Royal City Carlson Wagonlit Travel's Blog

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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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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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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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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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.

Start your Trip!

 

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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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Intrepid Doubles Family-Themed Itineraries

Intrepid Travel is doubling its family-themed tours for 2017 with 48 itineraries tailored to families in two new styles of travel, Comfort and Active Family.

The decision to launch more than 20 tours comes as a result of the increasing demand for multi-generational travel. Intrepid Travel has also experienced significant demand for its teen trips, designed for ages 12 and up, inspiring the launch of teen trekking itineraries in Peru and Nepal, among other destinations.

“Intrepid Travel’s kid-friendly tours shake up the typical family vacation, offering a sense of adventure suited for all generations,” says Leigh Barnes, North America director for Intrepid Travel. “By significantly increasing our Family tours for 2017, we hope to be the go-to operator for family adventure travel.”

Ideal for meeting like-minded families, Intrepid Travel’s family-only adventures offer action-packed experiences steering off the beaten track, away from ball pits and buffets. Transforming travel into a form of education, the tours encourage families to use the world as their textbook by immersing into the destination and culture. With an average group size of 12, travelers can hop aboard local transportation, eat at family-run restaurants and kick back in home-stay accommodations. Family-friendly tours with 2017 departures offer one-of-a-kind experiences including:

  • Act like Mowgli in search for Shere Khan and other Bengal tigers for a true “Jungle Book” experience on the Comfort Northern India Family Holiday.
  • Visit Chiang Mai’s Elephant Nature Park, recognized by World Animal Protection for its protection of elephant welfare, on the Thailand Family Holiday.
  • Punt along the waterways of the Okavango Delta’s vibrant ecosystem by traditional canoe, greeting grunting hippos on the Namibia & Botswana Family Adventure.
  • Take on life as a local Gozitan shepherd for the day, tending to animals, cutting corn, making ‘gbejniet’ cheese and preparing lunch with the host family during the Malta and Gozo Family Holiday.

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A version of this article previously appeared in TravelPress.com

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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Our 'Plan a Cruise Month' Smorgasbord of Offers

Mark it on your calendar. October is 'Plan a Cruise Month'. 

This is the time of year when the world's top cruise lines introduce some of their best offers of the year.

And with the nights getting chillier, thoughts of getting away this winter to the Caribbean's turquoise waters, exotic Polynesia, or fun loving Australia leap to mind.  Or an expedition of a lifetime to South America or Galapagos. And there's always Europe and the elegant Mediterranean in the spring.

There's a smorgasbord of cruise offers available right now, so if you were thinking of a romantic escape, a family or multi-generation holiday, an expedition cruise of a lifetime, even an employee incentive trip or a group getaway with your club, here's our round up of some of the best offers available.

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Discover and array of wildlife on a family adventure in Borneo It can be challenging coming up with a unique and exciting place to take the family on vacation. One suggestion, however, is to have a safari adventure and see the amazing and varied wildlife on the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia. read more