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Corpus Christi, TX, United States
Everyone has one - they may not call it a "Bucket List" it may be a list of travel ideas, a list of places to visit, or things you want to do. My desire is to help you bring these dreams into reality and create memories that will last a lifetime.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Discover America by River

Storyteller Mark Twain ignited an American love affair with the Mississippi River in the late 1800s with his vivid descriptions in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "Life on the Mississippi." Twain described river towns as "pleasing to the eye and cheering to the spirit" and called the Mississippi Valley "as reposeful as a dreamland ... nothing to hang a fret or a worry upon."
More than a century later, the romance of the mighty Mississippi, along with a number of other U.S. waterways, continues to attract those seeking an authentic slice of Americana, and a number of cruise lines cater to travelers looking for such a floating escape. Onboard today's passenger vessels you're likely to find a library with a book or two by Twain -- along with fine dining, live entertainment, expert lecturers and multiple options for relaxing, or maintaining a fitness regime.
U.S. river cruising has been growing in popularity for many reasons: These journeys have a European feel with no passport required, they work for multiple generations traveling together, and the logistics make it a breeze compared with getting on a plane or even sailing with the bigger cruise lines. Traditionally filled with a more mature travel crowd, they aren't cheap. But those who take one river cruise tend to take more; one popular outfit, American Cruise Lines, reports a repeat guest rate of 40% on average. Here are eight ways to explore the United States via river cruise. 

Memphis to New Orleans: Lower Mississippi River

You'll still hear the traditional notes of the calliope as you board the historic Queen of the Mississippi, but 21st-century technology also brings this American Cruise Lines paddlewheel riverboat to a new level of comfort and convenience.

Eight-day voyages cruise from Memphis, Tennessee; New Orleans; St. Louis; or St. Paul, Minnesota, on the iconic Mississippi River. The cruise between Memphis and New Orleans highlights the music, cuisine and culture of these two vibrant cities but allows plenty of time to soak up the setting that Twain called "reposeful as a dreamland," with stops at sprawling Southern plantation homes and Civil War battlefields. Also onboard: a putting green and a workout area. Rates begin at $4,195 per person.

St. Paul to St. Louis: Upper Mississippi River

Every autumn, when the riverbanks are drenched in shades of red and gold, the elegant flagship vessel of the American Queen Steamboat Co. travels the Upper Mississippi River, with stops that include a glimpse of Amish country in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and a tribute to the agricultural accomplishments of John Deer in Davenport, Iowa. Twain's boyhood home of Hannibal, Missouri, is also on the itinerary.

Other themed sailings on the American Queen honor everything from baseball legends to Route 66, and longer itineraries sail on multiple rivers. Rates begin at $2,495 per person for the nine-day journey, $4,495 for a 14-day trip on the Ohio and Mississippi.
Pacific Northwest: Columbia and Snake rivers
Set your sights on spring and the inaugural season of the opulent American Empress, the newest addition to the American Queen Steamboat Co. line. Seven-day voyages will travel between Portland, Oregon, and Clarkston, Washington, with stops to visit the natural wonders and historic landmarks of the region such as Mount Hood and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. Native American history, a number of wineries and the opportunity to zip-line above Oregon are additional highlights.

With five decks and accommodations for 223 guests, it is one of the larger vessels plying U.S. Rivers, and American Queen Steamboat President Ted Sykes cites a "rebirth of U.S. River cruising" as one reason for the company's expansion. Rates start at $3,795 per person.

Alaska: Waterways near Juneau

Small ships can mean big adventure in the 49th state. Think grizzlies and glaciers when you drift through straits and fjords on the Island Spirit, a 32-passenger, all-inclusive boat that leaves Alaska's capital city to explore small towns and coastal cities between wildlife sightings. Onboard naturalists are part of this nine-day journey that can also involve kayaking, hiking and trekking across icy blue glaciers. Inuit culture also is weaved into the itinerary. Book through USA River Cruises; rates start at $3,995 per person. Travel photos we wish we'd taken
New York's Hudson River Valley
If you're game for some extraordinary leaf-peeping along the river that Henry Hudson explored in 1609, American Cruise Lines offers an eight-day trip leaving from New York City that whisks passengers into the world of millionaire mansions, art centers, maritime museums and two capital cities -- the state's second capital, Poughkeepsie, and the current one, Albany. Set your bags in your cabin and get to the deck; you won't want to miss a minute of daylight with the sun lighting up the Hudson River Valley scenery. You'll pass by the historic Saugerties Lighthouse and have time to tour the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. This itinerary begins and ends in the Big Apple so travelers can start or cap their trip with some big-city fun. Rates begin at $3,245 per person. 
Charleston, South Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida
It's hard to leave the palmetto palms of Charleston, but with this Blount Small Ship Adventure, you'll discover the Low country, get a lesson in Southern history and find proof that Southern hospitality is flourishing along the waterways of the antebellum South.

The eight-day trip navigates a handful of rivers and intra-coastal waterways, with stops that include Beaufort, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; and St. Augustine, Florida. You'll fill your digital camera disc with sunsets, Spanish moss-covered live oaks and idyllic scenes from Jekyll and Amelia islands. Rates start at $2,399 per person.
The Great Lakes region: Toronto to Duluth, Minnesota
OK, so you'll need your passport for this cruise that dips into Canada. The journey takes you through all five of the Great Lakes, from Lake Ontario to Lake Superior. The 138-passenger Yorktown passes through busy locks and canals on this 11-day trip filled with Great Lake lore as well as excursion options to Niagara Falls, Michigan's pristine Presque Isle and the Victorian-era island of Mackinac.

Travelers yearning for still more Americana should head for the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village when the ship docks in Detroit for a day. USA River Cruises handles Yorktown bookings, and every cabin has a water view; rates for the Great Lakes trip start at $5,595 per person. 

The islands of New England

Classic New England is the focus on this tranquil seven-day journey run by Blount Small Ship Adventures. Vessels depart from and return to Warren, Rhode Island, carrying fewer than 100 passengers per trip into the realm of serene beaches, rugged bluffs and unique towns such as Cuttyhunk, Massachusetts, where the tides seem to have washed away any sign of 21st-century stress.

Whale watching and birding are priorities as you island hop between Nantucket Island and Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts and Rhode Island's Block Island, marveling at gorgeous seaside homes and quaint beach cottages decorated in buoys and other nautical relics. Get a taste of New England during shore excursions with lobster lunches, locally crafted beers and freshly made saltwater taffy. Round trip from Warren. Rates start at $1,999 per person.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Planning Shore Excursions

Many of you will pick a sail­ing re­gion be­cause you want to ex­plore all a lo­ca­tion has to of­fer, be it stun­ning rain­forests load­ed with wildlife or cul­tur­al cap­itals with great mu­se­ums. As such, your ex­pe­ri­ence on shore can make or break your cruise va­ca­tion. So plan­ning ahead what you're go­ing to do at the ports of call your ship will vis­it is im­por­tant. If your goal is sit­ting on a white sand beach, you want to find that white sand beach to sit on. Once your ship pulls in­to port, you ba­si­cal­ly have three op­tions: stay­ing on the ship, tak­ing a shore ex­cur­sion through the cruise line, or ex­plor­ing on your own.

The Ins and Outs of Shore Ex­cur­sions:

Cruise lines of­fer shore ex­cur­sions that tar­get pop­ular at­trac­tions in ev­ery port. These range from short bus and walk­ing tours to full-day op­tions that cov­er a va­ri­ety of ac­tiv­ities (from eat­ing and drink­ing your way through Provence to traips­ing through a jun­gle in Mex­ico). In most cas­es the cruise lines them­selves do not op­er­ate the tours, but rather re­ly on lo­cal op­er­ators (al­beit ones they vet — an im­por­tant se­cu­ri­ty con­sid­er­ation in some des­ti­na­tions). But be warned, this is a prof­it cen­ter for the lines so there's of­ten a mark-up in­volved.

Shore ex­cur­sions start around $39 per per­son for what's of­ten a snooze-fest bus tour to see an area's top his­toric and nat­ural sights, and go up to the $79 to $150 range for more ex­cit­ing ac­tiv­ities like snorke­ling or bike-trekking or zip lining (where you get in a har­ness and zip across tree tops on a line). Prices climb even high­er (to $500 or more) for an once-in-a-life­time ex­pe­ri­ence such as dog sled­ding on top of a glacier (worth ev­ery pen­ny, by the way). Ex­cur­sion prices are of­ten, though not al­ways, low­er for kids. Giv­en that your cruise is like­ly to make mul­ti­ple stops, the cost for ex­cur­sions for, say, a fam­ily of four, can add up quick­ly and end up rep­re­sent­ing a sub­stan­tial por­tion of your fi­nal va­ca­tion tab.

If your Travel Agent has a relationship with a third party excursion vendor it could save you 10-60% and you will travel in a smaller more intimate group and they guarantee to get you back to the ship on time.

Or can just say no and ex­plore on your own (see be­low), but there are times when shore ex­cur­sions may be your best bet.

You want to go far. Some­times the im­por­tant stuff is far away from the port where your ship is docked (for ex­am­ple, Rome is ac­tu­al­ly a 90-minute drive from Citavec­chia, the port where your ship will dock). Ex­cur­sions will take you to places many miles from the pier with­out your hav­ing to wor­ry about local public trans­porta­tion (fer­ries, trains and bus­es) or steep cab fares.

You want to do a soft-ad­ven­ture ac­tiv­ity. Snorke­ling, div­ing, kayak­ing, ATV tours, and oth­er ac­tiv­ities are sched­uled with ven­dors vet­ted by the cruise line for safe­ty. You're look­ing for hands-on cul­ture. Cook­ing class­es, art lessons, pri­vate vis­its to mu­se­ums, and folk dance per­for­mances are of­fered, along with an op­por­tu­ni­ty to min­gle with lo­cals.

You're think­ing once-in-a-life­time. Most lines give pas­sen­gers the op­por­tu­ni­ty to tack­le a "Buck­et List" ex­pe­ri­ence, such as swim­ming with dol­phins, feed­ing stingrays, dog sled­ding, hot air bal­loon­ing, flight­see­ing, or deep sea fish­ing.

You just want to re­lax. You want has­sle-free R&R in a lounge chair on a prime beach, a scenic sail with a rum drink or two, or to space out watch­ing fish in a glass-bot­tom boat.

You don't speak the lo­cal lan­guage. In some ex­ot­ic lo­ca­tions (South­east Asia comes to mind), it might be a has­sle find­ing some­one who speaks En­glish. That said, as most lines tend to vis­it tourist hot­pots, if the first per­son you come across doesn't speak En­glish, chances are the sec­ond or third per­son will.

Or­der­ing Shore Ex­cur­sions:

Pop­ular shore ex­cur­sions fill up fast, or at least that's what the cruise lines tell you. The re­al­ity is that if there is huge in­ter­est in a par­tic­ular op­tion, the tour op­er­ator may be able to add an­oth­er ex­cur­sion. Even so, you are best off re­view­ing the ex­cur­sions for your cruise and mak­ing your picks pre-cruise. Most cruise lines let you re­search their ex­cur­sion op­tions on their web­sites and book on­line. If you do or­der in ad­vance, your tick­ets will ei­ther be in your cab­in when you ar­rive or be de­liv­ered to your cab­in a cou­ple of days be­fore your sched­uled tour.

When choos­ing your ex­cur­sions, care­ful­ly read the fine print. You may see re­stric­tions based on age and weight, fit­ness lev­el re­quired (which the cruise lines gen­er­al­ly do a good job of de­scrib­ing), and so forth. If you are phys­ical­ly chal­lenged or have spe­cial needs, make sure you take that in­to ac­count when plan­ning your shore-side ac­tiv­ities. Not all tours will be suit­able.

If you don't pre-book, you can use the or­der form you'll find in your cab­in (and at the purs­er's or shore ex­cur­sion desk). One ad­van­tage of wait­ing is you can at­tend the shore ex­cur­sion lec­ture held the first day of the cruise and ask ques­tions (but, again, pop­ular tours may al­ready be sold out by that time, so if your trip will be ru­ined be­cause you didn't get to go dog-sled­ding in Alas­ka for ex­am­ple, book th­at ex­cur­sion in ad­vance). You may be able to can­cel a pre-booked reser­va­tion or switch to an­oth­er tour once ship­board, but don't count on that. Talk to the folks at the shore ex­cur­sion desk if you need as­sis­tance.

On the Day of Your Tour:

Care­ful­ly look at the shore ex­cur­sion tick­ets you re­ceive, not­ing the meet-up time and lo­ca­tion for your tour. If you're not there at the right time, the tour may leave with­out you and you won't get a re­fund. In your doc­umen­ta­tion ­you'll al­so find in­for­ma­tion on what to wear and what you need to bring with you. Bring­ing along bot­tled wa­ter is a par­tic­ular­ly good idea (es­pe­cial­ly in trop­ical lo­cales or where stren­uous ac­tiv­ities are in­volved), but be­fore you buy it for a steep price ship­board, ask if it's al­ready pro­vid­ed on the tour. You'll al­so want to bring a few bucks to tip your tour guide; the stan­dard range is $3 to $5 per per­son, or more for an ad­ven­ture tour guide.

Ex­plor­ing on Your Own:

You are on­ly in each port for a set num­ber of hours. If you have de­cid­ed to go ex­plor­ing on your own you'll want to do some ad­vance re­search to find out where the ship docks and what's near the pier. In some lo­ca­tions you dock right in the heart of the ac­tion (Que­bec City and San Diego, for ex­am­ple), but in many oth­ers you'll need to take a cab, bus, or fer­ry to get where you want to go. Keep in mind that you may need lo­cal cur­ren­cy to pay the fare.

Be­fore de­cid­ing to go off on your own look in­to:

  • What's with­in walk­ing dis­tance of the ship?
  • How easy is it to find a cab, bus, scoot­er or rental car, and how re­li­able is the trans­porta­tion (and is driv­ing on the right or left)?
  • How much do at­trac­tions and/or beach-en­try fees cost?
  • Does the ac­tiv­ity you want to do re­quire ad­vance reser­va­tions?
  • At a beach, will you be able to rent a lounger and/or um­brel­la and how much do they cost?
  • Are rental cars avail­able near the ship pier and do they need to be booked in ad­vance – both for sav­ings and to as­sure avail­abil­ity?

All this is not to say you won't have a good time, and you'll prob­ably be able to go it on your own cheap­er than you would with the cruise line. But if you take the DIY ap­proach, plan care­ful­ly and don't miss the boat — if the ship leaves with­out you, it will cost a bun­dle to get to the next port of call.

Book­ing or­ga­nized tours on your own:

If you like the sound of a cruise line's tour, but the price sounds aw­ful­ly steep, do some re­search and you may be able to book the same tour with the ex­act same out­fit­ter on your own, at a cheap­er price. The se­cret is to spend some time care­ful­ly dis­sect­ing the cruise line's tour and the word­ing, and then com­pare it with what lo­cal op­er­ators are of­fer­ing on­line.

Some op­er­ators have deals with the cruise lines, which pre­clude them from of­fer­ing low­er prices when a ship is in town. That doesn't mean they al­ways stick to them (though you may be told "shhh, don't tell any­one what you paid," lest the cruise line find out you got a dis­count). If you go this route, re­mem­ber it's im­por­tant to make sure the op­er­ator can get you back to the ship be­fore sail­ing time.

You may al­so be able to book the equiv­alent of a cruise line's ex­cur­sion at a low­er price through your trav­el agent it may be up to 60% lower than cruise line prices and backs that up with a low­est-price guar­an­tee. They al­so guarantee to get you back to the ship on time.

Pri­vate ex­cur­sions:

A new trend in cruise trav­el is pri­vate shore ex­cur­sions — your trav­el agent ar­ranges a guide just for you and any­one else you want to bring along. It's the best of both worlds as you get a cus­tom-tai­lored tour (you can in­ter­rupt the guide to say, "Hey, that's bor­ing, let's move on"). Of course, a steep price ac­com­pa­nies this op­tion, and they guarantee to get you back to the ship on time.

Stay­ing Ship­board:

If you have been to a port be­fore, or many times, there's no rule that says you have to go again. Don't dis­count the joy of stay­ing on the ship while ev­ery­one else dis­em­barks. You won't be the on­ly oth­er per­son to have the same idea, so the ship won't feel to­tal­ly va­cant (no ghost­ly twins in the hall­way like in Stephen King's The Shin­ing). And there are ben­efits to stay­ing put. On a port day you are like­ly to find not on­ly avail­able times­lots, but dis­counts in the ship's spa; you can zip your way through the buf­fet line or have a leisure­ly lunch in a din­ing room; and you'll have no trou­ble find­ing a lounge chair at the pool.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Behind -the Scens Tour: How a cruise ship works

Ever wondered what it takes to operate a cruise ship at sea on a 24-hour basis? Take a behind-the-scenes tour to find out.

Special for-a-fee tours offer exclusive access to areas of the ship normally only seen by the crew.
The tours are offered on a limited basis on sea days, the group size usually limited to 16 or fewer passengers. If you're interested, inquire at Guest Services your first day on board to check availability. These tours sell out.

With a senior crew member or officer leading the way, on the tours there's often opportunity to chat with dancers in the theater, spend time in the galley — where some 12,000 meals are prepared daily on larger ships — and meet the captain and officers.

Check out these back-of-house tours.

The Behind the Fun tour ($55 to $95) includes briefings by key ship personnel such as the captain, chief engineer and chef de cuisine. Stops include the main show lounge, main galley, laundry room, crew galley and dining room, crew gym, crew training center, engine room and ship's bridge. Bonus: A commemorative gift pack and photos with the captain.

Princess Cruises
On the Princess Cruises Ultimate Ship Tour ($150 per person), passengers visit the galley, backstage at the theater, the engine control room, the print shop, the photo lab, the medical center and the laundry room. You also stop by the bridge to see the officers and meet the captain. Bonus: A bunch of take-home mementos and refreshments.

On the two-hour Behind the Scenes tour ($55), passengers see the galley, the laundry, backstage at the theater, the ship's environmental systems and the bridge — with opportunity to talk to the captain and officers along the way. An enhanced seven-hour tour ($150) adds a sushi-making demonstration and sake tasting, a specialty coffee, a group photo on the bridge, pre-dinner cocktails and dinner at the Cagney's Steakhouse (with a glass of wine).

Holland America
The Behind the Scenes tour ($150) takes you backstage at the theater and to the laundry, engine control room, environmental/waste-management area, galley (including coolers and storage areas) and the bridge. Bonus: Champagne, hors d'oeuvres and a gift pack including a cookbook.

Royal Caribbean
The guided All Access Tour ($150) lets passengers visit such crew-only areas as the bridge, galley, backstage of the main theater, the engine control room and laundry, letting passengers "step inside the crew's shoes," at least for a few hours.

The Inside Access tour ($150) provides a comprehensive look at ship operations including the bridge, mooring deck, engine control room, main dining-room galley, crew mess hall, crew gym, officer's offices and store rooms. Bonus: Includes a wine-paired lunch in the dining room.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Why Cruisers Should Travel With A Passport

Some cruises require a passport. An exception is when U.S. citizens are taking what is known as a "closed loop" cruise: sailing round-trip from one U.S. port and visiting at least one foreign country (such as from Miami to the Caribbean). For these cruises you can get away with a government-issued photo ID and birth certificate as proof of citizenship.

But having a passport is better.

There are a variety of scenarios for which you'd want to have a passport in hand. If your flight to the port city is delayed and you have to fly out of the U.S. to meet your ship at the first port of call, being 'insured' with this document can save your vacation.

You will also want a passport if you have to leave a cruise early in another country — say, Canada on an Alaska sailing. I've heard it before: you don't plan to go home early. But stuff happens — family emergencies, business emergencies, illness, etc., — and without a passport, you will be in for a major hassle. Airlines often require a valid passport before they will even let you on the plane, so whether you're trying to get back into the U.S. or you need to stay in the foreign country for a spell, both situations would likely require a passport.

If you want to take an excursion, say, into Canada on an Alaska cruise, you may also need one. The same goes for getting kicked off a ship for misconduct, which does happen. Or, if you get delayed at a foreign port of call, and miss the ship.

Everyone, including infants, in your party should have a passport. Applying for one is easy. Find details at http://travel.state.gov.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Christmas Markets: Europe and Beyond

Sometimes it seems like chalky store-bought Santa cookies, holiday blockbuster movies and commercials for luxury cars with giant bows have sucked the soul right out of Christmas. But there are still places in this world -- Christmas markets, to be exact -- where the holidays have a heart.

Going to a traditional Christmas market is like literally traveling to Christmas. The air is crisp and cold, the sweet songs of choirs merge with the smells of hot spiced wine and roasted chestnuts in the air, and hundreds of shoppers (and dozens of Santa's) bustle by in search of presents for loved ones near and far. At Christmas markets, the modern secularization of the season is smashed to bits by Nativity scenes, Gothic cathedrals decked with twinkling lights and marzipan Jesus figures that remind visitors of the holiday's holy history.

Christmas Market Cologne, boasting the largest Christmas Tree in the regionChristmas markets originated centuries ago in Germany and Austria as sources of practical goods for winter survival. Today, the markets offer practical gifts for surviving the scrutinizing tastes of your critical loved ones. Plan a Christmas market trip this year and you will usurp your wicked stepsister as the provider of the best holiday gifts when you bring your loved ones authentic Italian wines from the markets of Trento, sweet gingerbread from a German Christmas market or antique toys from Vienna. Your only challenge is choosing a market -- there are literally hundreds of these festive fairs in Europe and North America during November and December. Here are a few of our favorites to get you started on your Yuletide adventures.

Christmas Market onStrasbourg Christmas Market, France
Each year, the medieval town of Strasbourg in Alsace, France is illuminated by thousands of twinkling Christmas lights. This festive scene provides the perfect backdrop for the Strasbourg Christmas Market, which is the largest Christmas market in France. The market's Web site claims that it offers "a thousand and one gift ideas," but the site's extensive agenda of daily activities and events proves that a visit to the Strasbourg market is more than just a chance to shop.

Strasbourg's cathedral andVisit a giant Nativity scene in the majestic Cathedral de Strasbourg, stroll through stalls selling handmade gifts and specialty foods in the city's center (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), or embark on an organized treasure hunt through the historic village. An ice skating rink provides hours of frosty fun, and children ages 8 and younger can play on a special winter obstacle course complete with tunnels, hoops and sleighs. The market runs from November 27 through December 31.

Nuremberg Christmas Market, Germany
Aachen Christmas MarketConsidered to be Germany's most popular Christmas market, the Nuremberg Christmas Market attracts over two million visitors annually. This is not the market to attend if you're searching for an off-the-beaten-path experience, but it's one of Germany's oldest Christmas fairs and it won't disappoint travelers looking for some of the season's best traditional shopping. About 180 market stalls sell baked goods, roasted bratwurst, hot wine, and unique toys and gifts such as Nuremberg Plum People -- figurines made from prunes. Other notable gifts sold in the market include hand-carved Nativity sets, gingerbread, and glass Christmas tree ornaments. The entire place is a lovely site to behold; all of the stalls are decorated with red and white cloth, and the most beautiful stall wins a gold "Plum Person" prize each year. The market runs from November 26 through December 24.

                                            Trento Christmas Market, Italy
Christmas markets are not as well known in Italy as they are in Austria or Germany, but some worthwhile markets can be found throughout the Boot during the holiday season. We like the Italian Christmas market in Trento for two reasons. First, the town is remarkably beautiful -- Trento lies in a glacial valley below the Alps and features pastel medieval buildings, Gothic cathedrals and a romantic 13th-century castle. Second, the town's historic Germanic influences have helped produce a distinctive Christmas market that mixes Italian and German traditions. About 70 stalls in the city center offer thousands of holiday gifts including wooden gnomes, handmade jewelry, local Italian wines, copper crafts and natural perfumes. The market runs from November 20 through December 23.

Liseberg Christmas Market, Gothenburg, Sweden
Innovation and imagination have turned the famous Liseberg Christmas Market in Gothenburg, Sweden into a spectacular and surreal holiday experience. Liseberg is Scandinavia's largest amusement park; it's here that a "live" Christmas tree (red- and green-robed singers on a tree-shaped structure) serenades visitors, skaters glide in Santa suits and an entire bar made of ice beckons tourists with (literally) ice-cold drinks. Snack on Swedish foods from meatballs to pickled herring in addition to holiday favorites like mulled wine, marzipan and waffles. When you're not participating in a Christmas sing-along or voting in a Christmas tree decorating contest (a random winner gets the best-decorated tree delivered to his or her home), you can shop for traditional handmade Christmas gifts -- like ceramics, glassware and wood carvings -- in Liseberg's design and crafts market. The market is open on select dates between November 12 and December 23.

Berlin Christmas Markets, Germany
Berlin's the place to be if you want to go Christmas market hopping (that's right -- hopping, not shopping); the city hosts dozens of different Christmas markets throughout the holiday season. The Berlin markets are vibrant, teeming centers for holiday cheer -- the scene is more "Jingle Bell Rock" than "Silent Night." Highlights include thousands of crafts, antiques, foods and holiday gifts; Christmas music concerts; horse and carriage rides; giant Christmas pyramids; and even a carousel and a Fairyland for youngsters. If you've had more Christmas than you can handle (which seems a likely circumstance in this place), or have Jewish loved ones on your holiday gift list, you may want to visit the Hanukkah market in the courtyard of the Jewish Museum. The markets take place from November through early January.

Schonbrunn Palace Christmas Market, Vienna, Austria
Celebrate the holidays next to the famous, breathtaking Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna. About 70 booths sell roasted chestnuts, hot wine, homemade Austrian crafts and other holiday wares in Vienna's historic city center. Bring the kids and take part in a special hands-on workshop -- children can learn to make Christmas cookies and crafts. And don't miss the live holiday concerts that happen nightly in front of the giant Christmas tree. When touring Vienna's shops and markets, fans of marzipan must visit Demel, a famous 200-year-old candy maker in Vienna; its cellar houses an intriguing marzipan museum. The market lasts from November 20 through December 26.

Christkindlmarket, Chicago, Illinois
Although Europeans started the Christmas market tradition, they certainly don't have a monopoly on this joyful holiday ritual. Try a trip to Chicago for a Christmas market experience without the overseas flight and exchange rate. The city's annual Christkindlmarket fair, which takes place from November 24 through December 24, was inspired by the Nuremberg Christmas Market and has all the festive trappings of Europe's famous Yuletide fairs. Rows of stalls sell familiar handmade gifts and hot holiday chow like roasted chestnuts, sausages, candies and hot wine. Various events, including a Chicago holiday tree lighting and a performance by a local horn choir, put an American spin on traditional European festivities. You just might think you're in Europe if you can squint past the Cubs hats and sparkling skyscrapers.

Independenttraveler.com-Caroline Costello

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Disney gives sneak peek of new Hawaii resort

KAPOLEI, Hawaii - More than 80 years after Mickey Mouse piloted "Steamboat Willie" and whistled his way into the hearts of children across the world, he has finally reached the shores of Hawaii.

The Walt Disney Co. on Friday gave a peek of its sprawling, beachside Hawaiian resort that is under construction and scheduled to open next year. "Aulani" is Disney's first major standalone resort away from a theme park and could serve as a model for future projects as the company diversifies and expands its vacation offerings.

"This is a very special project for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. "It's unlike anything that Disney has done before; at the same time, it's very like many of the things we do."

Aulani will have 359 hotel rooms, 481 time-share units, restaurants, a convention center, a 15,000-square-foot spa and a massive water play area that includes a volcano tube slide and snorkel lagoon. It sits on 21 acres on Oahu's Leeward Coast in the Ko Olina development, known for its white sand lagoons, scenic golf course and colorful sunsets. Ko Olina is about an hour west of Waikiki, where most of the hotels and tourists are.

Hawaii makes "perfect sense" with its rich culture, traditions, warm greetings, family values, friendships and storytelling, And by the way, Hawaii also happens to be one of the most popular vacation destinations on the planet, and that's the business that we're in."

Most of the resort is currently a jungle of concrete, steel, wires and pipes with no Mickey and Minnie in sight. Aulani is scheduled to open Aug. 29, 2011, with hotel reservations to begin next month.
With the construction phase alone costing more than $600 million, Aulani represents a huge investment for Disney amid a sharp tourism downturn. According to an economic impact study commissioned by Disney, Aulani is expected to generate 4,800 jobs during construction. When completed, 2,400 jobs will be created, with about half working at the resort. More than $271 million annually in economic activity will be generated.

The largest units at Aulani are 3-bedroom "Grand Villas" — 2,300-square-foot timeshare units that are larger than most Hawaii homes, sleep 12 and have sweeping views of the Pacific.