Royal City Carlson Wagonlit Travel's Blog

Discover Your Inner Highlander At These 3 Scottish Castles

A lot of people's favorite TV viewing these days involves tartans and time travel against a backdrop of essential Scottish scenery: misty lochs, craggy mountains, and castles that are among the most iconic and recognized in the world.

Fiction meets historic fact at Scotland's castles. An estimated 3000 castles were once part of the landscape of Scotland. That's nearly one castle every 100 square miles.

Many ancient castles still remain to remind us of Scotland's turbulent history of powerful men in kilts wielding broadswords, and women who were just as tough. You can tap into your own inner highlander at these must-see Scottish castles.

Edinburgh Castle

Imposing and massive, Edinburgh Castle looms from its perch on an outcropping of volcanic rock 260 feet (80 m) above the Scottish capital. Scotland's most urban castle dominates the city skyline spectacularly. As the Eiffel Tower is the symbol of Paris, Edinburgh Castle is the symbol of the Scottish capital. It's the most-visited attraction in Scotland.

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Castle Rock, with such obvious defensive advantages of the sheer cliffs on three sides, has been occupied since the Iron Age. A royal castle has stood there since the 1100's. Edinburgh castle is magnificent, seeming to grow out of the volcanic rock. But it's no fairy tale. Researchers have identified 26 attacks on the fortress in its history, making it one of the most besieged places in the world.

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Edinburgh Castle retains its military and regal connections, housing the Scottish National War Memorial and National War Museum, as well as the Scottish regalia, known as the Honours of Scotland: royal crown, sword and scepter.

The only approach to Edinburgh Castle is from the sloping side. It's a scenic walk up the Royal Mile through Edinburgh's Old Town to the castle. Don't miss the daily (except Sunday) firing of the 'One O'Clock Gun'.

Three special times of the year to visit Edinburgh Castle include: The Edinburgh Military Tattoo in August, a spell-binding and evocative series of performances of fife and drum and Scottish regiments in traditional regalia; and the fireworks marking the end of the summer Edinburgh Festival as well as Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year.

Eilean Donan Castle

This is one of the most photographed and filmed castles in the world. (And one of the most popular backdrops to wedding photos in the U.K.)

Where Edinburgh Castle's defenses came from the cliffs surrounding it, Eilean Donan's protection was water. Eilean Donan means 'the island of Donnán'. (Top Photo Credit). It's a small tidal island at the point where three great sea lochs meet in the western Highlands of Scotland.

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And while romantic-looking now, there's evidence the island was fortified from the Iron Age. The current castle was restored from ruins in the early 1900's, when a footbridge connected the island to the mainland. Until then, it was only water accessible, and a clan stronghold that was repeatedly attacked.

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Don't miss among the rare artifacts on display a sword said to have been wielded at the fateful battle of Culloden.

A Gaelic inscription above the door reads: "As long as there is a MacRae inside, there will never be a Fraser outside", referring to a bond of kinship between the two clans, similar to one which adorned the Fraser clan's Beaufort Castle. The MacRae clan are still Constables of Eilean Donan Castle today.

Eilean Donan Castle is even more spectacular in real life than in the many photos and films that feature it, where the magnificent Highland landscape almost dwarfs the castle. When you are there in person, it is much larger and imposing than it seems in pictures. Standing on the footbridge with winds from the lochs swirling around you, is the moment you'll say to yourself, 'I've arrived in the Highlands'.

Dunnottar Castle

Even more wild and dramatic is Dunnottar Castle on top of an immense rocky cliff over the north east coast of Scotland. The ruins of the castle are surrounded by steep cliffs that drop 160 feet (50m) into the North Sea below. Only a narrow strip of land with a steep path joins the headland to the mainland.

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Given the castle's strategic location and impregnable position, it's no wonder the site has been fortified for over 2000 years. 'Dun' is the word for 'fort' in the early Pict's language. This haunting location was the home of the Keiths and Earls Marischal, once one of the most powerful families in Scotland. When Oliver Cromwell's army invaded Scotland in the 1600's, the Earl Marischal, as Marischal of Scotland, was responsible for the Honours of Scotland (the Crown Jewels), and had them hidden from Cromwell at Dunnottar Castle. (Brought there by a woman named Katherine Drummond hidden in bags of wool.)

Less than a century later, another Earl lost his titles participating in the Jacobite rebellion, and the castle declined until its restoration 300 years later.

Romantic, dramatic, and evocative, Scotland's castles aren't just instagrammers' dreams. A visit to a Scottish castle is your own version of time travel and a way to connect to the essence of this fabled culture.

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Is Oktoberfest in your future? In Munich or a festival closer to home, you won't be fully into the spirit of the annual harvest celebration of Gemutlichkeit (fellowship), beer, pretzels and Wurst unless you also deck yourself in traditional Bavarian costume.

The good news is: these days it's easy to rock a dirndl for women, or lederhosen for men... or nowadays, women too!

We get the goods on the traditional and the latest trends in bust-enhancing, leg-revealing wardrobes for everyone.

Watch this video to learn how to 'Get your Tracht on!' as they say, and celebrate Oktoberfest in style.

Prost!

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• All inclusive 5 Star resort located near Punta De Mita, Riviera Nayarit (25miles from Puerto Vallarta Airport)
Your vacation includes:
*Non-stop flights with Air Canada Rouge from Toronto Pearson Airport

March 10 departs Toronto 10:20am arrives Puerto Vallarta 2:39pm
March 17 departs Puerto Vallarta 3:00pm arrives Toronto 9:35pm

*Roundtrip airport transfers to and from hotel
*Luxury accommodations in Standard Oceanview room
*4 A La Carte international restaurants and 1 Main Buffet Restaurant
*8 Bars available serving assorted snacks and local and international drinks
*Kayaking, water aerobics, beach volleyball, ping pong, a fully equipped gym, non-motorized sports and even windsurfing are included in your stay.

Hotel is located next to the Litibu Golf Club, one of the 4 top golf courses in Riviera Nayarit

Cost (New Price 09/18/2017): Adult $1983.00 includes all taxes Child (3-12) $1489.00 includes all taxes. Based on 2 Adults per room. Maximum occupancy 4 ppl in a room.

Deposit of 100.00 per person and names as in passports is due by September 10, 2017 to secure your reservation
Balance due 60 days prior.

CONTACT: Louisa Moretto – 
Email: Louisamoretto@gmail.com Cell: 519-835-8138
Carlson Wagonlit Royal City Travel 
10 Paisley Street, Unit 8
Guelph, Ontario N1H 2N6
519-763-3520
TICO: 02716341

Group pricing is based on a minimum number of travellers or rooms that must be booked to be valid.

Crystal Strikes a Chord with a New Rhine Class of River Cruise Ships

Instead of river cruises, they're calling them river yachts. Crystal has translated its uber-luxury sea experience to the rivers of Europe with a new, 'Rhine' class of river yachts, evoking the great music icons of the region.

Four Crystal Rhine Class river yachts launch in 2017-2018. In creating a new, signature Crystal experience on the waterways of Europe, the company was inspired by some of the classical music heavy-hitters who made some of the most popular cities in its itineraries long-lasting cultural centers of Europe. The Crystal Bach has made her debut, and the Crystal Mahler, Crystal Debussy, and Crystal Ravel follow.

But if the classical music associations make you concerned the experience is too formal for your tastes, think again. The Crystal river yachting experience, night and day, is about comfort and style ('Crystal Casual'), and immersion into the best of the destination.

Here's what excites us about Crystal's Rhine Class ships and European river itineraries:

Ships:

  • Only 110 guests, making the ships feel expansive as well as intimate.
  • The only all-suite, all panoramic French balcony river cruise ships - with king-sized beds and Crystal's renowned personal butler service.

  • Walk-in closets and dual-vanities in bathrooms that defy the feeling of limited space on river cruise ships.
  • Crystal's farm-to-table, Michelin-inspired cuisine in more dining venues than you thought could exist on a river cruise, and open-seating so your day can flow at your own pace.

  • Hydraulic Sun-Deck Bar as well as panoramic interior lounges for enjoying the scenery indoors or out.

  • In-suite USB ports, and customized interactive digital bedside iPad tablet and directory.
  • The luxury is all in, so you don't have to fuss with tips and checks: Unlimited fine wines, spirits and non-alcoholic beverages, 24-hour room service including a restaurant menu, transfers and gratuities for ship and shore.

Shore

  • At least 2 'Crystal Adventures' in every port: included cultural, active or overland excursions, and others for purchase.
  • E-bike excursions to allow nearly everyone to be a little bit active enjoying vineyards and scenic villages on shore.
  • A 'Crystal Signature Event' every itinerary, like a private concert in a palace.
  • Plenty of overnights in port, so you can enjoy the full destination experience including evenings on the town.
  • Even Michelin restaurant dining experiences in ports of call you can book ahead as shore excursions.

If you're already a Crystal cruise lover, expanding your horizons to the Crystal experience on the rivers of Europe is just what you've been waiting for. And the Rhine Class ships and Crystal experience are a marvelous way for new cruisers to discover Crystal on an intimate river itinerary in the heart of Europe.

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Do You Know Your ABCs? Islands, that is.

They're as far south as you can go in the Caribbean Sea. A stone's throw north of Venezuela, the 'ABC' Islands are blessed with a location outside the Caribbean's hurricane zone… and on the radar of travelers in the know.

Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao were part of what was formerly known as the Netherlands Antilles, and they are still part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Colorful Dutch colonial and West Indies heritage, unique climates, landscapes and ecosystems much different from the rest of the Caribbean, and that slightly more remote location, make the ABC Islands a haven for travelers looking for a new kind of island experience.

ARUBA

The closest of the ABC islands to Venezuela, only 15 miles off its coast, Aruba is still only a 2½ hour flight from Miami, and has the most standard 'Caribbean' tourist development.

But instead of the tropical humidity and frequent rain you associate with the Caribbean, Aruba's climate is a dessert-like dream: dry, sunny, and breezy with constant trade winds crossing the flat surface of the island.

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The western and southern coasts are known for their white, sandy beaches, ideal locations for the majority of the island's hotels and resorts. Palm Beach, Eagle Beach, and nearby capital of Oranjestad are home to the island's international restaurants, shopping, casinos, golf and other international travel amenities.

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But make sure to get off Aruba's beaten track. The famous trade winds shape one of the most famous symbols of Aruba: the divi divi tree, bent into fantastical, bonsai shapes.

The arid landscape is also dotted with cactus and aloe vera plants; a tour in Arikok National Park, which covers nearly 1/5th of the island, is a great way to see this unusual Caribbean landscape, as well as caves and archeological remains of original inhabitants, and the dramatic rocky eastern coast of the island.

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Don't miss San/Sint Nicolaas, and up-and-coming 'second city' for all that is young, hip and artistic in Aruba. Public murals painted by artists from around the world, an early fall art festival, and trendy hipster bar and restaurant scene make it worth your while to explore farther afield from the capital.

BONAIRE

The smallest of the ABC Islands, Bonaire is essentially a coral reef pushed out of the sea and surrounded by one of the world's most celebrated coral reef systems. The reefs start from the very shoreline and have made Bonaire a bucket list destination for divers who considered it one of, if not the very best shore diving destinations in the world.

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Bonaire has led the Caribbean in nature conservation and eco-tourism. The entire coastline, from the high-water mark on land to a depth of 200 feet offshore, was designated a marine sanctuary in 1979. It protects the 350 species of fish, 60 species of coral and 4 species of sea turtle in its reefs.

Bonaire's shoreline is dotted with lagoons and inlets that are home to marine birds including one of only four nesting grounds of Caribbean flamingos. Outside of that highly protected area, mangrove forests are popular kayaking and snorkeling destinations for hotel guests and passengers in port from cruise ships.

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Nearby Lac Bay on the windward side of the island is on the map of the world's top wind surfers. With reef protecting the entrance to the bay and consistent trade winds, it's one of the stops of the PWA Windsurfing Freestyle World Cup. In fact, the island's most famous export might be its windsurfers; half of the world's highest-ranked freestyle windsurfers are from Bonaire. So if you have been meaning to take up the sport, this is the place to find both ideal conditions and expert instruction.

In the southern part of the island, Bonaire's unique topography has salt water flowing over low lands, enabling the island to commercially produce salt by evaporating seawater. One of the more unique – and delicious - souvenirs you can find in the Caribbean.

CURACAO

Larger than Aruba or Bonaire, Curacao is also a more commercial center with financial and oil-refining business. It's a popular cruise port and has direct flights from cities on the Eastern seaboard as well as Miami and the Netherlands.

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The capital Willemstad dates from the first half of the 1600's. Its collection of well-preserved Dutch colonial architecture, cotton-candy and lacy versions of design typical of Netherlands in the 17th century, is the best example of the style in the Dutch Caribbean and has earned UNESCO World Heritage status.

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In addition to the marvelous pastel-perfect streetscape, the Dutch built forts in the 1600's to protect themselves in the age of piracy and European marine warfare. Six can still be seen today; preserved historic sites, or transformed into hotels, casinos, and even plazas.

The island also has a thrilling geological feature for avid scuba divers: the 'Blue Edge', where the sea shelf drops sharply off only 200 feet from shore.

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Also famously blue, and possibly more famous than the island itself, is its world-famous namesake liqueur. Curacao is the famously peacock blue liqueur that's also a top souvenir of any trip to the island. It's distilled from the island's Laraha fruit, a bitter orange that is the failed result of very early Spanish settlers' attempts to raise Valencia oranges in the dry, poor soil. Although its fruit is almost inedible, the peel is powerfully aromatic. And that trademark blue? It's always just been added color.

With their extraordinary terrain, climate, heritage and lifestyle, the ABC Islands should be on any traveler's list of top Caribbean destinations.

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If you're looking for a room with a view in Marseille... this is it.

The Hotel Dieu might be the the best piece of real estate in Marseille. Part way up the hill next to the historic harbor, occupying the best vantage point overlooking the iconic view of the old port and the church on the opposite hill, Marseille's Hopital Dieu dates back to the 1700's.

As a hospital, it served the oldest neighborhood in all of France, where sailors, immigrants from around the Mediterranean, nuns and beggars, artists and artisans thronged. The care center of the community finally closed its doors, and the building sat empty for years...

Until a city-wide renaissance of style, design and culture included the transformation of the hospital building into a luxury, design hotel where the historic architecture meets stunning contemporary design, and a view without rival in France's largest port city.

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5 Adventures in Antwerp

Belgium’s unique character and two-language culture makes it a must-see destination in Northern Europe.

But go beyond Brussels. One of Europe's hidden gems is Belgium's second city.

Just up the estuary from the North Sea, Antwerp's historic port became its claim to fame and source of wealth as a trading capital 500 years ago. The port is still the second largest in Europe. The wealth of this great trading city financed great art and artists, the world's oldest stock exchange, and an historic core of richly elaborate Flemish buildings.

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BestTrip.TV's producer/host Lynn Elmhirst shares her favorite things about Antwerp.

History with a Quirk

Distinctive historic Flemish architecture reflects Antwerp's power in its heyday, including the magnificent Town Hall, guild halls, and Notre Dame Cathedral. Check out the altarpieces by iconic local artist Rubens here, and the 400-foot spire that makes the cathedral still the tallest building in town.

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Walking through Antwerp's historic streets, you'll start to notice apparent evidence of exceptional devotion to the Virgin Mary. In addition to Notre Dame cathedral, a surprising number of very ornate Madonna statues stare from the corners of buildings onto the street below.

We were told a number of stories about why street-corner Virgin Mary's abound, and oddly, none were about religious fervor. One person told us of reduced taxation on 'religious' buildings, another that the city provided free street lighting for religious buildings – and in either of those scenarios, a Virgin Mary statue on the building made it qualify.

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Virgin Mary building statues are one of the most characteristic – and quirky – symbols of Antwerp's historic streetscape. Very instagrammable. #MadonnasofAntwerp.

Thrillingly Modern

Time has not stood still in Antwerp. Nowadays, it has the reputation of one of the most interesting, modernist cities in Europe.

Only a five-minute walk from the Cathedral, for example, is the city’s neo-classical festival hall from 1905. Period restoration on the outside, but inside, jaw-dropping luxury 50-store mall where the neo-classical glass dome, gold leaf, mosaics and oak floors are juxtaposed by sexy ultra-modern design. I fell in love with the space age champagne bar at the top of a stemmed glass installation (pictured top. Photo: BestTrip.TV). Like stylish Jetsons.

And if the Jetsons ever had to go to court, the Antwerp Law Courts would be the place. The building's spectacular roofline mimics a series of sails in full wind. Today's nod to Antwerp's shipping and maritime heritage.

Serious Fashion:

Hipness is in very 'fabric' of Antwerp, which has cult status in global fashion. Antwerp is home to one of the most important fashion academies in the world. The city also produced the famous ‘Antwerp Six’ designers who cut a radical new pattern for European design that still thrives in Antwerp today. Fashion is thick on the ground in Antwerp, with distinctive styles that are cool and chic all at the same time. Do any shopping here, and both men and women will have envious friends at home asking, 'Where did you get that?'

And Diamonds:

Antwerp has long been the 'Diamond Capital of the World'. It has a whole district devoted to the precious gems, where even today, up to 80% of the world's diamonds are still polished and processed. Diamond houses line the (very secure) streets. Some are open to visitors, where you can learn about the world's hardest stone and watch the most expert diamond cutters in the world polish raw diamonds into sparkling symbols of love and luxury.

The perfect destination for a one-of-a-kind engagement or romantic getaway with a dazzling souvenir.

And Really Good Taste:

Some people rave about Belgian waffles, but for me, it's Belgian Frites. There are stories of peasants frying potatoes here in the 1600’s and Belgium lays claim to inventing this world-wide fast-food phenomenon – even though they became known as 'French fries'.

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Connoisseurs distinguish between Belgian fries (or frites) and any other ‘fry’: true Belgian frites are thick, irregularly shaped, and DOUBLE fried. And local tradition doubles down on the artery-clogging snack by dipping them in mayonnaise.

Frites are a must-try treat in Antwerp. Indulge in a paper cone while wandering the streets, or find a restaurant serving ‘moules et frites’, that is, steamed mussels and fries – the Belgian version of ‘fish and chips’. No fry at home will ever compare.

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Visit This: Underwater Winery in Croatia

Drinking and diving don't mix, but we've found one exception. At the Edivo Vina winery about an hour north of the Croatian seaside town of Dubrovnik, you need to slip into a wet suit for a cellar tour.

That's because this winery stores and ages their – aptly named – 'Navis Mysterium' or 'Sea Mystery' wine – 20 meters (66 feet) under water.

Sea Mystery wine begins life above ground as other wines do. The regional grapes are harvested, pressed and bottled, then aged for three months on land.

Then it gets interesting. Cork and two layers of rubber seal the bottles which are then enclosed in amphorae – locally made clay vessels like the ones used in ancient Greece with a narrow neck and double handles. To make them water-proof, they are lined with a thin layer of resin, just like the ancient Greeks did. Then the amphorae are submerged underwater in steel cages for two more years of aging. Divers visit the 'cellar' to check on them regularly to ensure they remain sea-proof.

When they emerge from the 'cellar', the amphorae are covered in sea life: shells, barnacles, coral and seaweed. Just like a storybook treasure you might discover on a sunken ship. And not one is exactly like any other.

But the sunken treasure look wasn't the winemakers' motivation for this unique cellar location. They believe the depths of the Adriatic Sea provide ideal cool and consistent temperatures as well as silence that improve the wine's quality.

You don't have to take their word for it, though. If you have diving credentials, you can go on a supervised dive to one of their underwater wine cellars in a sunken boat. On dry land, you – and any non-diving visitor – can enjoy a ceremonial opening of an amphorae-enclosed bottle and this one-of-a-kind wine in a spectacular seaside setting. You can even order them in pine gift boxes.

It took the vintners 3 years to perfect the process and to source entirely local materials. The grapes, clay, wrought iron, pine, glass and cork used in the making of 'Sea Mystery' wine are all products of Croatia – a true taste of the ancient Adriatic.

With a price tag in the hundreds of dollars, a bottle of 'Sea Mystery' wine won't be the least expensive bottle of wine you acquire on a trip to Croatia, but it will definitely give you the best story to tell while you're drinking it with your friends at home.

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App-Happy Kids at Heathrow with New Travel-Themed Mr. Men Characters

Remember the delightful Mr. Men and Little Miss book series for kids? They have two new friends: Little Miss Explorer and Mr. Adventure. And they live in the digital world of Augmented Reality at London's Heathrow Airport Terminal 2 ready to be discovered on your mobile device.

The beloved, essential British children's book series has 90+ characters, a TV show, and a book sold every couple of seconds worldwide. For some reason, I was given the Little Miss Naughty book as a child (I can't imagine why!). More recently, a friend who's also in media gave me a 'Little Miss-Communication' - pun intended - T-shirt. Now I'm eager to discover my inner Little Miss Explorer.

More than 45 years after their creation, the Mr. Men and Little Miss characters have vaulted into the digital age, teaming up with Heathrow airport's 'experience' department to bring smiles and fun times waiting for flights to kids and kids at heart.

Mr. Adventure and Little Miss Explorer are the heroes of a new AR app called Around the World with Mr. Adventure that you can use on any iOS or Android device with a camera. As you (erm.. your kids) explore the airport, you discover hidden digital badges, then the app plays a 3D animated video. You (again, uh, your kids) can take a pic with the digital Mr. Adventure or Little Miss Explorer character or another character from the series.

When you find all 5 digital badges hidden around the terminal, you can trade them in for the real thing; iron-on fabric badges are available from information desks. Wouldn't that be just the best souvenir from the airport for any kid?

Through early September, 2017, costumed Little Miss Explorer and Mr. Adventure will also be roaming the airport, meeting and helping the kids (most likely helping the grown-ups. The kids have got this). The airport also has kids’ activities and workshops planned for the busy summer travel season, along with continuing to offer perks like free play areas and Kids Eat Free menus.

The Around the World With Mr. Adventure app is available as a free download on the App Store and Google Play.

Not traveling through Heathrow this summer? Don't worry, you (again, I really mean: your kids!) can still join in. Print out your own interactive bookmark at home and scan it using the app to see Mr. Adventure in 3D. For more information and to get ready to discover the Around the World with Mr. Adventure app, visit Heathrow.com/aroundtheworld

You can also buy an IRL (that's 'In Real Life' as the kids would say) Mr. Men book: Mr. Adventure to add to your kids' library and travel pack.

A delightful app to enjoy sharing the world of discovery with a new generation of travelers. Also have some nostalgic fun yourself. This beats a lot of other ways to kill time at an airport.

By Lynn Elmhirst, Producer/ Host, BestTrip.TV

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London's New Landmarks

Move over Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey. Unlike other major world cities that push new buildings and modern architecture to the outskirts of town, London isn't afraid to raise eye-catching new developments in the heart of its most iconic neighbourhoods.

Lynn Elmhirst, producer/host of BestTrip.TV, shares the best places to experience where old meets new in London.

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Old London: The Tower of London

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Dating back to the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Tower of London, officially Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London, is a storied castle on the River Thames in central London. It is stereotypically mediaeval-looking, with imposing stone walls and a moat and a history as a jail of famous, even royal prisoners, many of whom literally lost their heads in the Tower yard.

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The Tower has been one of the most popular tourist attractions in London since the 1600's; especially since the monarch's Crown Jewels, guarded by Yeomen, have been on public display since 1669. You can still see them (both the Crown Jewels and the Yeomen) today on a visit to the Tower, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site visited by nearly 3 million people every year. Don't miss the Tower ravens; at least six live there at all times to ward off an ancient superstition that if they are absent, the kingdom will fall. Very Game of Thrones.

New London: The Shard

The name of London's newest landmark tower alludes to a shard of glass it resembles. The glass-clad pyramid-shaped tower is the tallest building in the UK, a 95-storey skyscraper 310 metres (over 1000 feet) tall. Its architect was inspired by the church spires of London in 18th century art and the masts of sailing ships on the Thames, envisioning the Shard as a spire-like sculpture. 11,000 panes of angled glass used as cladding reflect sunlight and the sky above, changing with weather and seasons.

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The Shard opened in 2012 with a viewing gallery and open-air observation deck on the 72nd floor (245 metres/ 800 feet high); 'The Sky Boutique,' on Level 68, with limited edition souvenirs, is the highest shop in London. In 2014, the building was awarded first place in a contest of the world's new skyscrapers. Judges call it 'London's new emblem'.

Old London: Big Ben

Big Ben is actually a nickname for the enormous clock and clock tower at the north end of the Palace of Westminster (Britain's Parliament building). It's a British cultural icon; think of how many times you've seen it as the establishing shot of a film scene to announce: 'here we are in London'. (Top photo Credit)

When it opened over 150 years ago, it was proclaimed the biggest, most accurate timepiece in the world. The clock dials are set in an iron frame 23 feet (7.0 m) in diameter. The hour hand is 9 feet (2.7 m) long and the minute hand is 14 feet (4.3 m) long.

A 2008 survey found Big Ben was the most popular landmark in the UK, and it's one of the world's most famous tourist attractions. But unless you are a UK citizen whose Member of Parliament can arrange it, you can't tour inside the clock tower, even if you're prepared to climb all 344 stairs to the top.

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New London: The London Eye

Instead, take a ride on the nearby London Eye, an even more immense 'face' of the London landscape. Amazingly, this giant, modern Ferris wheel graces the South Bank of the river Thames opposite the Houses of Parliament like it's always been there, even though it opened just before the dawn of the new millennium.

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The wheel is 443 feet (135 m) tall with a diameter of 394 feet (120 m), a circle 20 times bigger than Big Ben's clock face. Unlike the 4-faced clock, the London Eye does not have a tower to support it, only an A-frame on one side, making it 'the world's tallest cantilevered observation wheel'. It's also the second highest public viewing point in London after the Shard.

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32 oval, glass-enclosed capsules carry up to 25 passengers each for a half-hour rotation that offers a magnificent view over London, including Big Ben across the river. The London Eye is officially the most popular paid attraction in the UK; nearly 4 million people ride the gigantic Ferris wheel every year.

Old London: Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge is often confused with the 'London Bridge' that is falling down, falling down, falling down in the children's nursery rhyme. Tower Bridge crosses the river Thames close to the Tower of London, and although it was added to the London landscape relatively recently - in the 19th century - it has become another iconic symbol of historic London. (London Bridge is half a mile upstream, and not nearly as picturesque.)

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Tower Bridge actually has not one, but two, 65 metre (213 foot) towers that are connected near the top by walkways, and two, 1000 ton arms between the towers that lift in a mere 5 minutes to an angle of 86 degrees to allow river traffic to pass. The arms are raised a thousand times a year. Two lanes of vehicle traffic and two pedestrian walkways cross Tower Bridge, but river traffic takes precedence over the crossing road traffic. The bridge arms are raised only just high enough to allow boats to pass unless the Queen is on board, when they must be raised fully in salute to the monarch.

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New London: The Millennial Bridge

The Millennial Bridge is for pedestrians only, engineered to support up to 5000 at a time. It's a steel suspension bridge also across the river Thames that opened in 2000, with the Globe Theatre and the Tate Modern near the southern end, and St. Paul's Cathedral above the other, northern, side.

It was brilliantly designed to align with a clear view (a 'terminating vista') of St. Paul's across the river, framed by the bridge supports. (Photo credit). It is, after all, the Age of Instagram.

The traditional London city skyline and streetscape, with its majestic symbolism and double-decker buses, has been transformed in recent years. New and daring developments now rival centuries-old landmarks, and if you're like me, you'll agree that modern and ancient architecture side by side makes both even more awe-inspiring and dramatic.

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Canada's Top Travel Treasures

Canada celebrates 150 years of Confederation on July 1, 2017. Of the many celebrations, events and legacy builds taking place in Canada this year, one of our favorites is the free admission to Canada's National Parks and historic sites for the entire year.

Parks Canada is inviting Canadians and visitors from around the world to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary at national treasures from coast to coast to coast with free admission to all Parks Canada locations. You can order your pass online or pick up in person at certain locations.

Here is our curated collection of Canada's National Parks and historic sites and nearby experiences that might help inspire you to include the 'true North, strong and free' in your travel plans this year.

L'Anse aux Meadows

In a clever line on the Newfoundland & Labrador Tourism web site, 'even the Vikings came here to get away'.

If you thought Columbus was the first European to reach the Americas, think again. L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site and UNESCO World Heritage Site on the northern tip of the island of Newfoundland contains archeological evidence of a Viking settlement dating back to around the year 1000 – hundreds of years before Columbus and his first 1492 expedition.

Sod and wood buildings were found, with artifacts that showed the residents involved in smithing iron, knitting, weaving, and carpentry for boat building or repair. It's believed dozens of Viking men and women resided here, but harsh conditions made it unsustainable and the site was abandoned.

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While you're in Newfoundland, don't miss…Cape Spear. The rocky cliffs jutting over the North Atlantic waters make Cape Spear feel like the edge of the world – and it nearly is. This is the eastern-most point of North America. Standing on Cape Spear, you are closer to London, England than you are to Vancouver on the other side of the continent!

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Old Town Lunenburg, Nova Scotia

From the harbor, the almost cartoon-bright painted houses look like an artist's interpretation of an historic town. But it's real. The town is both National Historic Site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's considered the best surviving British colonial town on the continent, with its 18th century planned, gridiron streets, unique shops, restaurants in preserved buildings leading away from the harbor that was the focal point of rich a fishing and shipbuilding economy.

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You can still see majestic and romantic tall ships moored on the town's waterfront, and hear the stories. Especially about the fabled Bluenose. This is the homeport of the Bluenose II, the replica of the original local fishing boat that was undefeated in 18 years as a racing schooner.

While you're in Nova Scotia, don't miss: The Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo. It's a week-long event held every summer in Halifax celebrating Nova Scotia's Scottish and military traditions. It began to mark the visit of the Queen Mother to Nova Scotia for the first International Gathering of the Clans with bagpipes, highland dancers and military traditions. Hundreds of Canadian and international military and civilian performers makes it the world's largest annual indoor show; granted Royal status by the Queen.

Bay of Fundy National Park

The Bay of Fundy is the site of a record-breaking marine phenomenon, part of the UNESCO Fundy Biosphere Reserve, and a Dark-Sky Reserve. The tides in the Bay of Fundy are the highest in the world – as high as a 5-storey building! Local Mi'kmaq folklore attributed the dramatic tides to a giant whale splashing; it's actually a result of the bay's particular shape. The twice-daily tides see a flow of 115 billion tonnes of water flowing in and out of the bay.

You'll also want to experience local dinosaur fossil finds exposed by the extreme tides, hiking, sea kayaking, tidal rafting, and whale watching, including the rare right whale.

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While you're in New Brunswick, don't miss…Confederation Bridge, part of the Trans Canada highway, connecting mainland New Brunswick to Prince Edward Island since 1997. You'll be driving 13 km across the largest bridge in the world that crosses ice- covered waters.

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Prince Edward Island National Park and Green Gables

Canada's smallest province has one of its most beloved sites. 60 km (37 miles) of Prince Edward Island's signature red rock and sand shoreline. Seven swimming beaches, hiking and cycling trails, and camping grounds join protected white sand dunes, freshwater wetlands, salt marshes, and nesting areas for endangered coastal wildlife.

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While you're there, don't miss... Green Gables, the house that was the childhood inspiration for the internationally beloved Anne of Green Gables stories by local author Lucy Maud Montgomery.

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Quebec City

Many people say walking through Old Quebec is like a visit to Europe without the jet lag. The only walled city in North America and the oldest city north of Mexico, the historic district of Quebec City, dating from 1608, is a National Historic Site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, first city in North America to receive designation.

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Although the magnificent hotel Chateau Frontenac dominates the skyline, perched in Upper Town's 100 meter high cliffs overlooking the St. Lawrence, it is a mere hundred or so years old compared with Upper and Lower Towns' 17th century walls, fortifications, Citadel, winding cobbled streets with shops, restaurants, Plains of Abraham.

While you're in Quebec City, don't miss… The Winter Carnival, one of the biggest in the world, and all the more dramatic in snow covered historic streets. There are masquerade balls in the grand ballroom of the Chateau Frontenac, an Ice Palace, snow sculpture parks, a bikini snow bath, day and night parades led by 'Bonhomme' de Neige ('snowman') the ambassador and mascot of the festivities with his red cap and early voyageur knit belt. And plenty of French joie de vivre.

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Rideau Canal, Ontario

This feat of incredible engineering in the early 1800's began with military intent, but nowadays has become a top recreational boating destination. Following the war of 1812 with the United States, British military engineers came up with plans to forge a vital water route for over 200 km (126 miles) from Kingston on Lake Ontario north to Ottawa. Workers labored to carve the waterway through dense wilderness and solid rock of the Canadian Shield. They also built 45 locks to take vessels up and down elevations in the terrain along the way through rivers, lakes and man-made canal.

The Rideau Canal is a glorious boat trip through pastoral plains, cottage communities and remote, sheer rock cliffs all the way to downtown Ottawa and past Canada's majestic Parliament Buildings.

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Don't miss… Boating the length of the canal in the summer months, taking a canoe tour of the Ottawa portion of the canal, or skating on it in the winter. In downtown Ottawa, in the shadow of historic hotel Chateau Laurier and Canada's Parliament buildings, 8 km of the canal becomes the world's longest skating rink every winter.

Wapusk National Park

It's over a 2 hour flight or two days by train from Winnipeg to Churchill, Manitoba, the gateway to Wapusk. For anyone who makes the trip in mid winter, it's worth it to reach one of the last places in the world to see tiny polar bear cubs getting their start in the world.

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Wapusk means 'White Bear', and this part of Canada is known the world over as the polar bear capital. Nearly three million acres of the park are the seasonal home of a thousand polar bears returning from summer roaming through the tundra back to new Arctic ice, joined by moose, wolves, foxes, and herd of thousands of caribou. Polar bears are gorgeous but dangerous; access to the park is only through licensed operators of guided trips to this famous refuge.

While you're in Manitoba, don't miss…Winnipeg's Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Opening in 2014 to national and international attention, the museum is architecturally compelling, with geometry and colors based on images of the Canadian landscape. It's also intellectually challenging, highlighting personal stories and stimulating debate about how to define its subject matter.

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Wood Buffalo National Park

The largest of Canada's National Park straddles both Alberta and the Northwest Territories for nearly 45,000 acres – it's bigger than Switzerland! It needs to be that large – it provides enough territory in its muskeg and tundra for the long term preservation of the world's largest herd of free roaming Bison.

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The park is also a UNESCO world heritage site and the world's largest Dark-Sky Preserve. And in spite of its remote location, the park can be reached and visited by car.

Banff National Park – Alberta

Canada's first National Park dates back to 1885, and scenes of the turquoise waters of Lake Louise surrounded by a distinctly Canadian alpine landscape have been famously depicted on postcards sent around the world ever since. Snow topped mountains, glaciers and icefields, the western resort town of Banff, endless all-season outdoor activities and the hot springs that started in all keep visitors coming back to this park in the Rocky Mountains year round. The breathtaking Icefields Parkway connects Lake Louise to Jasper National Park further north.

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While you're in Banff, don't miss… a cocktail at the Banff Springs Hotel in the lounge with picture windows over Lake Louise. The view really does make a perfect custom cocktail taste even better!

Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site

Spearheaded by the Haida Nation to stop destructive logging on their historic lands, Gwaii Haanas now protects an archipelago of 138 (formerly Queen Charlotte) islands off the coast of British Columbia. It totals 5000 square km of land and sea – one of the only places in the world protected from the depths of the ocean in deep fjords to rugged mountain tops. 90% of the land is forest, with mountains draining into dozens of freshwater lakes and salmon-spawning streams. The seas are a 'primary feeding habitat' of humpback whales; Gwaii Haanas is remote and only accessible by boat, sea kayak, or floatplane.

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While you're in British Columbia, don't miss… Victoria Harbour, one of the most picturesque harbors in the country. Originally used by First Nations, the harbor now bustles with recreational vessels and small cruise ships, mooring in the center of this scenic heritage city famous for its continuing British tone. Historic buildings frame the lively waterfront and line the walkable streets. The harbor is the epicenter of thriving eco-tourism and whale watching tour activities.

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Canada's Northwest Passage: An Epic Arctic Journey with Adventure Canada

Following a route less traveled in the footsteps of intrepid explorers and today's First Nations in one of the last frontiers: the Arctic.

Story and Photographs by travel and sailing journalist Elizabeth Kerr

Knowing that I was setting out on the same route that Franklin took in 1845 somewhat intimidated me. After all, he didn’t make it home. However, once aboard Adventure Canada’s Ocean Endeavor expedition ship surrounded by 110 like-minded adventurers, 30 experts in every field and a crew that went above and beyond, intimidation quickly transformed into exhilaration.

Needless to say, Franklin did not have access to advanced navigational equipment, cool linens, hot showers, three delicious meals and a variety of entertaining and educational distractions to battle the cold, the boredom, the frustration, the mutiny and his inevitable doom. But I did.

Ocean Endeavour anchored outside Ilulissat.

Finding Our Arctic Footing in Greenland

Franklin started in England. Our adventure started in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, where, en route to our ship, I saw my first musk ox!

Although cold and somewhat damp throughout our walk on our first stop, Sisimuit, the sight of Arctic huskies – chained to rocks – and this town of 6,000 quickly reminded me how far I was away from my reality. Striped and polka-dotted dog sleds leaned against porches and dilapidated shacks waiting for passengers.

Ilulissat offered a completely different perspective. Its wooden boardwalk – built to protect the wetlands – provided spectacular views at every turn – and led us to the Icefjord, now a UNESCO World Heritage site and the fastest moving glacier in the world.

This is a view from the boardwalk that takes us to the Ilulissat Icefjord

On an afternoon jaunt, I just happened to turn my head at the right time to cathch this humpback whale entertaining the town of Ilulissat.

Although the trip so far was awe-inspiring, it was Karrat Fjord that welcomed me into its embrace. I felt at peace here and could have happily lingered all day looking out to sea for humpbacked whales or inland to the garden of icebergs that reminded me of a gallery Lauren Harris paintings.

Karrat Fjord reminded me of visiting a live Lauren Harris gallery.

Sightings of Arctic hares at both Kap York and Etah pleased John Houston, a member of the expedition crew, but my takeaway that day was the memory of our singer/songwriter/zodiac driver Kevin Closs singing a sea chanty to distract us from the bitterly cold wind and waves.

It’s been quite a while since we had seen the sun but it certainly boasted it glow on this iceberg somewhere near Etah.

Here we are in Foulks Fjord, lead by John Houston, determined to spot an Arctic hare.

We depart Greenland with its Craylola-coloured houses and majestic icebergs to cross Baffin Bay and head back to Canada.

Following in Franklin’s Footsteps 70 Degrees North

It’s Day 8. We are halfway through the Northwest Passage; there are still lessons to learn and stories to tell. Bad weather prevented a visit to Aujuittuq – Canada’s northernmost civilian community – so we ventured on with a revised itinerary thanks to Denise Landeau, our tireless expedition leader. And so it goes in the Arctic. Expect the best, prepare for the worst. It is an expedition after all.

Over the next few days, I learned more about Canada’s north than any high school history class could offer.

Dundas Harbour, on the south coast of Devon Island, housed one of four abandoned RCMP detachments. For three years, RCMP officers lived with no radio contact and a yearly delivery of provisions. Today, the dilapitated building remains standing along with three graves.

Beechey Island was living proof of Franklin’s demise. The four graves there brought an uncommon silence among us that was thankfully broken by the voice of Ken McGoogan regaling his story of the Northwest Passage.

I can’t begin to describe the emotional wave that comes over you as you stand quietly at the foot of these three graves of Franklin’s crew (Petty Officer John Torrington, Royal Marine Private William Braine, and Able Seaman John Hartnell) on Beechey Island.

After a rather sombre walk through snowflakes and a bitter breeze, we reloaded ourselves into the Zodiacs, ready to go home. Ree Brennin-Houston had other ideas. Heading away from the ship (where warmth, a cup of hot tea and biscuits were waiting), many of us found ourselves surrounded by a flote of beluga whales, disguised so well as to be confused with the low-lying icebergs around them. At one point, we counted 13.

It was hard to tell the difference between the icebergs and the belugas.

Fort Ross was home to the last Hudson’s Bay Trading Post built in the Arctic. After 11 years, it was closed due to ice restricting travel and trade. The main building still stands and is sometimes used as base camp for research scientists and some very brave sailors.

Oh Where, Oh Where are the Polar Bears

It felt important to cross off my Arctic’s Big Five (polar bear, humpback whale, Arctic hare, muskox and beluga) and compare it to my Africa’s Big Five (which I accomplished in 2009). There were high expectations of seeing a polar bear, but they were few and far between, however in the end, we did spot 12, mostly from afar. Check!

This trip also offered sightings of several other mammals including minke whales, harbor seals and a single lemming. Bird-lovers on board spotted nearly 40 species from Arctic terns to Thayer’s gulls. Check, check!

Fort Ross was home to the last Hudson’s Bay Trading Post built in the Arctic.

A Gem from our Past. Hope for the Future.

Every day, geologists, zoologists, naturalists, historians, photographers, documentarians, authors, biologists, and scientists would teach us with immeasurable passion about the region we were so very blessed to explore.

A leader and political activist, a culturalist, an educator, a musician, and two archaeological mentees, all from Nunavit were also present to share their stories and teach us more about the way of life as it is today at 70 degrees north of the equator. Their stories came to life during day visits to Uqsuqtuuq (Gjøa Haven) and Cambridge Bay.

Our visits to Gjoa Haven and Cambridge Bay were history lessons in themselves. It is truly hard to imagine how people can live, let alone thrive, in these desolate places so far from the many services we take for granted on a daily basis.

Our 17-day itinerary with Adventure Canada was designed to maximize our Arctic experience, jam-packed with knowledge-sharing, story-telling and entertainment. This journey is not for the faint of heart, however for anyone who cares to dare, it will expand your horizons, warm your heart and leave a lasting impact on Nunavit and on you.

Qakuguttauq (See you again soon!)

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How the Whole Family can Savor a Disney Vacation: At its Food & Wine Fest

Sometimes grownups need to trade spinning teacups for grownup culinary experiences. How do celebrity chefs, winemaker dinners, beer tasting seminars and irresistible cuisine sound?

All photos: Disney California Adventure

If you think you might want to balance kids' Goofy with your inner foodie, one of the best times of year to visit Disney might be during its Food & Wine Festival, when you can enjoy the park and culinary experiences for kids and adults alike.

The Disney California Adventure Food & Wine Festival jump-starts spring with hundreds of gastronomic adventures and delicious flavors from across the Golden State. It runs this year from March 10th til April 16th (the Florida park has a similar festival later in the year.)

Highlights for the whole, multi-generational family trip include more than a dozen marketplaces open every day, an entire menu of daily culinary demonstrations and tastings, plus beer, wine and spirits seminars, music everywhere, delicious food, and fun crafts created especially for younger guests.

Celebrity chefs scheduled to appear during the Festival include Guy Fieri, Robert Irvine, Cat Cora, Duff Goldman, Emily Ellyn and Keegan Gerhard.

Children ages 3 to 11 may join in the fun with the popular complimentary Junior Chef experience (led by Chef Goofy, and available on a first-come, first-seated basis), and the Jammin’ Chefs, who serve up tasty rhythms with pots and pans that really get cooking with the help of sous chefs Chip ‘n Dale.

Many of the Festival events are included with admission to Disney California Adventure. Guests who want to add the Signature Events may purchase separate tickets at an additional fee for:

  • “In the Kitchen with …” on Saturdays from 6-7 pm: Each Celebrity Chef will lead a 60-minute culinary demonstration and Q&A followed by an autograph session. The experience includes a tasting of some of the prepared dishes.
  • Sweet Sundays on select Sundays from 10:30- noon: A 90-minute culinary demonstration focuses on the sweet side of the culinary arts. Following a light breakfast and a sparkling toast, the Guest Chef for that day will demonstrate up to three recipes. Guests will enjoy samples from the chefs.
  • Winemaker Dinners and Brewmaster Dinners on Thursdays from 6:30 to 9 pm: A four-course dinner features wines and winemakers or beers and brewmasters. Wine or beer selections will be paired with courses created by the Disney Executive Chef Team and each winemaker or brewmaster will speak on the libation and the pairing.

Additional ticketed programs include:

  • Culinary Demonstrations (presented daily throughout the Festival) – Guests will enjoy 30-minute culinary demonstrations presented by local, visiting and Disney chefs. Each demo will focus on a single recipe, ingredient or cooking style. Guests will receive a tasting sample of the dish prepared.
  • Wine, Beer or Spirits Education and Tasting Seminars (presented daily throughout the Festival) – Beverage seminars presented by industry experts will enlighten guests who want to learn more about their favorite spirits. Each 30- to 45-minute seminar will focus on a specific beverage type, region or label, and guests will enjoy tasting samples of some of the beverages discussed.

We think the food festival might be the best way to create delectable memories for the whole family on a Disney vacation.

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See Stars in Utah during Dark Sky Week at the World's First International Dark Sky Park

We often think of our travels as an 'escape' - have you thought of them as an escape from ... light? Or do you simply love gazing up into the mysteries of the universe, in a clear, clear night sky, unpolluted by man-made lighting?  Utah is one of the best places for avid stargazers to celebrate International Dark Sky Week 2017, April 22-28th.

The state is home to seven of the world’s 42 International Dark Sky Parks as well as Natural Bridges National Monument, the world’s first International Dark Sky Park, as certified by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) . A Dark Sky Park is an area defined by the IDA where the night sky can be viewed clearly without any "light pollution.”

Southern Utah offers remote areas where 15,000 or more stars are visible in the night-sky (astronomers believe people who live in urban areas can see fewer than 500 stars). During International Dark Sky Week 2017 and throughout the year, visitors to these Utah Dark Sky Parks offer outstanding quality night skies:

  • Canyonlands National Park is known for its dramatic desert landscape carved by the Colorado River.During the spring and fall, Park rangers offer programming on a rotating basis with other Parks with the ultimate goal being to introduce visitors to the wonders of the night sky. Stargazing and telescope viewing follow ranger programming
  • Dead Horse Point State Park: This Park has partnered with Canyonlands National Park to host dark-skies programming. This state park overlooks the Colorado River and Canyonlands National Park, covering 5,362 acres of high desert at an altitude of 5,900 feet. Even if you've never been, you've probably seen it already; it was used in the iconic final ‘Grand Canyon’ scene of the film Thelma & Louise
  • Capitol Reef National Park: This Park has some of the best night sky viewing opportunities of the western national parks. The park is famous for its layers of golden sandstone, canyons and striking rock formations, including Chimney Rock pillar, the Hickman Bridge arch, and Capitol Reef white sandstone domes, and the towering monoliths of Cathedral Valley. Past summer stargazing programs have included Night Sky Tours by visiting astronomers
  • Goblin Valley State Park: In addition to its claim to fame (and name), its thousands of hoodoos and hoodoo rocks, referred to locally as "goblins", which are formations of mushroom-shaped rock pinnacles, some as high as several meters, the National Park Service’s Night Sky Team determined this park to have some of the darkest night skies on Earth.     Here you'll find unparalleled views of the Milky Way. Visitors can experience a variety of ranger-led monthly moonlit hikes and telescope tours
  • Hovenweep National Monument: Until recently best-known for the six groups of ancestral Puebloan villages, there is evidence of occupation from 8,000 to 6,000 B.C. The Monument’s night sky remains about as dark as it was 800 years ago due to its geographic isolation. The Monument’s Rangers offer visitors stargazing programs throughout spring and summer so you can literally see the stars like North America's first peoples did.
  • Natural Bridges National Monument: Named for its primary feature, the thirteenth largest natural bridge in the world, carved from the white sandstone, the park was designated the world's first dark-sky park in 2006. Here you can gaze at the very same stars the ancestral Pueblo people observed 800 years ago.  Park rangers will offer astronomy programs beginning May 2017
  • Weber County North Fork Park: Unlike the majority of International Dark Sky Parks, North Fork Park sets itself apart from the others because of its adjacency to urban areas and its innovative public art incorporating dark skies themes.

The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) is a United States-based non-profit organization incorporated in 1988 by founders David Crawford, a professional astronomer, and Tim Hunter, a physician/amateur astronomer. The mission of the IDA is "to preserve and protect the night time environment and our heritage of dark skies through quality outdoor lighting". To promote awareness about the issues about the disappearing darkness in the world and its effect on human and wildlife wellness, the IDA has an International Dark Sky Places program that aims "to protect locations of exceptional nighttime visages for future generations".  Since 2006, it has been designating International Dark-Sky Parks, International Dark-Sky Reserves, and even International Dark-Sky Communities for star gazers and our global natural heritage.

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Hanami Tips: View Cherry Blossoms Like the Japanese

Springtime cherry blossom viewing has become one of the best-known Japanese festivals around the world.

BestTrip.TV's Producer and Host Lynn Elmhirst shares her experience of 'Hanami', and some tips if you are lucky enough to travel to Japan during those magical few weeks every spring.

I'm a tree hugger.  I love nature, woods walks, gardens and flower shows, making fresh bouquets for my home… I've even studied Japanese flower arranging (ikebana). So imagine how excited I was to be in Japan during the season when their famous cherry blossoms are in bloom.  And to be invited to join a 'Hanami' party. (Top image credit).

'Hana' means flower in Japanese, and in this context, means almost exclusively cherry blossoms (sakura), although it can also mean other flowering fruit trees, especially plum (ume). 'Mi' is from the verb to see or view.

So Hanami is just a simple Japanese word 'Flower blossom viewing', but it has become one of the most revered Japanese traditions.

Hanami as a custom is believed to go back over a thousand years, even as far back as the 700's, during a time of tremendous cultural growth in Japan.

At that time, the practice was more closely related to agricultural and divining purposes, to announce the rice-planting season and predict the harvest.  Naturally, offerings were made to the spirits in the fruit trees.  This eventually evolved into including sake drinking in the offering.

Well you know where it went from there.  Parties.

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Once an Emperor in the Heian period started holding flower-viewing parties with sake and feasting beneath the blossoming trees, he set the scene for centuries to come.  Poetry was written about the lacy, delicate flowers, seen as a symbol of the short-lived beauty of life itself.  Masses of plantings in full bloom appear from a distance like fluffy pale pink clouds, inspiring generations of artists. Paintings, wood block prints, and tapestries celebrated the barely-pink blossoms and their increasing meaning to Japanese society.  Where royalty and artists set a trend, the rest of society follows.  Soon, even common people were planting cherry trees and taking picnic meals and drinking sake under the boughs of blossoming cherry trees.

Fast-forward to today, and that custom remains.  I had some vague notion in my head that we'd stroll in awe under bowers of blossoms in the castle grounds, perhaps ending the uplifting Nature experience with some tea.

Instead, one member of our group went out at 6 am that morning with plastic picnic sheeting to lay out and stake a claim to a prime picnic spot under a particularly beautiful tree with a broader view over the park. By the time we joined him late afternoon, other parties had clearly been going on for hours.  And the sake, beer, and shochu (sometimes called 'Japanese vodka') had been flowing. 

The blossoms were breathtaking, but they didn't seem to be the star of the show.  Cherry blossoms were just the set. It was all about the party.  Barbecues, drinks, portable karaoke machines created a raucous scene – in an admittedly pretty magical atmosphere.  In many places, hanami viewing starts after work – is even a work /colleague event – and continues late into the night. Some parks hang paper lanterns to light the trees. 

Night Hanami. Image credit

The contrast between the charm of the blossoms and trees and twinkling lights and the noisy parties below is shocking to a first timer like me.   I found myself trying to block out the noise to find a sense of the wonder and spirituality of the earliest Hanami participants.

And for all the seeming irreverence, the Japanese take viewing very seriously.  People past the age of enjoying raucous parties still do hanami, often more in temples, where they follow prayer rituals.  TV news and papers forecast the 'cherry blossom front', following the season from the warmer south to the cooler north, only a couple of weeks in each place, and only a few days of truly prime viewing.   In the big cities of Osaka and Tokyo and the ancient capital Kyoto, cherry blossom season normally takes place at the end of March and early April.

A blossom forecast with the predicted dates of blossoms. The numbers are for dates (3.22 is March 22). Note the "cherry blossom front" moves from South to North. Image credit.

If you are traveling to Japan on pleasure or business any time near cherry blossom season, find a way to participate in a party.  If you do 'hanami', there are some etiquette rules to follow:

Tips for Hanami in Japan:

  • Be respectful of the mass of blossom admirers and the cherry trees themselves; don't shake branches, step on roots, or pick blossoms.
  • Many blossom parties and venues can be rowdy, but not always. If most admirers are in prayer or quiet contemplation, a loud foreigner can wreck that experience for them AND the reputation of foreigners in Japan. Don't be that guy.
  • Although parties with sake, beer, shochu (sometimes called 'Japanese vodka') are part of the modern ritual, be warned that not all parks permit alcohol; hopefully, you're going with Japanese friends, a guide, or colleagues, and they'll know if you can toast the blossoms with spirits.
  • Similarly, not all parks permit barbecues, so your packed Hanami picnic may have to be cold and pre-prepared.
  • Some parks don't have garbage collection capacity for the huge flow of Hanami traffic; be prepared to dispose of your garbage in your own bags.

The Japanese National Tourism Organization publishes a list of the best places to view cherry blossoms. You can find it here:  http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/interests/cherry.html

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Video: Man vs. Jetstream and other things you didn't know about St. Maarten

From the outrageous antics on Maho Beach at the end of the airport runway, to the hidden gems (literally!) of the island, this BestTrip.TV travel video shares our favorite - and most unique - things about the island.

So is it St. Maarten or St. Martin?  If you don't know why both of those names are correct, you need to watch this video!

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What European River Cruise is the Most Romantic?

It's the time of year when we celebrate love - and love of travel. We've hand-picked our favorite travel experiences for treats, pampering, romance, the good life, and celebrating traveling with everyone in our lives we love.

Beginning with... the most Romantic river cruise in Europe: Castles and wine and lovers' legends, oh my!

Lynn Elmhirst, producer/ host and cruise expert of BestTrip.TV, explains how 'The Romantic Rhine' weaves a perfect romance of Northern European culture for river cruise travelers to watch, listen, and taste.

Castles to Watch

Image: BestTrip.TV

40 castles in 40 miles. There's a castle or fortress, those ultimate symbols of the Middle Ages celebrated in fantasy literature, nearly every mile. That stretch of river known as the Middle Rhine has a higher density of castles than any other river valley in the world. Since the 19th century, it's been known as 'The Romantic Rhine' and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For two millennia, the Rhine was one of the most important routes connecting Southern with Northern Europe. Castles for security and to control the river commerce were built on hilltops facing the river, and now, a river cruise is really the best and most authentic way to immerse yourself in the Romance of some of the best historic scenery in Europe.

Image: BestTrip.TV

Travel Tip: during the ship's passage along this stretch, make sure you find yourself a central position so you don't miss the castles on both sides of the banks.

Wine to Taste

Then you add wine. The gorges rising on either side of the Middle Rhine are lined by some of the steepest vineyards in the world. Over a thousand acres of vineyards thrive in a microclimate shaped by the river's topography (in fact, most of the wine regions of Europe line its rivers). In other wine regions and wineries, hand-picking grapes is preserved for only elite wines. On the nose-bleed-steep banks of the Middle Rhine, handpicking is the usual – and only practical - practice. And yet the famous white wines – predominantly Rieslings, both dry and sweeter versions - of the Middle Rhine are still very affordable. Tastings are one of the best activities in the picturesque towns that line the narrow river banks.

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Travel Tip: buy your favorite to take back to your river cruise ship to fully immerse yourself in the joys of the Rhine as you sip on the top deck as you sail past the scenery.

A 'Murmuring Rock' to Listen to


A 433-foot, steep slate rock formation on the very edge of the river bank of the Rhine Gorge has been the source of legend for centuries. The Lorelai's name is ancient, coming from the old German word 'lureln' for 'murmuring', and the Celtic word 'ley' meaning 'rock. The combination of heavy currents swirling round the bend, a small waterfall (up until the early 19th century) and an echo effect of the rock itself amplifying those sounds made Lorelai an actual auditory experience (til development nearby in modern times drowned it out.) No wonder the myths began: dwarfs living inside the rock, a murmuring siren luring sailors onto rocks… But the story that stuck came from a poem telling the tragic lover's tale of the beautiful Lorelai being taken away to a nunnery, and, thinking she sees her lover in the Rhine below, throws herself into river to her death, where to this day, the looming rock murmurs an echo of her calls.

Travel Tip: pay homage to the Rhine's 'murmuring rock' by downloading the compositions by Schumann, Mendelssohn or Strauss that immortalize Lorelai in music to listen to on your magnificent Romantic Rhine river cruise.

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Did you know there are more bicycles than people in Amsterdam? 

It's one of the original and influential cycling cultures that helped set the trend towards urban cycling and our love for touring new destinations by bike.

The Dutch bicycle - the original workhorse urban bike for entire families - sets the bar in style, function and cool factor.  BestTrip.TV discovers cycling culture in legendary Amsterdam, and meets the maker of custom Dutch bikes.

If there's anything better than cycling through the streets of one of the world's favorite cities, it's a souvenir custom bike that will be the envy of all your cycling friends at home.

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Top Caribbean Beaches for a Winter Escape

Maybe you thought you could tough this winter out in the cold. Or maybe you've been planning a break in the sun all along. Well, if you haven't booked a winter escape to the warm embrace of the Caribbean yet, here are our favorite, more under-the-radar beaches to inspire you to try a new island, a new beach in this year's travel plans:

1. Crane Beach, Barbados

Crane Beach was originally a harbor, is considered one of the most beautiful in the world with its dramatic cliffs and surrounding vegetation. If you think 'Crane' beach is just for birdwatchers, you're wrong: it refers to the large crane that once sat on the top of the cliff loading and unloading ships. The waves in this area make the Crane beach a great spot for body surfing.

2. Trunk Bay, St. John, US Virgin Islands

This white sand beach has been a showpiece of the US National Park Service since it was donated by a Rockefeller family member to the Virgin Islands National Park. A one-of-a-kind, 650-foot underwater snorkeling trail provides terrific viewing of colorful fish and corals, including the rare, indigo-blue tunicates – in less than 20′ of water, perfect for every member of the family.

3. Eagle Beach, Aruba

Aruba is as far south as you can go in the Caribbean before you hit South America, and its uniquely dry, sunny, almost dessert-like environment, so different from elsewhere in the Caribbean, is worth a few more minutes in the air. Wide and white, Eagle Beach is home to two of the most photographed and renowned divi divi trees in Aruba (pictured), with their trademark silhouette shaped by the constant, refreshing trade winds. Low rise resorts line the beach, which is also a famous turtle nesting and hatching site.

4. Mosquito Bioluminscent Bay, Puerto Rico

This might be the only beach in the Caribbean best seen at night! Tiny micro-organisms, up to 160,000 of them in every liter of water - give off a supernatural, blue-white glow year round. It's the most luminous bioluminescent display in the world - and makes this the beach experience on Puerto Rico's Vieques island unforgettable!

5. Horseshoe Bay, Bermuda

This is the most famous beach in Bermuda, and one of the top-rated in the world. A very popular tourist spot, it lies on the main island's south (Atlantic) coast, shaped in, you guessed it, a horseshoe. Fringed by limestone rocks, the pink sand and turquoise water are mirrored by the British Caribbean island's pastel architecture.

This year, don't let your winter escape be the 'same old, same old' island experience. Discover a new favorite beach in the Caribbean.

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High-Flying Winter Luxury at Whistler Blackcomb

Canada's Whistler Blackcomb ski resort in British Columbia has been rated top in North America for the third year in a row.  The mountain and lifestyle are already legendary for skiers and riders, but Four Seasons Resort and Residences Whistler is upping the ante this winter with high-flying luxury helicopter mountain adventures that will give you epic memories and stories to share.

Winter "Glamping":

A custom snow hotel experience: A helicopter takes you to the a remote ice cap to explore ice caves before arriving at your own private enclave, for a stay in a luxury "snow hotel." The encampment is custom designed and built with comfort in mind, complete with pre-warmed down duvets, gourmet meals and a hot tub in a remote wilderness setting. This experience incorporates an array of bespoke Four Seasons services, including a natural thermal spa experience with a Four Seasons spa professional and culinary offerings prepared by Four Seasons' chefs.

Wilderness Wellness Hot Springs Experience:

Your journey includes a helicopter ride over a remote ice cap before arriving at a remote natural hot spring, where you are greeted by a master yoga instructor and a Four Seasons spa therapist to enjoy a private yoga session, followed by an aqua massage treatment. The experience includes thermal pool-side cuisine and cocktails prepared by a Four Seasons Chef de Cuisine.

Ice Cap Adventure and Exploration: 

Transportation begins via helicopter over expansive ice fields, after which guests will explore the vast ice caves with a private guide through natural, aqua blue ice sculptures, ice flows and gentle slides transporting you from one cave to the next. The adventure ends with a Four Seasons gourmet mountain-style lunch.

High Altitude Dining:

A private helicopter whisks you to a remote ice cap as you sip on a glass of sparkling Moët Ice Impérial. You're wearing a Canada Goose black label parka and sleek, waterproof Sorel boots, yours to keep, ensuring maximum comfort and warmth for this excursion and years to come.

When you arrive at a glacial peak, you embark on an ice cave exploration, discovering a spectacular 12,000-year old labyrinth of chambers of aqua blue magnificence, where you gather a crucial ingredient for the upcoming cocktail session - pure glacier ice. The resort's Mixologist will shake the ice into one of their signature specialties amid the majestic beauty of Whistler's mountain peaks. 

Once cocktail hour is complete, you re-board the helicopter and take in the alpine scenery before returning to a luxurious Private Residence  featuring panoramic views where the Executive Chef prepares a memorable dinner boasting locally sourced ingredients and premium meat cuts paired with custom cocktails that complement each dish. 

It may be hard to choose which of these one-of-a-kind exploration, culinary and wellness backcountry experiences – all with the brand's renowned style and finesse – will make this winter your best season yet.

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Eataly's $106 Million Italian Culinary Destination in Bologna

They don't want you to call it a 'theme park'. But if you're one of the foodies around the world who love the wildly popular, celebrity-chef Mario Batali-backed Eataly, the field-to-fork destination that opens this fall in Italy is the culinary 'theme park' of your dreams.

Batali has described the Eataly phenomenon as a premium Italian grocery store 'with tasting rooms'. You shop, you eat, you love; authentic, from-the-source Italian food and food products.  When it launched in New York City, there were lineups around the block, and it's still packed.  There are dozens of other Eataly outlets worldwide, including a dining venue on the MSC Divina at sea.

FICO Eataly World outside Italy's culinary capital of Bologna will be a whole new level of interactive culinary experience. FICO stands for Fabbrica Italiana Contadina - Italian Farming Factory. It's the culmination of Eataly's food 2.0 vision; a game changer for Eataly and global food culture. 

The 20-acre complex is a hub connecting an expected six million annual visitors to Italian agriculture and gastronomy: food production, education, dining, tastings, and retail, all in one eco-responsible space powered by 44,000 solar panels, said to be the largest solar property in Europe.

The numbers show the awesome scale and scope of  FICO Eataly World:

EARTH AND FARMS

  • 2.5 acres of fields, stables, pastures, gardens and farms, where all of Italy’s best-known crops will be cultivated and prime livestock breeds raised.

PRODUCERS

  • 40 areas of fresh production with raw ingredients managed by the best Italian companies
  • 2000 Italian companies will participate in the project, sharing their crafts, innovations and passion for the food they produce.

MARKET:

  • 97,000 square feet of retail marketplace selling iconic 'Made in Italy' seasonal food products

RESTAURANTS: a paradise for gourmands looking discover the best of Italian gastronomic biodiversity.

  • 25 restaurants, including themed restaurants and street food stalls including:
    • Meat
    • Cured meat and cheese restaurant
    • Pasta
    • Vegetable restaurant
    • Winery
    • Fish
    • Regional restaurant
    • Piadina bistro
    • Smoothie street food stall
    • Potato street food stall
    • Prosciutteria
    • Pastries
    • And more…

EDUCATION

  • 1,000 courses for adults per year
  • 40 workshops, where visitors can learn Italian culinary skills like pasta and cheese production first-hand.
  • 5,000 educational activities for schools
  • 500 internships per year for aspiring young people and adults who wish to master food production, learning from on site experts

EVENTS

  • 500 cultural events per year related to food, wine, and agriculture

FICO Eataly World is an extraordinary destination we can't wait to open in October.  A vision come to life of a hands-on, for-the-people celebration Italy's rich culinary heritage and groundwork for its future, educating the next generation of food producers, diners and home cooks, and engaging in environmental best practices. 

Definitely one of the most exciting culinary experiences for anyone planning to visit Italy.

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Cruise to Cuba? Yes You Can!

10 ways you can cruise to Cuba this year.

One of the biggest travel stories of the past year has to be the renewing of relations between Cuba and the US and the rise of Cuba as a destination for American travelers. Cuba has long been a favorite sun and culture destination for Canadians and Europeans. Only US citizens were prevented from traveling to the Caribbean's largest island.

Now American cruise ships are permitted to sail to Cuba, and late in 2016, Cuba approved a number of US cruise lines' applications to make port calls.  A few international cruise lines could always go, and they have increased sailings and itineraries.  So cruising to Cuba is one of the biggest travel stories this year.

Canadians and Europeans now have a lot more choices to cruise to Cuba, and Americans now have that cruise option, although they still need a visa. US cruise lines now sailing to Cuba generally facilitate a 'people-to-people' visa for American guests.

BestTrip.TV's cruise expert Lynn Elmhirst rounds up 10 ways you can cruise to Cuba this year.

From single days in port in Havana, to a week or more exploring the island, cruises to Cuba allow you to get a taste or immerse yourself in Cuba's culture, history, and natural wonders.

ALL-CUBA CRUISES

Celestyal Crystal

This Greek line claims to offer the only true circumnavigation of Cuba on 7-day, all-inclusive cruises departing every Monday from Havana, and every Friday from Montego Bay, Jamaica.  

Formerly known as Cuba Cruise, this cruise began sailing 3 years ago, and now sails year-round in Cuba on a 1200 passenger ship that was renovated in 2016. They offer the p2p program visa for American citizens.

Itineraries include two days in Havana and various calls including Maria La Gorda, known for its impeccable beachfront and underwater marine life, the perfect destination for scuba divers, snorkeling enthusiasts and beach lovers, Punta Frances on the Isle of Youth, Cienfuegos, an 18th-century fortress, and historic Santiago de Cuba, 16th century capital of the Spanish colony of Cuba.

Ports and shore excursions provide city tours, history, adventure, cultural walking tours, hiking, beach days and snorkeling to passengers of all ages and tastes.  This cruise is family-friendly, with a supervised children's program for 4-12 year olds.

National Geographic - Lindblad Expeditions

Lindblad Expedition cruises' partnership with National Geographic means these cruises are for travelers serious about in-depth expertise: photographers, naturalists and cultural specialists join guests on the 11-day trips. These land and sea tours are an extension of Nat Geo's existing land tour programs, and they fulfill the p2p visa requirements for Americans.

Trips begin with a flight from Miami, and include several days in Havana, as well as stops in Trinidad, Cienfuegos, the historic Bay of Pigs, Isle of Youth, and Cayo Largo.

Fewer than 50 guests are on board the Panorama II, a small expedition ship, as it makes ports of call that highlight Cuba's marine and natural wonders and culture, highlighting music, history, and interacting with locals like artists, mechanics who inventively keep those classic US cars running, members of Cuba's renowned medical community, and naturalists protecting endangered species.

Natural highlights include searching for the smallest bird in the world, the bee hummingbird, a visit to a sea turtle breeding center, diving, and lots of wildlife and scenic photography.

G Adventures

Canadian tour operator G Adventures provides a less intense/ serious, and more youthful and affordable version of a Cuba expedition cruise on its 8-day 'marine tour' of Cuba's Canarreos archipelago in a catamaran with only 14 people on the tour. This cruise option is one of several types of trips to Cuba the company offers.  Americans are welcome, but need to arrange their own visas.

Cruises start and finish in Havana, and spend 5 low-key, soft-adventure days exploring off-the-beaten-path islands and island communities, with relaxed days of snorkeling, kayaking, sailing, easy exploring, visiting lighthouses, enjoying seafood dinners, and lazing on deck or on the beach. 

Pearl Mist

Pearl Seas Cruises (a sister company to American Cruise Lines), offers 10-night 'Cuban Cultural Voyages' that fulfill the American p2p visa requirements.  On the 200-passenger Pearl Mist, guests enjoy luxury elements including all private balconies on its 100 staterooms and high-end culinary offerings, but the company also makes sure to point out that there is elevator access to all decks and on board medical for its senior guests. 

These cruises run January through April, 2017, and start up again in November.  There's a packed program of stops on the island beginning with 2 days in Havana, and other ports include Isla de la Juventud, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, El Cobre, Santiago de Cuba and Parque Baconao.

Guests engage first hand with local tradespeople, artists, musicians and historians at museums, national parks, art studios, architecturally significant homes and UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Photos courtesy MSC Cruises

CRUISES THAT OVERNIGHT IN HAVANA

MSC Opera and MSC Armonia

MSC Cruises, a European company, was one of the first major cruise lines to feature Cuba in its itineraries for its European and Canadian guests. The cruises have been so popular, MSC has homeported 2, 2000-passenger ships, the Armonia and the Opera, in Havana.

Guests spend about 2 days in Havana on MSC itineraries. MSC does not design its Cuba itineraries to meet American citizens' requirements for p2p visas, so guests have more flexible options that include not only historic and cultural attractions, but also beach days in Cuba as part of cruises that also include other Caribbean destinations.

Azamara Quest

Royal Caribbean's smaller-ship, sister brand Azamara has just one Cuba port of call this season: it's added an overnight in Havana to one 12- night Caribbean cruise on the Azamara Quest departing March 21st from Miami with stops in Key West, Tampa, New Orleans, and Cozumel, Mexico as well as Havana.

The cruise line says it's planning to introduce more dates and more Cuban ports, but it already offers an impressive line up of 6 of its signature 'Land Discoveries' immersive destination programs, including Hemingway's Havana and Havana by Classic American Car.   The programs fulfill visa requirements for Americans, so this cruise is a destination-focused opportunity for the Azamara Quest's 700 guests to get a taste of Cuba.

Seven Seas Mariner

Regent Seven Seas Cruises is the only North American classic luxury cruise line to sail to Cuba – yet. 

It has added Havana to two Caribbean cruises aboard the 700-guest Seven Seas Mariner on April 11th and 18th.   The itineraries are identical, with an overnight in Havana as part of week-long cruises that also call on Harvest Cay, parent-company Norwegian Cruise Holding's upscale resort destination in Belize.

Regent Seven Seas cruises are all-inclusive, with fares that include airfare, unlimited shore excursions, alcoholic beverages, WiFi, gratuities and more.  Its Cuba tours fulfill US p2p visa requirements and provide guests with authentic Cuban experiences that explore the people, music, art, history and culture of the island.

Norwegian Sky

Norwegian Sky, with 2000 guests, is the largest US vessel sailing to Cuba in 2017.  NCL has scheduled 5, 4-day roundtrip cruises from Miami to Cuba on May 8, 15, 22 and 29th. 

The cruises overnight in Havana, and also spend a day at Norwegian's private island resort in the Bahamas, Great Stirrup Cay. Norwegian Sky's cruises to Cuba, like some of its others in the Caribbean, include an open bar, so overall, these short cruises will have mostly a party atmosphere.

However, guests will be able to go ashore to visit sites in Cuba's capital, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Old Havana, and experience the local art and music scene; engaging with local artists (and fulfilling US p2p visa requirements).

CRUISES WITH ONE PORT DAY IN HAVANA

Marina

Oceania's Marina is the first of the Norwegian family of cruise lines to sail to Cuba. The 1250-guest, upscale ship begins one day or overnight calls in Havana in March, with programming that meets visa requirements for Americans.  These 10 day or two week Caribbean cruises depart from Miami in multiple itineraries that also include NCL's new private island resort Harvest Caye in Belize.

Empress of the Seas

Royal Caribbean recently updated and renovated the 1600-guest Empress of the Seas for its Cuba itineraries. Beginning in April, 4, 5, and 7-night cruises depart from both Miami and Tampa on Western Caribbean itineraries with one day in port in Havana.  Royal Caribbean's Cuba shore programming allows Americans to meet visa requirements while enjoying Royal Caribbean ship experiences like rock climbing, multiple pools, restaurants, nightlife, and even the Cuban-inspired dance club Bolero.

Cuba is a brand-new destination for Americans, and cruising to Cuba is novel even for Canadians.  A travel advisor can help you choose the right ship and itinerary, and navigate the details to ensure your cruise to one of the world's newest cruise destinations is all you dreamed.

 

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Celebrate Music and Modern Architecture in Hamburg

The landmark, modernist Elbphilharmonie, designed by 'starchitects' Herzog & deMeuron, has opened its doors at last this month. The complex adds three world-class concert halls, a hotel, and a public area with a panoramic view to the city famously associated with the music of Mahler, Brahms and the Beatles.

Hamburg is Europe's second largest port.  It handles large, ocean-going ships, so it's considered a seaport, even though it's nearly 70 miles (110 km) inland from the North Sea on the Elbe River at its confluence with 2 other rivers.

The Elbphilharmonie is in a unique location in Hamburg’s historic port.  It's part of Europe’s largest inner-city urban revitalization project, in direct proximity to the Speicherstadt warehouse district UNESCO World Heritage site. 

In location, in design, and in function, the Elbphilharmonie serves as a symbol of the city’s past, present and its future.

Spectacular Architecture

The renowned Swiss architecture firm Herzog & deMeuron designed the exciting structure to perch on top of a brick warehouse that used to store tea, tobacco and cocoa arriving from abroad. 1700 reinforced concrete piles support the modernist, glass structure, whose wave-like roofline rises above the water of the port that surrounds it on three sides.

The Plaza is the area that links the warehouse and the new structure, and it's the central meeting place in the Elbphilharmonie. There's a viewing platform here that's open to the public. Even getting to it is an experience: an 82-metre-long (over 250 foot-long) curved escalator transports visitors through the building. Once you get there, you have a stunning panoramic view over the city and port of Hamburg.


The heart of the Elbphilharmonie is the spectacular, Grand Concert Hall. 2,100 seats are arranged around a centrally located stage, designed to remind you of visits to terraced vineyards. Amazingly, no member of the audience is seated more than 30 metres (about a hundred feet) from the conductor. Being so unusually close to the action turns this new acoustic space into a place of unforgettable musical encounters.

In order to achieve optimum acoustics, the architects developed a special wall and roof structure together with internationally renowned acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota. 10,000 individually shaped fibre panels cut with millimetre precision ensure targeted sound distribution that reaches you in every corner. For the Grand Hall, the German organ builder Klais developed an extraordinary concert hall organ with 4,765 pipes that are located in, next to and even behind the audience stands.

A Boundless Music Experience

In addition to the one-of-a-kind Grand Hall, the complex includes the acoustically outstanding, wood paneled Recital Hall and The 'Kaistudios', the Elbphilharmonie’s interactive music education area for people of all ages. The 'Kaistudios' are also home to the new 'Elbphilharmonie World of Instruments': diverse workshops in which children and adults can try out instruments from all over the world.

Are you thinking this all sounds fantastic, but you really aren't a fan of classical music? Don't fear: there's a line up of concerts and performances that not only include orchestral and operatic performances with the best orchestras in the world; piano, string quartet and German 'lieder'; but also world music, popular, and even electronic music.   Music for every fan, and a reflection of a city that not only supported famous composers, but also has had a world-celebrated club scene since the earliest days of the Fab Four.

They call it 'a perfect symbiosis of architecture and music'.  We agree.  The new Elbphilharmonie highlights Hamburg on the map of must-see global destinations for lovers of music and celebrated modern design.

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Snuggle in an Igloo in the Alps in Switzerland

Igloos aren't a central feature of Switzerland's picturesquely traditional alpine culture. Scenic, snow-capped mountains, check.  Sophisticated ski chalets, check. Meadows with dairy cattle, check.  The famous cheeses and milk chocolate they produce, check and check.

But a mountain in central Switzerland also has the unique atmosphere of high-design 'igloos' as part of its winter experience.

Stockhorn mountain towers seven thousand feet high, with a restaurant near the peak reached by cablecar, hiking trails, and views of the surrounding Alps and lakes below. On the shores of one of the lakes, an 'igloo village' springs up, just for the winter months: December through March.

Three thousand working hours of muscle power, snow plowing, balloons and enthusiasm go into the ice hotel/ 'iglus' as they call them.  Igloos are interconnected and themed, with elaborate, fantastical ice/snow carvings by international artists, and warmly rustic chic décor.

Up to 14 people can stay at the hotel – imagine booking the whole place for a group of friends or even a company retreat!

Nothing says 'team building'  or 'family fun' like an igloo building workshop. 

 But there's also the family igloo and even the romantic igloo.  Snuggling under the covers is bound to cement feelings of warmth.

Yes, that's a wedding proposal made out of ice. How romantic is that?

Cocktails at the bar, fondu dinners, mulled wine, mini film festivals, they'll all keep you warm indoors.

Outdoors, around Lake Hinterstocken, you can fill your days ice fishing, snow tubing, winter hiking and snowshoeing, playing hockey… or even relaxing and soaking up the winter sun in a lounge chair.

Stockhorn has half a dozen sister 'igloo-villages' throughout the country, so as long as the weather cooperates, you can add a night in an igloo to your winter trip to the Swiss Alps.

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Opening Weekend for Germany's Christmas Markets

So many of our modern Christmas traditions hail from Germany (via England, thanks to Queen Victoria's German husband, Prince Albert); for a real injection of the spirit of Christmas, no better place to go than the source. Plus, Germans are nothing if not sticklers for authenticity – no plastic or made in China items. Only genuine evergreen branches, music, food, drink and shopping traditions allowed!

Lynn Elmhirst, BestTrip.TV's producer and host, shares her tips for visiting Germany's Christmas markets.

When to go:

Markets are traditionally open during Advent, the last four weeks before Christmas, ending Christmas Eve, the day most Germans celebrate. This year, Advent begins Sunday, November 27th; many opening ceremonies are the Friday before the first Sunday. One more tip about when to go: for an extra special experience, visit in the evening – when twinkling lights, bonfires and torches kindle the magic and spirit of the season and transport you back to the ancient origins of this winter festival.

What to eat and drink:

The fir branch-draped, traditional wood stalls include the best German standards: hot sausages, pretzels, and beer, plus the seasonal delights: hot, mulled 'gluhwein'; stollen, a particularly addictive fruit bread; gingerbread or lebkuchen.

And marzipan, oh, the glorious marzipan. Forget the icky, stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth goo slathered on top of cheap fruitcakes here at home. Once you taste the real thing, you just can't get enough. Marzipan in Germany isn't just for cake topping. It comes formed in all shapes. Look for the quirky Christmas traditional 'marzipan kartoffeln' – marzipan 'potatoes', little marzipan balls dusted with coco to look like… miniature potatoes. Other shapes are delightful, hand painted confections – a favorite in southern Germany is little pigs, a symbol of good luck. Take some home for gifts! I would love forever anyone who put marzipan kartoffeln in my stocking!

What to buy:

Markets are laden with high quality, and often, artisan-crafted German Christmas traditional items like nutcrackers, ornaments, religious items and toys, toys, toys.

You are going to want to buy the unparalleled handmade glass ornaments and you are going to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how and if you can get them home safely. Sheepskin slippers and mittens, and lots of boiled wool. I admit to an obsession with boiled wool, a northern European tradition I can indulge easily at Germany's Christmas markets, buying myself and loved ones hats, mittens, vests, jackets and more with a European design flair you don't find at home. Every market also has local specialties like the iconic blue and white china in Dresden, in everyday and Christmas designs.

How to get there:

Any trip to Germany during Advent and up to Christmas Eve gives you the opportunity to visit the local Christmas market. Land tour companies and river cruise companies offer Christmas market specialty tours this time of year that take you to multiple Christmas markets so you can compare the atmosphere, food and shopping. A Christmas market cruise on the Danube, for example, could include flying into Frankfurt and visiting its market before your cruise, and sailing to both Nuremburg's (possibly the most famous) town square market and Regensburg, in the castle grounds.

Even 'grinches' discover genuine Christmas good cheer in the historic, traditional atmosphere of Germany's Christmas markets. And lovers of the season add to cherished memories of Christmas celebrations.

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