A Virgin Voyage Review–Sailing the Virgin Way

The Scarlet Lady docked in Nassau

I’ve always been a fan of Richard Branson ever since I read his autobiography, “Losing My Virginity.”  It’s a great read and tells the story of Virgin Records and Virgin Airways from his perspective as well as tales of his life, business philosophy and just plain old Richard wisdom on disrupting traditional business models.  

I recently sailed on the October 20 sailing of the new Virgin Voyage Scarlet Lady titled, “Fire and Sunset Soiree’s”.  A four night itinerary out of Miami sailing to Nassau and Bimini in the Bahamas.  The ship itself is beautiful with high end touches and finishes and a yacht like feel.  She holds 2,770 passengers so she is not a large mega ship and compared to others in port, she sure is sexy.  

Why is a Virgin Voyage Different than a typical cruise?

Adults only—If you like kids, but don’t want to see them on vacation, this is the ship for you. Only 18 and up are allowed, and if you’ve been on a ship this size before, think of all the space dedicated to families, take that away, and you have a lot more room to cater to adult fun.

Gratuities are included—I thought this was a great concept in theory and tips would be gently hinted at, but throughout the entire voyage, this was not the case.  When I booked a spa treatment, it indicates in the price the gratuity is included and when I completed the treatment and asked if I was all set, they said I was.   I just finished and walked out; it was that simple.  This was also the case throughout the entire voyage, even on the shore things (AKA shore excursions), no mention of a tip or hint of one was implied.

No buffets and no specialty restaurant up charges—The ship has a fantastic food selection, from Italian, to Korean BBQ, Mexican and even Vegan options, there is something for every taste.  One of our favorites’ was the Test Kitchen, a five course tasting menu in which you are only given the ingredients of the selections, not how it’s prepared.  The server asks if there are any dietary restrictions or allergies and if there is an ingredient you don’t care for, will provide a substitution.  It’s a unique experience, in a high end dining atmosphere and encourages you to venture out into new tastes and cuisines.  Overall, the food was fantastic, the service exceptional and we enjoyed all our meals.

Wellness options are included—For the person who enjoys a good workout while on vacation, this is the option for you.  Unlike other cruise lines, Virgin Voyages does not charge extra for classes and they have some different options too—like Barre and Roll Out and Recovery.  They offer sunrise yoga in the morning and have a host of different classes throughout the day for the entire voyage.  The gym is spacious too—offering one side with weight training equipment and the other is all cardio—treadmills, bikes, ellipticals, etc.  They have  a running track around the top of the ship for fantastic views, a boxing ring with speed and punching bags outside, an adult sea saw, and basketball court.  There is plenty for everyone and it’s the biggest gym I’ve seen so far at sea.  They also offer wellness seminars and personal training (although there is a charge for this option).

Single Use Plastics Are No Where to Be Found—Let’s face it, we need to get a grip on single use plastics and Virgin Voyages has definitely taken the lead here.  There are linen napkins, plates, cups and silverware and while some of them are plastic, they are washed and reusable—nothing is throw away.  We loved the “Ship Eats” bag delivered to our cabin with our coffee, fruit and homemade protein bar.  It was essentially a dry bag with plates and cups designed to fit and stack inside with a thermos for the coffee.  For those of you who enjoy grab and go, they had reusable plastic boxes in the Galley with açaí bowls, charcuterie, salads, sandwiches and more if you wanted to take back to your cabin for later.

Unique Details at Every Turn—They say the devil is in the details and they have obviously paid close attention to peoples likes and dislikes about cruising.  While some of the ports of call may be typical, they are in port longer allowing you more time for exploration and eliminating the feeling of being rushed to get off the ship.  And while they don’t have their own private island, they do have the Beach Club in Bimini.  It’s spectacularly appointed with a spacious lagoon shaped pool, swings by the bar, beds on the beach, and fire balls by Aragorn’s Art Studio in the British Virgin Islands. It’s the perfect beach day all around topped off by the bonfire bon voyage before departing Bimini.  For the technology lovers, you can download the app to upload your security photo and fill out all the paperwork virtually so you don’t have to wait in line to board.  They simply activate your cool bracelet wrist band and you walk right onto the ship, straight to your cabin where your convertible sea bed awaits and you can swing on your sea hammock (a personal fave) while enjoying your morning coffee.  Play a game of the old classics Donkey Kong or Pac Man in the arcade (included at no charge), grab a boozy milk shake or party the night away in the Manor with a fantastic kick-your-shoes-up-band, sailing the Virgin way, is different at every turn and definitely not the typical cruise. 

Catching up on my reading in the sea hammock

Paula Iwanski is a Virgin Voyages Specialist or First Mate. Booking with a First Mate gives you access to an expert in all things Virgin with exclusive, first-hand knowledge providing you with a fantastic voyage from start to finish.

The Art of Travel Company Partners with The Travel Advisor Group and Valerie Wilson Travel

The Art of Travel Company, LLC, of Orlando, Florida recently joined forces with the Travel Advisor Group and Valerie Wilson Travel.  This affiliation pairs the intimacy of a local, veteran and women owned, Orlando, Florida business, with the expertise of the Travel Advisor Group and the big agency buying power of Virtuoso’s Valerie Wilson Travel (VWT).

The synergy combines the best of all worlds–trusted expertise in travel and the personal service of the Travel Advisor Group and the power of access® that Valerie Wilson is synonymous for.  This affiliation allows the Art of Travel Company to bring their clients the most exclusive and ultra-customized experiences using trusted global connections established throughout the years in luxury travel.  

“Our goal at the Art of Travel Company is get to know you personally, to understand your “travel mood” and to selectively craft an adventure to suit the moment.  I’m so excited to partner with Travel Advisor Group and Valerie Wilson Travel.  They are like-minded brands who focus on service excellence and share a passion for travel.  I know it will strengthen our ability to ensure the best possible experiences for our clients,” said Paula Iwanski, founder and Luxury Travel Advisor at the Art of Travel Company, LLC.

The Art of Travel Company, LLC is based in the Lake Nona area of Orlando, Florida is a veteran and female owned and operated boutique travel agency.  Masters in the art of luxury travel, they specialize in custom European itineraries, Scotland and Ireland, the Caribbean, luxury golf and fishing and vow renewals.  

Flying During COVID–Six Things You Need to Know Now

Canva - People Inside Commercial Air Plane

These days flying during the pandemic can be extremely stressful.  Will the plane be full, what are the rules for quarantine, mask wearing, etc., and am I officially allowed to travel to my destination?  We’ve flown a few different airlines recently to different parts of the country and thought we’d share some things you need to know now to help you navigate through all the changes.

Not All Airlines are Created Equal

It’s really important you review your airline’s policies regarding COVID. For example, Southwest and JetBlue are currently blocking the sale of center seats, but airlines like United, American, Frontier and Spirit are not. All are requiring you to wear a face mask and if you do not comply, you will not be able to fly. There are some taking temperatures before you board, while others are only requiring you to read the statement about COVID and agree not to travel if you are exhibiting any symptoms. To find out about your airlines policy, simply visit their website and the COVID information is typically listed on the homepage.

You Can’t Get There From Here

The best way to get anywhere by plane is nonstop, but flight routes have changed dramatically. There are not a lot of nonstop options, especially if it’s not a major hub like New York, Atlanta, Chicago, etc. Many times there is just one a week from the major airports (take JFK to Cancun for example) where there used to be multiple daily flights. In other areas of the country, where at least some existed per week, they no longer offer many nonstop options.  If you do decide to book something, chances are it will change multiple times before you actually fly or it could cancel altogether. Most places now require a connection or two before you get there. The important thing is to research before you book as you may need an entire day to get to where you’re going since nonstop flights and routes have significantly changed or been reduced.

Plan Accordingly

If you’re one of those people who prefers to get to the airport early, have a cocktail and some dinner, you will have to rethink your strategy. It varies by state, but many of the airports have few concessions open and bars are closed. The planes are not serving food or cocktails either, so don’t plan to partake in JetBlues snack basket for example, or if you’re Mosaic, their free cocktails, because most airlines have shifted to a sealed bag with a snack and a water handed out during flight.   If you’re one of the lucky ones to find a bar serving cocktails in an airport, even though they give it to you in a to go cup, you will not be allowed to take it on the plane, so don’t even think of adding one more to your tab before you close out, unless you have enough time to drink it at the gate. And for those shoppers in the mix, many of the airport shops are closed too with the exception of Hudson News.

Dress Appropriately

The temperatures on the airplanes have been turned up a notch during the pandemic, so it’s been unusually cold. They are not selling blankets and if you don’t dress appropriately, you could find yourself shivering in the seat the entire time. If you are one of those who tend to freeze during flight, make sure you pack a light blanket or sweater and dress for cold weather. It’s chilly up there!

What to Expect at Airport Security

One of the pluses, security lines are usually super easy to get through time-wise and you are now allowed to bring up to 12oz of hand sanitizer with you. This does not apply to shampoo, and other items in your hygiene bag if you travel with a carry on, so make sure you still apply to the 3oz rule to those items. Homeland Security has relaxed the rule for hand sanitizer only. 

Know Before You Go

Not only do you need to understand the rules in your local area about mask wearing, what’s open, what’s not and what their policies are for dining and for quarantine, you will need to check your final destination to ensure you are allowed in. States are banning some travelers from other states where there have been a spike in cases or they could require you to self quarantine for 14 days. If you’re planning a visit for just a few days and coming from a state where they may have a ban, it might not make sense to travel there if you have to stay put for 14 days. In the Caribbean, you may be required to produce a negative COVID test within a few days of departure and if you’re planning any European travel, you may not be allowed entry especially if you are from the United States.

Siesta Key

Siesta Key BeachWhere is Siesta Key?

When most people think of the Keys, they think of the Florida Keys, specifically Key West, Key Largo, etc., but just off the west coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico hides a little known piece of heaven called Siesta Key. Just an hour south of Tampa and two hours from Orlando, Siesta Key is the perfect get away with white sand beaches, and blue water usually associated with a Caribbean island.

Where to Stay in Siesta Key?

There are all types of accommodations on Siesta Key—vacation rentals—condo’s, villas, Air BNB, small hotels, intimate inns and also some larger hotels. If you prefer to park your car and walk and want to be close to where the action is try and find a place close to Siesta Key Village on the north end of the island. You’ll have easy beach access and you’ll be able to walk to all the restaurants and shops—no car needed. The larger hotels tend to be on the south part of the island, just a short drive away from the village.

We stayed at Siesta Sands—a beachfront resort featuring one and two bedroom condos for rent. The condos offer full size kitchens and you are just steps away from a sugary white sand beach—no cooler packing needed. You can leave the beach and head back for sandwiches at your condo when hunger pains strike. We preferred the convenience of this option. If you do prefer the beach and grab lunch alternative, you’ll want to head to the public beach. There they have the Siesta Beach Pavilion with plenty of public parking, a snack bar and facilities near by.

What to Do?

When you’re not lounging in the water or admiring the gorgeous views of the sea, you can head into Siesta Key Village to shop or grab some eats. There are some fantastic spots depending upon what you’re in the mood for. Here are a few of our favorites:

Meaney’s Mini Donuts—a MUST while in Siesta Key, this coffee and donut shop is the perfect place to start the day. Grab a coffee, some donuts and hit the beach for a morning walk. We highly recommend the French Toast donuts and promise you, you’re going to want to lick your fingers afterwards!

The Lobster Pot—Those of you who are Maine Lobster fans, we have fantastic news! This place boasts fresh Maine Lobsters and take it from someone who grew up in New England, they do not lie. The lobster was delicious and worth getting. We can’t wait to go back.

The Cottage—This place has a great vibe with an eclectic menu, offering tapas style dining and full course options. We snacked on a variety of foods—korean short rib, big island poke, truffle fries (how can you not) and the gorgonzola gnocchi. The lobster maki roll is to die for and they have a really great artisan cocktail menu, highlights include the Patron Silver Cucumberita, and The Perfect Getaway.

Bonjour French Café—We wandered in off the street for breakfast one morning and found this gem of a place! They have delicious crepes, fresh baked French baguettes and croissants and just an all around fantastic breakfast served with fresh fruit. It’s another great way to start the morning and while we know the mini donuts are fantastic too, we do try and maintain a little bit of nutritional discipline while on vacation.

Sunset is a Must

Whatever you do on Siesta Key, you must take the time to watch the sunset each night—they are spectacular! And, thanks to Mother Nature, no two of them are alike so if you miss one, I guarantee you won’t see another one like it.

Pack up a bottle of wine, your favorite snack foods and beach chairs and take a walk or drive to Patriot’s Pier. Every night at sunset, they pay tribute to our military. Everyone gathers for the singing of the National Anthem (no great voice needed) and after the flag is being folded, they end with Taps in honor of the fallen. If you a patriotic person at all, I guarantee it will bring a tear to your eye.

Whatever you decide, Siesta Key, Florida is the perfect long weekend or week long vacation getaway. It’s perfect for couples, a girl’s weekend, or big family trip. There is plenty to do and see not only on the island, but around the area as well. Our adventure lasted three short nights, but the pace was slow, relaxed, and easy offering much needed rest and relaxation and we can’t wait to go back!

What To Do In Paris, France

Planning a trip to Paris, France can be a little overwhelming. Most are familiar with The Eiffel Tower, but what else should we do? My family and I spent several magical days in Paris. And while Paris is a city full of romance, it is also a city your children can fall in love with.

While quite a bit of planning is needed to really enjoy your time here, you may want to leave some time in your schedule to allow for spontaneous fun and enjoyment.

A few tips to help plan a fulfilling visit to The City of Lights.

*Decide which section of the city will most suit your needs. The sights of Paris are definitely not in one location.

*Be flexible with modes of transportation. The city is too large to get around just on foot. We used the large Metro System for most of our travel, but did walk a fair amount. If you decide to use a taxi, be sure there is a meter being used, and what type of payment will be needed.

*If you decide to use the Metro, hold on to your tickets. Officers were randomly checking validated billets and there is a hefty fine for riding without one.

*Children under 18 are free in several of the major museums. Be aware of this if considering a Paris Pass or Museum Pass. Many attractions also offer discounted family tickets. So be sure to evaluate your family ticket savings when deciding on an individual Museum or Paris Pass.

*Many of the museums and attractions are closed on Monday or Tuesday; even during peak season. Many museums also offer a monthly entry free to the public. Be sure to check hours of operation when planning your schedule.

*I would strongly consider a walking or bicycling tour (if it is physically possible) when you first arrive. We received so much information in the tours we took, and were able to replicate the directions to our favorite spots on the tours and linger a bit longer. Luckily, Paula can guide you on the tours that are right for you.

1. The Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower is probably one of the most recognized images in the world. No trip to Paris would be complete without at least a visit to this famous landmark. Many onlookers bring picnic baskets and blankets and linger in its shadow on warm weather days. If you forget a bottle of bubbly or wine to help celebrate your visit, there are swarms of hawkers with buckets of beverages to purchase a bottle or two. If you decide to venture up into the tower, tickets are required. Tickets are purchased by date and time, and also by your mode of transport and level of viewing. For best options, buy your tickets in advance. We chose to ride the elevator, although those who want lots of exercise can take the stairs to the 2nd viewing platform. If you are planning a romantic picnic in front of the tower, do that first. No alcohol is allowed in the tower.

2. French Macaron Making Class

A macaron (not to be confused with a macaroon) is a French meringue like cookie, made from almond flour and filled with a ganache flavor of your choosing. What better place to learn the art of creating these sweet treats than in the city where they originated? We found this cooking class offered in the gorgeous Galeries Lafayette; a swanky 5-story department store. Their flagship store, located in the 9th Arrondissement, referred to as Opèra, opened in 1912, and is decorated in the Art Nouveau style. The roof is dome-shaped and adorned with stained glass. While shopping is probably the reason most patrons are there, there is a glass walkway that gives you a panoramic view of the store.. it’s worth the wait in line. Our Macaron baking class was taught by a French pastry chef from Lily of the Valley Paris; an adorable tea and pastry shop located in the La Marais arrondissement of Paris. Classes must be booked in advance and there is an age minimum. They do offer a class for young children as well, however and classes in a multitude of languages.

3. Carousels

What is more whimsical and nostalgic than a ride on a beautifully adorned wooden horse on an antique carousel? You can probably tell by her smile that this was my little one’s favorite find throughout the city. There are approximately 20 carousels in Paris. Our 2 favorites were located just in front of the Eiffel Tower and across the Pont d’ léna Bridge. Both carousels offer views of the Eiffel Tower and the Trocadéro Fountain.

4. Shopping on Champs-Elysées

I know that Paula will die a little inside when she reads this, but I am not a big shopper. Seeing Chanel and Louis Vuitton does not get my heart a fluttering, but I know there are so many people that would not pass up the chance to peruse these famous brands in person in the capital of the fashion world. Fortunately, a credit card is not required to people watch; definitely up my alley. We spent a fair amount of time, window shopping, people watching and just strolling this tree lined street, that is flanked by the Arc de Triomphe on one end, and the Louvre and L’Orange Museum on the other. So worth a visit.

5. Artist’s Corner

This quaint area, found in the Montmartre arrondisment, near Sacre Cour Cathedral was our favorite arrondissement in Paris. While you will also find the famous Moulin Rouge and a variety of unsavory establishments nearby, we loved the multitude of cheese shops, chocolatiers, bakeries and butchers concentrated in this little area of Montmartre. There were several artists with brush and canvas, either offering to paint personal portraits or painting landscapes for pleasure or for sale. There are also little shops selling unique artistic gifts and plenty of cafes and brassieres to choose from.

6. Dining in Paris

I am almost afraid to write this, but here is the truth: my biggest pet peeve about traveling is wasting my time eating mediocre food. I usually spend an embarrassing amount of time researching restaurant reviews and menus prior to a vacation. Paris was overwhelming, however. And the city is so large, I had difficulty coordinating dining options with a daily schedule. Dining establishments tend to close for several hours between the end of lunch service and beginning of dinner service, which varies for each establishment. So I had to let go of my need to control and just wing it. We never ate a bad meal in Paris. Almost all meals were served al fresco on little round tables, surrounded by red rattan dining chairs. Most diners would rotate their chairs to face the street for better viewing. Even my children enjoyed their meals. Good wine, cheese and meat plates, specialty pizzas, burgers, salads, desserts and escargot. We were never disappointed.

7. Napolean’s Tomb

This tiny dictator certainly thought he deserved a massive mausoleum dedicated to himself. Anyone interested in European history and specifically The French Revolution, this is the museum for you. The Army Museum, located in the 7th Arrondissement, is where you find Napoleon’s tomb.

8. Visiting Mona Lisa at The Louvre

Found in the Louvre, this diminutive painting with an enormous following is tough to find in such a large museum; just follow the crowd. The best time to visit her is first thing in the morning, paying for a private viewing or Wednesday and Friday evenings, when the museum offers late hours. Even if you buy a Museum Pass, this does not guarantee you entrance to the Louvre upon arrival. If you are traveling during peak travel dates, buy your tickets( or reserve your Museum Pass entry) in advance.

9. Sailing Toy Boats in Jardin de Tuileries

For a few Euro, and a promise to return them, children can rent a little wooden sailboat and a stick from a vendor in Jardin de Tuileries, adjacent to The Louvre and L’Orange Museum. This was a blessing after torturing our little ones with art for the afternoon. The kids ran around the fountain with several other children, pushing these little boats, laughing, manipulating the current and just interacting with other children. It was pure joy. Worth every penny. There are even seats surrounding the fountain, to relax and enjoy the scenery.

10. Atelier de Lumiéres Museum

This interactive art exhibit was my oldest child’s pick for her birthday. The exhibit pairs famous works of art by artists such as Van Gogh, Renoir, Chagall and Klimt, and projects them into moving works of art, set to classical music. The museum is located in the 11th Arrondissement. It was a relaxing way to spend an hour or so, being immersed in beauty for both eyes and ears. People were relaxed, sitting or lying on the floor, just enjoying their surroundings.

What Islands to Visit in Thailand

There are three islands off the southern coast of Thailand—Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao. Most people think of Thailand via Bangkok and scenes from the Hangover Movie, but these islands are far from the hustle and bustle of the city. It’s an entirely different atmosphere filled with amazing restaurants, gorgeous beaches (many with few people), and a host of options for resorts. It’s an island vibe with a cross between Scandinavian design, marries Caribbean with a bit of Hawaiian Polynesian thrown in.

There are places you visit that change you forever and Thailand is one of those places. I have to admit I really didn’t know what to expect from my travels there and what I found was absolutely incredible—from the country, to the food and the culture—it really is worth the trip. Thailand is definitely a place that has a bit of everything to offer.

Koh Phangan

I really loved this little island and enjoyed our stay at the Anatara Rasananda Resort. You fly into Koh Samui and you’re transferred via the hotel high-speed boat to the resort (about a 40 minute ride). When you arrive, the staff is waiting on the beach to greet you. It’s a wonderful way to start your vacation.

The resort itself is a perfect blend of luxury and island nature. In the morning, you can grab a table for breakfast right on the beach and then meander up the hill to the spa situated amongst the boulders for a traditional Thai massage. They have beachfront accommodations or you can opt for being just off the beach with your own private plunge pool. Breakfast is included at the resort with fresh juices and infused waters each morning. There is also a cute little village within walking distance you can explore on your own and shop.

Koh Nang Yuan

Koh Nang Yuan National Park
A perfect snorkel spot!

Koh Nang Yuan is an island national park. It’s the perfect day trip and a great place for snorkeling in calm waters. You can also hike up to the highest point (not too strenuous of a hike) for some incredible views. Beach towels are not allowed on the sand as they impact the island’s natural habit, but they do offer chairs for rent and bathroom facilities. There is also food available for purchase. I highly recommend the coconut water, served fresh in the coconut—cool, refreshing and hydrating on a hot day.

Koh Tao


One thing I love about these islands is they are close enough, you can island hop. Each is maybe at best, an hour boat ride. We didn’t spend a ton of time on Koh Tao, but on our way back from the National Park, we stopped there for lunch right on the beach at Blue Water. The food was fresh and delicious and every time I think about the pad Thai and ginger tea with honey, my mouth starts watering and you certainly cannot beat the view!

Koh Samui

Kamalya Resort Thailand
The view at Kamalya

Koh Samui is the largest of the three islands and is home to the Samui International Airport offering flights to Bangkok and Hong Kong so big planes do land there. It’s also home to a variety of accommodations including Six Senses Hideaway Samui, known for sustainability, the more modern, Melati Beach Resort and Spa, and the luxurious Kamalaya, a wellness resort offering health and wellness programs including electronic detox, stress and burnout, and emotional balance to name a few.


This is an island that offers many options—yoga retreats like, Vikasa featuring Yoga classes and teaching certification, traditional Muay Thai boxing, beaches, nightlife and shopping. We dined at Coco Tam’s right on the beach and I highly recommend their signature dish. It’s worth every bite! It’s also a great place to watch the sunset.

Coco Tam's on the Beach
Coco Tam’s on the Beach

With the arrival of the New Year, our thoughts turn to shedding those few extra pounds, eating healthier, exercising and our next vacation. With exceptional health and wellness options allowing you to escape the craziness of life and leave your cell phone behind, Thailand has it all. From the mountains of Chiang Mai, to the urban city life of Bangkok and the slow, island pace of Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao, it’s a life-changing adventure with an amazing culinary scene. When I got back to the United States, I kept telling my husband I felt like all the food I was eating was dead compared to what I ate in Thailand, and I eat vegetables and fruit regularly. Everything was just so fresh, and the presentation alone was a photograph every time!

Celebrating Christmas In Scotland

Bag piping Buskers Holiday Serenade

Paula’s Perspective

Six years ago, my husband and I moved to Florida and left behind our family and friends along with all the Christmas obligations. What amazed me is how I never realized you cram all these visits, seeing everyone into just a day and half– Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. While it can be fun, it can sometimes be exhausting.

Moving changes all that. Suddenly, there are no obligations and you have a chance to reinvent the holidays without offending anyone. Don’t get me wrong, you do miss your family and all the traditions surrounding the holidays, but it’s really exciting making new traditions.

I’ve personally always wanted to go away for Christmas—to actually wake up in a different country on Christmas morning, celebrating the holidays outside of the United States. Travel opens up your eyes to so many things, but seeing how a country celebrates Christmas is something we don’t often think of doing. And, since I started the whole Scotland thing with Sarah a few years ago, I couldn’t think of anyone else I’d rather continue the adventure with!

Sarah’s Perspective

I first visited Edinburgh, Scotland in 2014 when Paula invited me as a plus one on an international business trip. She suggested a train ride from London to Edinburgh where we could explore the city for a long weekend. On the way to the Boston airport, my mother called and casually mentioned my great-grandmother was born in Scotland. She offered her date of birth and suggested I stop at a genealogical society to find out more information on her.  I was stunned as I have always considered myself Polish by heritage, but quickly took what little information she had, and stuck it in my purse. I forgot about it until we arrived in Edinburgh and walked right by Scotland’s People: a Genealogical Research Center, on the way to our hotel. This began my personal journey into my Scottish genealogy. Over the years, I spent time searching for information on a family history I didn’t know I had and developing an interest in a country that draws me in, like it’s calling me home.

Deciding to spend Christmas in Edinburgh with my family was appealing, although I had my reservations. Traveling during a major holiday can be stressful and I was concerned my children would be disappointed we weren’t following our traditional Christmas schedule. Edinburgh turned out to be a fantastic way to re-energize our family bond, discover new traditions and explore a fairy tale like landscape. Edinburgh Castle is always within the eye’s periphery when in Edinburgh and the gothic silhouette of the city is the perfect place to recapture what is magical about the holidays.

Carnival Rides Edinburgh Christmas Market
The ferris wheel all lit up for the holidays

Sarah and Rob Edinburgh Christmas Market
Strolling through the Edinburgh Christmas Market enjoying a wee dram of whiskey

Edinburgh Christmas Market Day View
A view of the market in daylight

Edinburgh has a large German style Christmas Market that begins weeks before and ends just after Christmas. We spent time exploring the vendor stalls, riding Carnival style rides, drinking mulled wine and hot chocolate made with real Bavarian melted chocolate.  We ate German sausage and Scottish meat pies, and enjoyed being serenaded by traditionally dressed bagpiping buskers.

Christmas Eve dinner was spent at The Witchery: a uniquely decorated medieval restaurant, rich in history and within the shadows of Edinburgh Castle, followed by a stroll through the Royal Botanic Gardens, decorated with millions of twinkling lights. Ticket holders walk through the displays as Christmas music plays in the background, and Santa and his helpers are seen preparing for what will be a long night.

The Witchery Edinburgh
Outside The Witchery for our Christmas Eve Dinner

Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh
A scene from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh

Edinburgh's Royal Mile
Edinburgh’s Royal Mile decorated for the festive season

Christmas Day was spent lounging in front of our hotel provided personal Christmas tree (it was a complete surprise), opening gifts from the stockings I brought and hung in our lounge room. It was a mild, sunny day, and we hiked to both Arthur’s Seat and Calton Hill: two popular and scenic over looks in Edinburgh.  Although most of the city was shut down: no public transport was available; the city was still alive with people, enjoying the beauty of The Royal Mile and other major landmarks that make Edinburgh so special. Tourist shops were open for business, as well as a wine shop and several takeaway restaurants.

Scottish Malt Whiskey Society
Entrance to the Scottish Malt Whisky Society thanks to the Eat Walk Food Tour

Makar's Mash Bar
Eat Walk Food Tour at Makar’s Mash Bar Stop–best mashed potatoes ever!

Scottish Malt Whiskey Society
Enjoying our whiskey after our Haggis tasting

My son and youngest daughter asked if this year we could celebrate the holiday with a few of the traditions we enjoyed in Scotland. I just bought a set of Christmas crackers and am researching where to buy a few Christmas Crowns.

Hiking Up to Arthur's Seat
A view on the way up to Arthur’s Seat

The View from Arthur's Seat
What a gorgeous view of Edinburgh from the top of Arthur’s Seat!

Our first experience with Christmas Crackers!

These are a few of our Favorite Festive Things to do In Edinburgh:

Edinburgh Christmas Market

Royal Botanic Gardens

Eat Walk Food Tour

The Witchery

Mimi’s Bake Shop

Hiking Up to Arthur’s Seat

A Scotland Do It Yourself Pub Crawl

Traveling during the holidays can be a fun, enriching experience.  Scotland is a magical, soulful country that makes you believe in the magic of Christmas all over again.

Things to do on a Long Haul Flight

Canva - Silhouette of Airplane during Sunset
Photo by Pixabay

With the holidays fast approaching, many travelers will take to the skies for what is the busiest season for travel. So what do you do if your travels require you to take a long haul flight (seven hours or more)? How do you survive a plane ride that long? Take it from us professionals, in order to survive; you have to have a strategy.

Choose Your Seat Wisely
Before you even get on the plane, the seat assignment is key. We all wish we could afford business class or first, but when that isn’t in the budget, choosing your seat wisely will help ease the pain of sitting in it for a long time. Seat Guru is great for picking out the best seat by flight number and is our go to for seat selection, but we are big fans of the two-seat row. It’s not always available on every flight, but it’s ideal especially if you are traveling with a significant other. It’s an aisle and a window with no chance of having a stranger in the seat in between you, and makes for a more enjoyable flight when you can stretch out together. It’s about as luxurious an experience as you can get in economy class.

Wear Comfortable Clothing
This is an absolute must. We recommend layering here because we all know flights can be very cold at times.  And,  if you’re one of the unfortunate souls to be stuck in a center seat between two bodies, it can be very warm. The last thing you want is to be wearing something uncomfortable for hours on end.

Bring Plenty of Reading Material
Now is the time to catch up on that stack of catalogs you’ve been meaning to look through or those magazines you just haven’t had the time to read. You can pack them and if you don’t want to keep, you can discard before you get off the plane. Most airlines have entertainment on board, so there will be plenty of movies, TV shows, etc., to watch on your flight, but we recommend having a combination of things to do. It helps break up the flight–especially if it is 12 to 15 hours or more. Pick a book to download or buy one to carry—now is the time for a great story because not only will you have the flight there, but don’t forget about the flight back.

Organize Your Laptop
If you are bringing your laptop or even your iPad, take this time to organize all your files, delete things you don’t need anymore, etc. I once organized my entire laptop on a 5 hour non stop flight. It’s something we never make time for, but really needs to be done and provides a great sense of accomplishment when you do.

Carry On Your Bedtime Routine
When it’s time to go to bed, we all have our routine—wash our face, brush our teeth, put our pajamas on. Have a strategy for your “things to do time”, but when it’s time to get some shuteye, it’s important to follow your typical routine and make sure you pack those items in your carry and they’re easily accessible. If you decide to use a sleep aid, make sure you try it out at home first, especially if you’ve never used it before. The last thing you need is to be super knocked out or groggy when you finally get to your destination.

Make it a Spa Experience
Flying is very dehydrating to the skin and body, so you make sure you drink plenty of water on your flight. There are socks you can buy to moisturize your feet and you can purchase a travel mask featuring hydrating ingredients to leave you feeling refreshed and your skin looking amazing when you get off the plane. We used one on our long haul flight to Thailand. It’s a sheet mask you simply lay over your face (it has eye holes so you can see). Our flight attendants were so impressed they all kept coming over asking us about it. We used Hydrate by Peach and Lily and they have other ones as well.

When it comes to a long haul flight, the most important thing is to get creative and be comfortable. You can pack a deck of cards, write a good old-fashioned letter to a aging relative (they will really appreciate hearing from you), do a word search or channel your inner child and buy a new coloring book and crayons. There is no one to judge you. And, who cares really? What are the chances you’ll ever see these people again?

Visiting Warner Brothers Studios UK: The Making of Harry Potter

Most of those who love Harry Potter and all things associated with the books and movies know there are theme park rides dedicated to the Boy Wizard, but did you know there is a warehouse just outside London that houses many of the original sets, costumes, and props used in the making of the films? Not only can Potter fans visit the original movie sets, but they can also see first hand how the movie sets were developed, hear about what is was like for these young actors and actresses to grow up on a movie set, learn about the movie making process, how the animals were trained and cared for during the making of the movies, and discover some of the secrets behind the incredible computer assisted cinematic genius in all 8 of the films. Visitors can also try their hand at wand dueling, learn the art of broomstick riding, practice their spells, and taste real butterbeer. While it isn’t an inexpensive attraction, a family of four can visit for about the cost of a 1-day theme park ticket.

Warner Brothers Studios UK was home to the entire cast and crew of the Harry Potter Movie Series for 10 years. The studio decided to recreate the sets and display props, costumes and behind the scenes memorabilia to share with the public, and created this magical experience adjacent to the working studios. Open since 2012, visitors can now immerse themselves in the world of Harry Potter and his companions and not only walk in their footsteps but learn about the magic of movie making as well.

Because traveling with children can be a little complicated, especially when there is a 10 year age gap between the oldest and youngest child, we try to allow each child an opportunity to provide us with a wish list of activities and attractions he or she is excited to experience for each trip.

Our 12 year old son has spent the last few years, engrossed in the World of Harry Potter. Once he found out this tour was possible, it was his first priority for our trip to London. To allow for everyone to be engaged in this more than 3 hour tour, we watched all 8 films as a family.

Buying your tickets

Tickets for this tour sell out fairly quickly, and must be purchased in advance. I bought our tickets 3 months in advance, and the availability was very limited. So book as early as possible for the best dates and times. If the day you are hoping to book appears sold out, keep checking the website, before giving up or booking a bus package. The studio allows for patrons to exchange their tickets for a small fee, so days may open up. I was able to add a ticket to our tour just 2 weeks before we went.

Getting to the studio

The Studios are located in Watford, England: approximately 20 miles away from London. There are dedicated tours that offer a hotel pickup and drop off and your entry ticket. There are also transportation services that provide transport to and from the studio, but do not provide your entry ticket. If you are someone who worries about navigating public transportation or are not a fan of Uber/Lyft, one of these two options are probably for you.

I am a terrible navigator, so if I can get to the studio from London, anyone can. The train to Watford station was easy for us to find and it was a 20 minute ride. As soon as you reach the platform, there are signs very visibly posted, pointing the way to the Harry Potter bus. The bus was waiting at the station to bring us on a 20 minute journey to the Studio. Per adult, with an oyster card, the train and the bus was about £10.00. Children are about half the cost.

For those who love coupons and bargains: Groupon UK has been offering vouchers for a special ticket that includes a self guided tour from 5 pm to midnight, a butterbeer, a beverage of choice, and a meal from the Backlot Restaurant on site for £50.00. The dates are limited, but might be worth a look.

What to Expect on the Tour

Arrival to the studio

Just outside the studio, there are multiple ticket windows to pick up tickets if you bought through the studio website. There may be another queue as all bags are searched and all adults are wanded with metal detectors, prior to entering.

Beginning the self guided tour

Upon arrival, there is a short wait to watch a video on the self guided tour. There is a photo area at the beginning for family or individual pictures while you wait. There is also a small snack shop and a gift shop. After the movie, the doors open, and you are free to wander this enormous space at your leisure.

Essentially, this is a gigantic warehouse that has been broken up into several sets, each with a theme and the props and accompaniments associated with the theme. We found it difficult to move quickly from one set to the next, because each area was so intricate and detailed. We just wanted to keep exploring.

Interactive exhibits

There are several interactive exhibits that may have a line. Our favorite was levitating broomsticks, followed by a lesson in wand dueling, taught by a local staff member and the real onset instructor to the movie stars, via recorded video.

There are two photo/video opportunities. Your party can dress in their favorite house colors and pose for a group pic, and individually, take a ride on a mechanical broomstick and with the help of green screen animation. Participants fly over Hogwarts and various screen locations from the movies. Your ride is captured on video, and you can choose to purchase or not.

Dining Options

There is only one, fairly small fast casual restaurant. The Backlot Restaurant offers an opportunity to try your very own butterbeer and a souvenir mug can be purchased as well. There are sandwiches and various cooked to order options such as burgers and vegetarian hot dogs, but be aware, this was the longest wait of the evening for us. If possible, pack your own meal, and just wait for the butterbeer. Time goes fast at this attraction.

Once through the restaurant, the exhibits continue outdoors, and then back indoors.

The Newest Exhibit

Opened in April 2019, is the new addition of Gringott’s Bank. Costumes, behind the scenes displays of how masks and other special prosthetics were developed, and even the bank vault are now on display.

A Warning for Young Visitors

While most of the exhibits are family friendly, my youngest was frightened by the Forbidden Forest and the giant, crawling spiders, and a very realistic CGI dragon that destroys Gringott’s. Just be aware, bypassing these may make for a better night’s sleep.

Returning to London

Be sure to check the train schedule for your return times to London. Make sure you are aware what time the next express train will be departing: it’s the difference between a 12 minute ride and a 50 minute ride back to the city.

A Do It Your Yourself Edinburgh Pub Crawl

During our holiday trip to Scotland, Sarah and I were disappointed to learn our Edinburgh Pub Crawl was cancelled. It was one of the top things we were looking forward to, so we each took to the Internet to create our own list of traditional as well as interesting pubs in Edinburgh. What resulted was an eclectic mix of old and new and a super fun night out in Scotland!

Panda & Sons

The Art of Travel Company Edinburgh
The “Barbershop”

We started off the night at Panda & Sons. By day, this actually looks like a Barber Shop on the outside (we actually walked by during our food tour), but in reality is a secret craft cocktail bar modeled after the prohibition era speakeasy that requires prearrangement to get in. You even enter through a bookcase door! The cocktail list is extensive and they do offer light appetizers. It’s definitely a local place and worth a stop. Try the Birdcage Cocktail. It’s really quite the presentation.

Do It Yourself Edinburgh Pub Crawl
Entering the speakeasy through the secret bookcase

Edinburgh Pub Crawl
The Birdcage Cocktail Presentation

52 Canoes

Do It Yourself Edinburgh Pub Crawl
The bar selection

Do It Yourself Edinburgh Pub Crawl
Cheers to the Tiki!

Everyone who knows me, understands I am a big fan of the Tiki Bar and when I found out there was one in Edinburgh, I knew we just had to go. It’s quite the contrast in this medieval city and the minute you walk in, no matter how cold it is outside, the décor instantly warms you. Full of colorful lighting and totem poles, it transforms you to a tropical location. The drink menu does not disappoint and it was a great place to get one of our fave’s—the mojito. They have the best rum selection in the city and a full menu. You can tell by the smiles on our faces, it was a favorite amongst us all.

The Blue Blazer

Do It Yourself Pub Crawl Edinburgh
Cozying up to the fire

This is a very traditional Scottish Pub built in 1867. It’s a quiet, quaint, local place. The one thing it has going for it, (and the reason we stopped here) is because it is the one of the only pubs in Edinburgh that has a fireplace. We didn’t hang here long, but we managed to score a seat right in front of the fire. The drink prices were really reasonable as well.

The Tolbooth Tavern

Do It Yourself Edinburgh Pub Crawl

This was absolutely the perfect way to cap off the night! Rich in history, the Tolbooth is actually rumored to be one of the most haunted buildings in Edinburgh. It dates back to 1591 when the building was used to collect tolls from travelers entering the burgh.

We happened into the tavern during karaoke night and had a chance to hear some of the local singers. I even managed to get Sarah to drink some whiskey (which she said she’d never do). We danced, we drank whiskey and we laughed. It was a great night of making awesome memories with those you love.

Do It Yourself Edinburgh Pub Crawl
Proof that Sarah drank whiskey!

Do It Yourself Pub Crawl Edinburgh
Here’s to a pub crawl well done!

%d bloggers like this: