was hit by a falling tree and collapsed, breaking four vertebrae in his back:  http://www.travelinsure.com/who/atravelingnightmare.asp.

The total cost of his evacuation? $122,000. And he had no insurance. But he certainly advocates for it now.

The U.S. government will do its best to assist in getting citizens out of a foreign country if an event of this kind occurs, but they are not responsible for paying for it. Airlines more often than not don't have enough seats to accommodate a passenger on a gurney plus a medical attendant and medical equipment. Nor do they want the potential legal problems of transporting  seriously ill passengers.

Trying to arrange your own evacuation is also a difficult task. Language can be an obstacle and rules and regulations aboard are difficult to maneuver through.

If you've purchased travel insurance with emergency evacuation, the insurance companies have 24 hour travel assistance to negotiate the strange waters for you.

Our advice to clients asking if they need travel insurance is if you can afford to lose everything you have paid for your  trip if you are ill and can't travel before you are scheduled to leave and if you can afford to medivac yourself in the event you become seriously ill while traveling, then you don't need insurance.

How much does emergency evacuation cost? MedjetAssist estimates the cost of evacuating from Rochester MN to New York City at $16,000. From South Africa to Boston -  $125,000. Domestic emergency evacuation cost about $20,000 and international transports $75,000 and up.

If you still opt out of buying travel insurance you can purchase just an emergency evacuation plan, but keep in mind that type of policy covers only any emergency evacuation and nothing else.

Please call us at  516-608-0568 for more information.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Hints for Using Your Cell Phone When Traveling

With today's new 4G phones and the love people have for posting their vacation pictures on Facebook and Twitter, people can return to a cell phone bill in the thousands of dollars - if no one tells them about roaming charges when transmitting data and pictures.

Case in point - a travel agent recently posted a situation on an agent board where one of her clients returned from an Alaskan cruise to a $600 cell phone bill.  She never used the phone on the cruise, but took many pictures and did not turn off her data plan on the phone. In not turning off the data plan, her phone was still hooked up to the cruise ships satellite system for receiving e-mails and texts - even though she did not look at or answer them, and she was charged a roaming fee for each of these items that came through on her phone.

At the very least, when traveling, especially out of the U.S., if you plan on bringing your cell phone with you, you must call your cell phone provider and speak to them about what your options are when traveling with your cell phone.  They will tell you what your fees will be to wherever you are traveling to and how to turn off features on your phone so that you do not incur huge fees.

For example, when we travel by cruise, air or car, I call my carrier, A T & T and add an international calling plans (if traveling outside the U.S.)  They will tell me how much per minute I will pay for incoming or outgoing phone calls.  A T & T always had advised me to turn off the wi-fi and cellular service or put the phone in "airplane" mode so that I am not charged for unnecessary usage.  I usually will  leave my phone off unless I am expecting an important call, or I need to make a call.
This is especially true when cruising and traveling through multiple countries. 

If I know I will be checking e-mails or texts or possible posting photos on line, I will call A T & T and add a Data Plan. This plan costs $30 and gives me more megabytes of data than I will use.
The first time I traveled out of the country and did not add the data plan, I came home to an additional $90 on my cell phone bill for checking e-mail, sending e-mails and putting photos on line  One bill was all it took for me to call A T & T and ask them what I could do to reduce my costs the next time I traveled. The international data plan was all I needed to add as well as the international calling plan.

The next time you plan to travel - before you leave,  call your cell phone carrier and ask how to keep your bill down.




Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Resort Review - LeBlanc Spa Resort - Adults Only


The minute I stepped into the lobby, I knew this was going to be a special vacation. 

I took in the fresh scent of lemongrass as I eyed the beautiful surroundings – check in desks to the left, softly curtained sitting areas to the right and the bright blue water of an infinity pool in the back. On the beautiful white sand beaches of Cancun this 260 room Palace resort  is 25 minutes from the  airport in the  hotel zone within walking distance to a Flea Market, Mall and restaurants. But you will have no need to leave the resort because the food is fabulous. The resort is rated Five Diamonds by AAA and is the #1 rated resort in Cancun by Trip Advisor.


A porter met us as we arrived in our car, took our luggage and gave us a tag to take to the check in area of the lobby.

As we entered the lobby we were greeted with a delightful cooled drink of coconut milk, so refreshing. We were invited to be seated at one of the check in desks and had a warm aromatherapy neck wrap put on our neck to start our vacation before we even signed in.

We were warmly greeting at check in, which took less than five minutes before we were on our way to our room. Our room was number 418 with a partial ocean view. The halls in the hotel remind me very much of the Hyatt Grand in Cancun - the building is shaped like a triangle with open hallways. If you look down you can see and hear the murmur of a waterfall in the lobby below.


The rooms are lovely. Upon entering is a hallway with two closets on the left and a table in between them. To the right is the bathroom with a double Jacuzzi tub that is open to the room. In the center is the sink, to the right is the glass enclosed toilet and shower. The shower has double walls of showerheads. One wall has a high head and six jets going down the wall. The wall on the right had one rain showerhead. It took a few minutes for me to figure out how to turn them on but what a luxury of multiple shower jets relaxing you after a long flight.


Inside the bedroom was a king sized bed with four pillows, two of them goose feather. Across from that were a credenza with four drawers, a refrigerator and liquor dispenser. To the right of that was a desk with lamp.

Near the Juliet balcony was a table and two chairs. On either side of the bed were nightstands built into the wall that had great lighting within the stone top. There was also a drawer in each of these.

The bath amenities consisted of Bulgari items - shampoo and shower gel, conditioner, soap. Also included were LeBlanc items - shower cap, shave kit, toothbrush set, vanity kit, shoe polisher and a sewing kit. There was also a hair dryer in the closet.




Every room has a bottle of wine waiting for you. There is nightly turn down service with petit fours,  upgraded liquor cabinet, a mini-bar with snacks, soda, juices, bottled water and domestic beer, flat screen TV., DVD and CD player, bathrobes and slippers, a safe, coffee maker and iron and ironing board. Another luxury is a comfort menu which includes a choice of specialty pillows and aromatherapy. Free phone calls to the U.S. are available from your room, a great way for parents with kids to keep in touch with home to make sure the kids are alright.

All rooms at this resort have a floor butler. I did not meet my butler at check in but he did stop me when I was returning from the pool to introduce himself and find out if I needed anything. I did ask him to change my aromatherapy scent nightly and one night he drew me a surprise bath. It was a wonderful luxury, and he kept the water hot until I got to the room (we were over an hour later than we thought we would be). I also asked to have the regular soda in my mini-bar changed to diet and that was done promptly. I didn't think I would need a butler, but found it was a luxury I could quickly get used to!

There is 24 hour room service, five bars and five restaurants. Blacaitalia is an Italian restaurant, Blancorient an Oriental restaurant, Lumiere is French fusion a la carte or an eight course tasting menu. (This is the only restaurant that requires reservations.) More casual eating venues are Blaninternational in the Central Lobby next to the main pool. For breakfast and lunch an international buffet is served and at dinner it becomes a steakhouse and Mexican a la carte. Food was very good and one treat I love was their home made popsicles. They were fruit, dessert and "flower" flavored with tastes such as cantaloupe, hibiscus, rice pudding, sweet and salty, watermelon, and more. These were my indulgence since the flavors changed at each meal.
 

Your meats were cooked to order; there was not a lot of pre-made food at this buffet. For instance, for lunch you could take a piece of raw meat (steaks pork, etc.), chicken or fish and shrimp from the iced platters that were out, bring it to the chef and have it cooked exactly as you wished.   

Blancterrace is located on the 3rdfloor near the pool. For breakfast there is an international a la carte menu, for lunch the most amazing brick oven pizzas are made and for dinner, brick oven pizzas and specialties are served.  Sample the white pizza with pear pizza – fabulous!






The bar in the lobby is Blanclobby where in the afternoon, tea and coffee was put out with cookies and pastries. Later on, sushi is added. Other bars were Blancstage, on the 3rdfloor where nightly entertainment is available along with pool tables and darts. Blancsol is a swim up bar with snack service in one pool, Blancluna is another swim up bar with snack service from 8 AM – 10 PM. Blanceclipse is located next to Blancsol and specializes in Daiquiri beverages.



24 hour room service includes salads, beef and broccoli fajitas, chicken wraps, mahi-mahi, Chicken Pita, Grilled Veggie Panini, Surf & Turf burger, grouper sandwich, smoked turkey sandwich, burrito, gazpacho, onion soup, tomato consommé, chilpachole seafood soup, linguine, lasagna, penne, cannelloni, steak, chicken breast, desserts such as stuffed dates, crème Brule, apple cake, chocolate mousse, coffee cream. Full breakfast is available as well.




One of the pluses of staying at LeBlanc is that you may dine at some of the nearby Palace resorts – Moon Palace, Sun Palace or Beach Palace. We tried dinner at the other resorts every night except one, where we ate at Blancitalian. I was sorry we didn’t eat here every night. The service was spectacular and the food – bellissimo! We ordered an appetizer, soup, salad and a main dish and in between these courses, outstanding small plates to share were brought out.  The wine sommelier listened to the types of wines that people in our party were looking for and brought out exactly what they wanted.  Shared plates of each dessert were also brought out.  This dinner was one of the best meals I’ve enjoyed at a resort.


There are three pools. One is an activity pool on the lower level outside the gym and spa. There is a swim up bar and water aerobics and pool volleyball and table tennis are offered.
Off the main lobby is what is called the "quiet" pool. This is the largest pool and also has a swim up bar. On the third floor is the rooftop pool. This pool does not have a bar at all but you can order food and drink and it will be delivered to you. While many resorts have drink service around the pool, this is one of the few that offers food service as well as drink service. There is a menu you can order a small selection of food and desserts from that will be brought to your chair as you are lazing in the sun.





This hotel has a lovely beach. There are a few palapas on the beach and some lounge chairs. The beach sand is nice and the water warm although there are some waves.

The gym at LeBlanc is excellent. There are plenty of machines and classes that are free, including Pilates, yoga etc.

The spa is wonderful here. There are 19 treatment rooms and a multitude of treatments you can have here, including a "fish spa", where you can soak your feet with tiny fish eat the
outer layer of skin off your feet.



One of the best free amenities here is the hydrotherapy circuit. Your attendant will take you to a room to change into your robe and slippers, and then direct you to the sauna, where she will ask how long you want to stay in the room and come back and get you when your time is up. The next step is a cool shower, then a trip to the sauna room after you are sprayed with your choice of herbal water which leaves you smelling fresh and relaxed.

After the steam room, another short shower and you are led to the Jacuzzi. You are invited to have a drink of some herbal water - chlorophyll, cucumber or fruit flavored water.
On to the Jacuzzi for a few minutes then it is time for the cool water pool for a few minutes to close your pores. Finally, a warm pool.

To finish your treatment, you can sit in the foot spa, where a flip of a switch starts the Jacuzzi and your feet are given a relaxing treatment. All at no charge.



The staff treats all guests as royalty. There is almost nothing you can ask for that they can’t get for you. The pool butlers were the best – you can’t simply walk up and get a towel. When you go to the towel bar, a concierge will take your towel and help find a seat where you want. Need shade? They’ll move an umbrella for you. Want to overlook the beach? They’ll move your chairs to face the beach. This was luxury and spoiling all rolled into one.



On our last day we were certainly reluctant to leave. Our butler arranged to pick up our bags and they were brought downstairs.  Check out was quick and I was sad when the bracelet was cut off my wrist – it meant this stay was truly over.

Who is LeBlanc for? Adults who want relaxation and pampering, great food in a luxury setting. Call us for more information or to book - 516-608-0568

Monday, July 30, 2012

Hotel Review -Crowne Plaza, Seattle Washington

What a gem of a hotel the Crowne Plaza Seattle Hotel is.  We recently stayed here for a conference and were pleasantly surprised at the great location and accommodations.  The hotel is located at 1113 Sixth Avenue in Seattle Washington 15 miles from the Seattle-Tacoma Airport and one mile from Pier 66.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by very friendly reservation attendants who quickly checked us in.  The room and hotel are very clean. Our room featured two double beds, a good sized bathroom and a view of the highway. Here are some of this pet friendly hotel features:
  • Plush Sleep Advantage™ beds
  • 37" Flat-screen TVs with premium cable channels
  • High-speed Internet access (additional fee)
  • Work desk with lamp, phone, and voicemail setup
  • Convenient hairdryer, bathrobe, iron, & ironing board
  • Complimentary weekday morning newspaper
Check in time is 4 PM and check out time is 12 PM. There are also suites with separate living room areas, a sofa bed, dining table and miniature refrigerators. If you upgrade to a Club Floor, you will be treated to Club Lounge access, free continental breakfast, and free evening hors d'oeuvres.

The hotel has the Regatta Bar and Grill that serves buffet and a la carte breakfast items as well as lunch and dinner menus.It is a short walk to many outstanding restaurants in the downtown area. 
The location is the best feature. We were within walking distance of many sites such as the Pike Place Market, Monorail to the Space Needle, the waterfront area and the convention center. 
There is also a complimentary business center on the 5th floor. There is wi-fi access at additional charge.
Call us to book! 516-608-0568




Seattle - More Than A Cruise Port

For a long time I've had Seattle, Washington pinned as a place I've been to because I was there for about an hour - long enough to disembark from a cruise ship and get to the airport.

Having recently had the pleasure of spending several days there at a travel conference, I discovered that this wonderful city is much more than a cruise port. This trip, I didn't have enough time to visit and do everything I discovered there is to do.

The downtown area is simple to get around. We stayed at the Crowne Plaza at 6th and Seneca and were able to walk to almost anywhere we wanted.  To get to the Seattle Conference Center - walk through the park across the street.

For the Pike Place Market, walk down 6th to Pike and walk to the water. To get to the Space Needle,  walk down 5th Avenue  to the Westlake Center and take the monorail to the Needle.

Like shopping? Everything from Gucci, Nordstrom and Brooks Brothers to handcrafted cheese, soaps and fish throwing at the Pike Place Market can be discovered. There is also no lack of coffee shops here, the home of the first Starbucks (still located at the Pike Place Market). Starbucks abound, along with Seattle's Best and Tully's.

Here is a list of some not to be missed things to do in Seattle.

1. Built for the 1962 World's Fair and celebrating it's 50th birthday in 2012, the Space Needle is one of the top attractions in Seattle.  From a platform 520 feet high, on a clear day you can see the entire city of Seattle and the outskirts, including the Cascade Mountain, Mt. Rainer. There is also a revolving restaurant on top (make reservations for dinner). Get here on the monorail from the Westlake Center, also built for the Seattle World's Fair.  http://www.spaceneedle.com/

2. Next door to the Space Needle is Chihuly Garden and Glass. This museum opened in 2012 and houses the most extensive collection of glass works from artist Dale Chihuly.  Buy a combo ticket for both.  The glass pieces are unbelievable, you will find yourself saying "how did he do that?". Look carefully at the round spheres in the outdoor garden - you will see how clever Chihuly was to place them so almost all show a reflection of the Space Needle on them. http://www.chihulygardenandglass.com/

3. During the day, take a walk to the Pike Place Market, a wonderful collection of funky stores, resturants and fishmongers. There are over 250 shops,100 farmers, 100 street performers and 200 craftsmen do business in this market.  Beware - it closes at 6 PM, so you must get there during the day to see anything. One of our biggest disappointments, because we had meetings being held until after 6 and we were unable to see the stores in action. You can get a guided tour here as well. http://www.pikeplacemarket.org/

4. Go on a wonderful dinner cruise on Puget Sound.http://www.argosycruises.com/royalargosy/default.cfm

5. See the King Tut exhibit at the Pacific Science Center.  http://www.pacificsciencecenter.org/

6. The the eclectic Underground Tour and see what Seattle looked like before the great fire of 1869.
http://www.undergroundtour.com/

7. Visit the Northwest Rail Museum and ride an antique train at a restored Victorian Train Depot.
http://www.trainmuseum.org/

8. See the sights on land and sea with a Seattle Duck Tour. Or see the sights of downtown Seattle on a double decker Grayline Bus Tour.
http://ridetheducksofseattle.com/       http://www.graylineseattle.com/

9. See the Seattle Mariners play baseball at Safeco Park.http://seattle.mariners.mlb.com/index.jsp?c_id=sea

10. Do whale watching at nearby San Juan island.http://seattlewhalewatching.com/

11. Visit the Seattle Aquarium.   http://www.seattleaquarium.org/

13. Get pampered at a spa, including the Ummelina International Day Spa. http://www.ummelina.com/

14. Trek among the glacier routes on Mt. Rainier.   http://www.nps.gov/mora/index.htm

15. Do a canopy tour with Canopy Tours Northwest.  http://canopytoursnw.com/

16. Visit Mt. St. Helen's, still an active volcano center.  http://mountsthelens.com/

17. Visit the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park and follow the footsteps of past gold miners.
http://www.nps.gov/klgo/index.htm

18. See a show or the symphony. Seattle has its share of theaters and music venues where you can see top notch shows. http://www.seattlesymphony.org/symphony/

19. If you have a car, bring your passport and visit Butchart Gardens in nearby Victoria, British Columbia.
 This is one of the most spectacular gardens you will ever see.  Stay until dark and then view the lovely city of Victoria lit up on your way back.   http://www.butchartgardens.com


20. Visit the EMP Museum, a music, film, pop cultures and sci-fi museum loaded with hands on experiences and iconic artifacts. Next door, visit the Pacific Science Center with more than 300 more exhibits, an IMAX theater and plenty of hands on fun.  http://www.empmuseum.org

21.Do a walking Seattle Food Tour.  http://seattlefoodtours.com/

22. Visit Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, on the waterfront. Over 1001 curios, oddities, art. gifts and souvenirs.
http://www.yeoldecuriosityshop.com
23. Do a scenic seaplane flight.   http://www.seattleseaplanes.com/

24. Visit Miners Landing at Pier 57, a historic pier where a new ride, Great Wheel, will be opening end of June.  http://seattlegreatwheel.com/

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Secrets of Cruise Ship Pricing


Secrets of Cruise Ship Cabin Pricing

You read the cruise ship ads, decide on a ship and you want that $299 price you see advertised for a cabin.  Then you find out that $299 cruise ship price is non-existent – or worse, for a cabin under the theater.  How does cruise ship pricing work?

Every cruise line has a few basic cabin categories  – interior (no windows), oceanview (a window to see out of your room), verandah or balcony rooms (with a sliding glass door and small balcony you can sit on), mini-suites or suites (balcony cabins that are larger  may even  have several bedrooms, depending on the ship).

But within each category, you can have up to seven different prices for the same cabin.  Why? Because cabin pricing is based on the location of your cabin on the ship.  You can have price differences of several hundred dollars on the same exact cabin based on where it is located.

When you see a price advertised as “starting at $XXX” that price is for the lowest priced interior cabin on the ship, unless specified differently.  The lowest priced cabins are located in the worst areas of the ship – either the lowest passenger deck, or all the way in the front and all the way in the back of the ship.  More desirable cabin locations, such as mid-ship, where you will feel the least amount of movement, and cabins located on higher decks increase in price depending on the location. High decks are desirable, but you may  feel more movement the higher you are as well.

Location is extremely important when you are booking a cruise.  Having been in a cabin over a nightclub on one cruise and not sleeping through the night for an entire week, our goal when booking your cabin is to look carefully at what is above and below your cabin to ensure you will have a cabin that is amenable to sleeping at night.

Cabins in the very front and back of the ship are not necessarily bad locations.  You will feel a bit more ship movement when sailing in the very front and rear of the ship.  But if you never suffer from seasickness, the location may not bother you.  If you do get seasick, or you think you might, booking a mid-ship cabin on a lower deck will result in less movement and a smoother ride. Expect to pay more for those cabins than the lead in price.  But the larger the cruise ship, in most cases the less movement you will feel.  We have sailed on the three largest cruise ships in the world – the Oasis and Allure of the Seas and the Norwegian Epic and we can tell you in some cases we never knew the ship was moving.

Some cruise lines sell “guarantee” cabins for slightly lower prices. You may also see these offered  if the ship has sold out most of their cabins and they offer a guarantee rather than an assigned cabin.   When booking a guaranteed cabin, you do not get to choose your cabin location – the cruise line does.  You are guaranteed that the lowest cabin category you will receive is the one you book (interior, oceanview, balcony, etc). You might also find the “upgrade fairy” has landed and you are assigned to a higher category than you booked (which is very rare).  But you could also end up under the buffet or over the casino, or at the very bottom or front of the ship.  You do not get the choice of a cabin.  Our experience with clients booking guarantees is 50/50 – 50% were happy with their cabin locations and 50% weren’t.  Not every cruise line or ship offers this type of cabin, but you must make a decision that you can live with while you are on the cruise as to whether you would be happy with any location, because once assigned, that is your cabin for the cruise, you don’t get to give it back and ask for another.

In addition, taxes and port fees are not included in the lead in price you see, they are extra. Port fees are the fee that each port charges the cruise line for each passenger who is on the ship.  Every port has these fees and the cruise lines pass that per person fee on to each passenger. Make sure you are quoted a price that includes everything.

Most cabins can only accommodate up to four people in a cabin.  The usual pricing you see if based on double occupancy (two people in a cabin) and  the first two people pay the lead in rate and the third and fourth are at a lower rate with kids in two cabins. (Pricing is never based on age – it is based on the number of people in the cabin ).  People traveling in a cabin by themselves also pay a higher rate.  If you need a cabin for more than four, unless you can book a family cabin or suite that can accommodate five or six, you will need to book two cabins.  On most cruise lines, children under the age of 18 need an adult over 21 in a cabin with them.  Travel agents know how to book to ensure the age requirements are met. When traveling with kids in another cabin, the cabin usually must be next to or adjoining the parents cabin, or across the hallway from the parents. If you are traveling with kids, we advise booking your cruise six months or more in advance to ensure you can get cabins situated as they need to be.

In most cases, you will get the best pricing by booking two cabins, rather than a larger suite (many suites do not hold more than four people). Our experience is that booking an interior cabin for the kids next to or across the hall from parents is less expensive than booking a one or two bedroom suite if the ship has them.

Babies must pay full price too!  Infants under six months of age are not permitted to sail as are women who are pregnant and will be in their 24th week anytime during the cruise. (Some cruise lines cut off at 20 weeks). Babies over six months can.  It doesn’t matter if you are bringing your infant a pack n play to sleep in, they are charged as a full passenger because they have a “berth” which counts towards the maximum number of people permitted to sail.

Book your cruise through an experienced cruise travel agent to ensure you have no surprises after booking and that you know the full cost of your cruise. Promal Vacations is a CLIA member, we have an accredited cruise counselor on site and are cruise specialists.  Call us at 516-608-0568 to book your cruise.




Friday, June 8, 2012

Resort Review - Riu Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Riu Guanacaste

Four hours on some of the worst roads we've experienced in Costa Rica traveling from Monteverde to Guanacaste brought us to the Riu Guanacaste resort. Located about 45 minutes from the Liberia airport on paved roads brings you to the hotel. The resort is currently in the process of building a Riu Palace  next door schedule to open in November, 2012.

We arrived by bus at the front entrance at about noon, passing a casino across the street as we came in. Being with a group, our luggage was off loaded and placed in the lobby. We could not check in until 3:00 sharp, so we completed the required paperwork, had bracelets strapped on and were invited to eat at one of the restaurants, Ocotel, for lunch.  Before doing that, we stopped at the reservation table for dinner reservations for the next day. Unfortunately, at Riu you must make reservations for dinner a day before and the only restaurants available were the Asian or Italian restaurants for the next day, but we wanted to eat at the Asian restaurant so that wasn't an issue.

Our lunch was buffet style at Ocotel.  We found ourselves a table and walked around the huge restaurant to see what was offed. There was salad, cheeses, guacamole, chips and taco fixings, paella, the ever present and delicious rice and beans, some meats and a whole section of Costa Rican native dishes.  The food was very good, but it was difficult to find a server to bring us some soda. There was tapped beer and wine, water and orange juice and soda available as self service.

After lunch we checked into our room, 1018. Our building was away from the construction and we faced a nature preserve, which delighted us as we we able to sit and watch howler monkeys from our balcony. These rooms are called jungle view and in our opinion, they are the best views.  The beach is swimmable but not very pretty, as many beaches on Costa Rica. The sand is brown and appears muddy. However, the water is delightful. No waves and warm.

The jungle view rooms are quiet because they face a jungle. There is no noise from the pool area and it is delightful to sit on your balcony and watch the animals.

Our room was nicely appointed. Upon entering we were in a wide hallway with the closet, safe and across from it the refrigerator and mini-bar. On top of the mini bar were bottles of vodka, gin and tequila. There were also various soda, beer and water in the refrigerator, all included. The liquor was all house brand. There were two bars that served Smirnoff vodka - the sports bar and the lobby bar. Otherwise, you will be drinking house brands. Same goes for the wine. Air conditioning worked well - after staying at two hotels with no air conditioning, it was a pleasure to arrive here and crank the thermostat down.  It was VERY hot here in May. 

The bathroom was large with double sinks, bathtub/shower combo. The only amenities in the bathroom were a shower cap and soap. If staying here, make sure you bring your own shampoo and conditioner. There is a group of stores outside the hotel that does sell toiletries but they are very expensive - $24 or $47 for a bottle of suntan lotion!

The food was surprisingly better than we expected. The buffets were plentiful- there were so many choices that it would be difficult NOT to find something palatable. Every morning,   one restaurant is open for a buffet breakfast near the lobby and Ocotel is open for lunch, near the beach.

For dinner there are four choices - the buffet, Ariago the Asian Restaurant, An Italian Restaurant or Ocotel, a steak house. Ariago is another all buffet restaurant. Food ranged from sushi prepared fresh to tempura vegetables and Japanese and Chinese offerings.

The Italian restaurant had a salad buffet but you order your dinner off an a la carte menu.

There is corny nightly entertainment in their "theater". Shows ranged from karaoke to a review night, to a take off the mens' t-shirts and have them act like fools  to get them back show.

There were plenty of pool activities, from exercise to dance lessons to Bingo. There are two pools, one for adults only which had the swim up bar and another zero entry pool for kids. In addition, there was a small kids playhouse, pool and playground equipment.

Water sports included were snorkeling, Hobie cats, kayaks and peddle boats. There are optional excursions that can be purchased in the lobby. On the beach area were peddlers offering fishing, jewelry, dresses, wooden items and massages - $35 for one hour. I opted to purchase a spa treatment from the Riu. A 25 minute hot stone massage was $49 and I was sorry I didn't take a longer option. Other massages, facials and body wraps were similarly priced. We found these to be the best priced spa treatments in Costa Rica.

As we stated before, there is a small casino a five minute walk away with a night time disco.  Neither seemed very busy at night.

The hotel is beautiful, well maintained with comfortable rooms, but this resort is similar to many resorts in the Caribbean and you do not get the true essence of Costa Rica here.  I suggest taking excursions to other areas, such as Arenal to see the volcano and hot springs or some nature walks and zip lining.  This resort would be a perfect end to a multi stop itinerary where you would fly into San Jose and travel up to Guanacaste through Monteverde or Arenal to do many of the great activities offered. Cap off your stay with a few days of total relaxation before flying out of Liberia.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

My Flights Have Been Changed! What Can I Do?

In the current economic environment, we are seeing many flight schedules changed or flights canceled by airlines before passengers are due to fly. Flights booked early, six months or more before flying, are particularly vulnerable to changes as the flight dates get closer.

While the majority of flight schedule changes are nothing more than changing a flight by a few minutes, some are major changes.  We have seen direct flights changed to indirect and flights canceled that affect a connecting flight - resulting in a long layover between connecting flights - even a day or so.

We were recently victims of flight changes. Three months before traveling, we purchased tickets for a flight leaving JFK at 6 AM, arriving in Orlando at 9:00.  Our connecting flight from Orlando was at 10:15 to San Jose Costa Rica.

We were contacted a month after booking by our airline advising us that our 6 AM flight was canceled, and putting us on the next flight at 8:30 would not get us into Orlando on time for our connecting flight. Our option was to fly into Orlando the night before, stay at a hotel at our own expense to make the 10:15 flight to San Jose or to fly out of another airport farther away that had a 6 AM flight.  Because the airline had another option that didn't incur an overnight stay (leaving from a different airport), they did not have to reimburse us for flying in the night before.

A month before we were to leave, we were again contacted by the same airline advising us that our return flight home from Orlando to JFK was changed to an earlier flight time - and we would not make the connection with the 12:30 flight we had leaving San Jose.  We had two options - fly into LaGuardia Airport, or  pay again for an overnight hotel in Orlando and fly home the following day.  Since we weren't going to pay for another hotel, we opted to return to LGA - at an additional cost of $70 for a cab ride home.  What the airline did do was give us a $60 credit for a future flight in lieu of the fact that they inconvenienced us not with one flight but with both.

What should you do if you are contacted by your airline with a flight change?  If you read the Terms and Conditions on your tickets, you will find that every airline has the option of changing flights for various reasons.

 First - stay calm.  This doesn't mean you will be left in the lurch. If an airline makes a significant schedule change that makes your itinerary unworkable, it will try to rebook you on an alternate flight, on a space available basis. If that doesn't work, the airline will refund your fare without penalty. What qualifies as a substantial schedule change depends on the carrier. One carrier's contract of carriage doesn't specify a timeline, while anothers rules stipulate that a two-hour shift in arrival or departure time is grounds for rebooking or a refund.  You will need to review your particular airlines contract of carriage (or if you have wisely booked through a travel agent, your travel agent can do this for you).

Next, go online to your airline's website and see what flights are available for your travel dates.  When Delta Airlines changed a connecting flight on us from Seattle to Vancouver, they rescheduled us on a 4 PM flight. We went online and found there were two earlier flights and had that information to give the airline rep. when we called to say that the new flight was not acceptable.  (Your travel agent can usually see the flights and how many seats are available).

If there are no other flights, check flights for the prior day or from another nearby airport.  If you find flights that are acceptable, tell the airline rep. when you call that you want to be put on the flights you found open. Just be aware that you may have to pay for your own hotel.

If you find no viable alternatives, check other airlines online to see if they have flights available.  If they do and your airline has a reciprocal agreement with that airline, ask your airline if they can put you on those flights.  If your airline does not have a reciprocal agreement, you will have to ask them to cancel your reservation and rebook yourself on another airline. The airline has to give you a full refund if they have no acceptable options for you.

Just be aware that this is likely to be your most expensive option, as flights purchased several months in advance are usually much lower in price than last minute flight bookings.  You will receive a credit card refund within a few days from your airline, but your new flights could be quite a bit more expensive.

If you have wisely booked through a travel agent, these are the steps your travel agent will do when you contact them if you are contacted directly by the airline.











Monday, June 4, 2012

Chocolate, Wine & Dessert Tour of New York City

Ever have a creme puff freshly baked and piped when you order it?  Have you visited the oldest fine wine merchant in the U.S.?  We recently found these and more on a Chocolate, Wine and Dessert Tour in New York City that was fun for all.

We met our guide, Dan, on the upper west side.  There were 11 people in our group ready to go on this fun tour of hidden gems in New York City.  First stop was a wonderful European bakery, Grandaisy, where we sampled a pastry that tasted like an Italian version of rugala.

On to Acker Merral & Condit, which bills itself at the oldest fine wine merchant in the United States and the world's leading wine auctioneer, where we had a lesson on champagnes and a private wine tasting.  The shop is beautiful, a mixture of old world and new wines. There were wines for every price range here and a leading Sommelier told us all about the three wines we sampled. We left with a purchase of La Spinetta Moscato D'Asti, a delightful sweet wine.

On to Beard Papa at 2167 Broadway, between 76th and 77th Streets for the most delicious creme puff we've ever tasted. The puff was crunchy and the custard absolutely delicious - not too sweet but in many flavors from vanilla to green tea, chocolate, pumpkin and more.

On to several more bakeries (can't give away all the secrets!) and then to JaquesTorres chocolates for a lesson on the production of chocolate and tasting of the most decadent hot chocolate and chocolate we've ever tasted.

The tour took about two hours and our guide also gave us some history on the area on some of the buildings in the area.  It was a great way to spend a few hours finding some great new places. All food and wine was included in the price of the tour. 

Interested in this or something similar? Contact us for a list of different food tasting tours or too book. 516-608-0568.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Review- El Establo Hotel, Monteverde, Costa Rica

What would make a nearly four hour journey from San Jose, Costa Rica to Monteverde Cloud Forest worthwhile? A stay at the four star El Establo Mountain Hotel. This ingenious hotel is built into the mountain it rests on, with each building offering it's own unique view of the small town of Santa Elena.

El Establo participates in Costa Rica's Sustainable Tourism Program by asking guests to use water and electricity only when needed, reusing towels if fresh ones aren't needed daily and having garbage receptacles in the room for organic or recyclable garbage and non- recyclable.


The hotel has two restaurants, La Riendas off the main highway next to the Reception area and Laggus below building six and the spa and also offers room service. The Green Leaf Spa, is open daily from 2 pm to 9 PM and is full service, offering everything from manicures go body wraps, massages and exfoliation.


There are two swimming pools and a gym. The gym is in a building with the second pool and offers wonderful views of the beautiful grounds and the town of Santa Elena. There is also a conference center. There is free internet in public areas, such as the restaurants, bars, pool areas and reception desk. A USB port can be rented for $10 per day that snaps into a laptop and offers internet access in your room.


There are seven buildings housing rooms. Because the hotel grounds are so large and steep, the hotel offers shuttle buses to pick up guests and take them around the grounds. Even a walk downhill from the building we stayed in, building 500, to Las Riendas was a difficult walk. If a guest has limited mobility or uses a wheelchair, this is not the hotel for them as it is too difficult to maneuver around. The hallways are very long and if you have a ground floor room, the hall floors are made of stone and can be slippery and difficult to walk on.


The views get better the further up the mountain your building is located. Buildings 600, 700, 800 and 900 were higher up.  You will need the shuttle, make no mistake about it, but the shuttles came very quickly when the front desk was called.

The rooms are well sized. Our room, 503, had two queen sized beds, flat screen t.v., corner shelving unit, refrigerator, long shelves and a good sized bathroom with separate shower and tub and sink.


Room 503 also was unique in the fact that it does not offer a patio as the other ground floor rooms have or a balcony for the second and third floors. But it has a separate living room with sofa, two chairs and coffee table that proved to be very useful to relax and read a book.



Even though this is considered a four star resort, there are issues with this hotel that should be mentioned. There is no air conditioning. This is not unusual in rain or cloud forest hotels, but there also were no ceiling fans OR screened windows to open to let in fresh air. That made for a very hot room at night during our stay in May. There were four very large windows in our living room area. Two didn't open and we didn't open the other two because without screens, bugs raced each other to see who could get to the lights inside the room first. That left very small louvered windows on the top of one of our windows for air - again with no screens. When the drapes were drawn at night, those windows are blocked off by the drapes and no fresh air circulates at all- making for very hot sleeping conditions. There are also louvered windows in the bathroom but we closed those as soon as we arrived - the hallways echo tremendously and the noise reverberates throughout the room if those windows are left opened.


Besides no air conditioning, the hotel also does not offer irons,additional lights or heaters. Electricity is normal 110 American volts. If guests need to charge anything that works with 220 volts, they can bring it to reception and have it recharged there.


Another issue that we found the first night is there are blackouts occasionally. We hadn't experienced this at any other hotels we've stayed at in Costa Rica. The first time it occurred 10 minutes after we arrived in our room but the electricity was back in less than a minute. The second, about a half hour later, lasted about 10 minutes. Luckily we had flashlights that we brought with us which we used (once we found them). Some who were walking to a restaurant were not so lucky, as they could not see their hand in front of their face.


Each room has it's own 40 gallon hot water tank. If you take a bath and use all the hot water, it takes 35 minutes for the water to re-heat. This was not a problem for us as we shower and had no problem with the hot water. A few things we noticed in our bathroom that shouldn't have been in a four star resort- a light fixture was missing from the wall. The plug for the hair dryer didn't work and when the shower was on, water leaked out of the tiles in the shower wall. The lack of maintenance in a resort of this rating was a concern, especially when we spoke to others who also had non-working plugs in their bathrooms and couldn't use the hair dryers in the room. We called for room maintenance when the curtain rod holding up the room drapes fell down and to report the leak and non-working plus and no one ever came to the room. 


The beds were comfortable. For Americans, the t.v. was sorely lacking- only one channel was English speaking and it showed mostly childrens' shows. One thing that many guests who were with us complained about was the noise. The was very loud Spanish music playing beginning at about 4 pm and went throughout the night that came from a bar across the street from the hotel. What we discovered on our last day was there was a Cinco DeMayo festival across the street and there was a carnival "barker" outside with a megaphone until 9:30 each night. We heard shouts of "Tora, Tora" until 1 AM. (The barker did move inside with his megaphone each night at 9:30,but we could still hear him until 1 A.M.). There is nothing that can be done about something like that, so if you are booking during Cinco de Mayo time, keep that in mind. 


This resort is not all inclusive but meal tickets can be purchased. The meal tickets do not cover soda or liquor. Restaurant food was tasty. For dinner, you are offered a choice of soup or salad, a main dish, and dessert. Soups and chicken were good, flan desserts tasty. Breakfast offerings were eggs, breads, rice and beans, fruit, yogurt, cereal, pastries, juices, muffins. At each meal a fruit juice is also included. Most were mixed berry drinks and very refreshing.


The hotels offers their own canopy tours and night walks. The canopy tour has 16 cables, a Tarzan swing, one rappel, two rope bridges and 150 ft. tower with 260 degree view- depending on the amount of cloud cover. The final cable was 1,000 feet long and most people didn't make it all the way across!


The night walk leaves every day at 5:45 PM for two hours of hiking. You see the transition from day to night and get a different perspective of the cloud forest.


The hotel grounds are lovely. The flowers are gorgeous and we marveled at the largest hydrangeas ever throughout the Monteverde area.There are many right on the grounds. The landscaping is lush and beautifully maintained.


 Our favorite part of staying here is the ever changing landscape. The clouds roll in and out constantly so your view changes as well. You can take 20 pictures of the exact same scene and they never look the same.

This hotel is within walking distance of the town of Santa Elena which offers ore variety of things to do within close proximity. Selvatura Park is a 20 minute ride away, offering walks through the cloud forest, ziplining, a tram, walking bridges and a train. We saw some unique birds and plants on our walk with very knowledgable guides. There was also a very good restaurant there as well.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Buyer Beware - Daily Deal Sites

For those of us who receive e-mails from those daily "deal" sites, we recently saw the effect of seeing a deal that seemed great that ended up not being what the buyer thought it would be. Yes, even a travel agent can be tempted by some of the travel deals we see - but do your homework before purchasing.

We recently were on a travel agent familiarization trip to Costa Rica with a group of other travel agents to do site inspections of hotels. Hotels in Costa Rica are very different from those in other countries. Many are difficult to traverse as they are built into mountain sides and can be very difficult to maneuver around, especially if a client has any physical limitations. Many have no air conditioning. Some are basic accommodations with no air conditioning, refrigerators or ceiling fans. Many are high in remote places and far away from a town.

One hotel that we had been to before was a rain forest lodge. It was far from town, had no air conditioning, fans, refrigerator or t.v. On the property was a rain forest you could walk through, it had a semi-working farm but had a pool that was emptied every night and refilled naturally by a stream - meaning the water was very cold and it was difficult to swim in that cold water.

On the night we were there, we met a gal from NYC who was staying there by herself. It was her birthday and because she was by herself, our group invited her to join us for dinner. She had explained that she was bored stiff and had no idea that there was nothing to do at the resort.

How did she buy her room? Through one of the daily deal sites. The price was cheap and she grabbed the trip based solely on price. But she never checked the property before she bought the deal and had no idea that this was not the property for her. Food was not included and she had to buy her meals on property. She thought she would be able to walk to town - nope. A cab to the closest town cost $90 one way. There were very few excursions available. And there were also very few people at the resort - most were honeymooners who didn't want to socialize with anyone.

The great deal she thought she was getting ended up not being a good deal at all.  Had she booked through an experienced Costa Rica travel specialist, she could have been told about the hotel and what she was actually buying and I am sure that she would not have purchased the deal.

If you are considering one of the "daily deals" you see online, especially in a foreign country, remember this story.  A travel agent would have questioned this girl on her likes and dislikes and been able to tell her this was not a resort that fit her lifestyle.