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.

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 Thanksgiving Getaway

Thanksgiving Getaway ideas Zach Stovall Photography

Still thinking about getting away for Thanksgiving? Take advantage of the long weekend (fly on Thanksgiving for reduced fares) and head to the BVI Food Fete Lobster Festival on Anegada in the British Virgin Islands on November 24 and 25th. This annual culinary festival features local spiny lobster prepared by the islands best local chefs from Anegada’s participating restaurants. It’s a fun-filled culinary adventure featuring live music, art from well-known regional artisans and a sunset party, all in the gorgeous setting of the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean! With over 60 islands and cays spanning 600 nautical miles, it’s the perfect place for island hopping and there’s plenty to do and see (including the famous Anegada flamingos)—all just a plane ride away!

Getting there:

USVI Ferries depart from St Thomas and St John and BVI inter island ferries depart from Road Town on Tortola, Virgin Gorda, and Beef Island

Via Air Travel:

From the USA, fly to St Thomas (STT) or San Juan Puerto Rico (SJU) on major carriers American Airlines, Delta, Jet Blue and Spirit, connect to BVI via Seaborne or Cape Air

Where to Stay:

Anegada Beach Club—For an outof the ordinary experience, stay at the Anegada Beach Club. This resort is glamping at it’s finest with luxury, beachfront palapa style retreats—all freshly built.

For more information on the BVI Food Fete, visit http://bvifoodfete.com/anegada-lobster-festival/

Things to Do:

Chill on the beach first of all!  Seriously though, we are huge fans of the British Virgin Islands.  It’s home to many iconic beach bars–including the legendary floating Willy T (Yes, you read that right.  We did say “floating”) and the Soggy Dollar, birthplace of the famous drink the painkiller.  If you’ve never heard of these places, they are just a sampling of the many hidden gems in the BVI’s that are bucket list worthy.

Soggy Dollar Beach Bar BVI
It doesn’t get any better than drinking a painkiller in a hammock outside the Soggy Dollar

Visiting Iceland’s Blue Lagoon

I am a little uptight. I can admit that.  So when planning our family trip to Iceland recently, the thought of visiting a European/Scandinavian Spa and the famous Blue Lagoon was not high on my list of “must sees”.

We always try to find an authentic local experience when we travel, and utilizing their favorite swimming destination seemed like a great idea to get to know the locals a little. Then I saw the images online and read several descriptions about the beauty, the serenity and the unique experience the Blue Lagoon provides.  I read about the swim up bar and medicinal qualities of the water and I was little more intrigued.  The silica and other minerals are known to have healing properties for a variety of ailments, and I began to consider trying to get over some of my many hangups.   I realized that it is also one of the top visited destinations in Iceland, so I decided to try to let go of my Puritanical mindset, and when in Iceland, do as Icelanders ( and a whole lot of tourists) do.

Iceland is known for their love of all things aquatic. Heated outdoor pools are open year round for fun, relaxation and recreation. There are several naturally heated lagoons also popular and available year round. Their most famous pool, The Blue Lagoon, is not a recreational facility, but a man made, naturally heated geothermal pool, open all year for rest, rejuvenation and relaxation. It is one of the most popular attractions in Southern Iceland, and very convenient to Keflavík Airport.

If you ask my children, the Blue Lagoon was their favorite experience in Iceland.  My four year old asks weekly when we will be returning, so she can visit “the moon pool”. It was so much more than what I had envisioned: it was fun, relaxing, tranquil, beautiful, soothing, and one of the most unique experiences we have had as a family. If you are anything like me, and the thought of stranger’s sneaking a peak of you in your birthday suit doesn’t appeal, here is a list of things you should know before booking your entry to this tranquil Spa.

The Blue Lagoon Iceland1. Your entry must be booked in advance.  

Tickets are sold for entry on the hour, but you can stay as long as you like.  There are no walk in entry tickets. There are several types of pre-booked tickets to choose from, and add ons for spa treatments, meals, beverages, and even a private dressing room.  I would recommend at least booking the algae mask, mud mask and one drink with entry.

The Blue Lagoon Iceland

2.  Children are free and under 2 are not allowed in the water.  Children 8 and under must wear arm flotation devices, provided for you. The water temperature is just about 95 degrees Fahrenheit; so children must be monitored and kept hydrated.

The Blue Lagoon Iceland

3. Bathing suits are NOT optional. No need to worry about uneven tan lines in Iceland.

4. A secure locker is provided with your entry ticket. Upon entry, you will receive a bracelet (think Disney World) that locks and unlocks your locker, and is scanned each time you make a purchase. Your bill is tallied, upon exiting.

5. You must shower naked prior to entry in the Lagoon.  There are no chemicals in the water of the lagoon, and all patrons must cleanse thoroughly prior to entry.  There are attendants monitoring the shower room. The water in the lagoon is constantly moving and renews itself every 48 hours.

6. There are doors on most of the showers and private changing rooms in the main locker room, providing privacy for those who are not into flashing a little skin.  I read several times in various descriptions patrons are subjected to a gang shower and open changing areas.  I found that to be completely untrue, much to my relief (and my teenage daughter’s relief).  Of course, most patrons have no problem just showering with the door open and walking around in the nude, so be prepared for an eyeful. If you are not into the camaraderie of a locker room, a ticket that provides access to a private dressing room is available.

7. This is a world renowned spa: Don’t hesitate to make this the experience of your dreams. Celebrities such as Beyoncé have been known to visit the spa…peruse the treatment menu, sample their exclusive skincare products, consider an in-water massage.

The Blue Lagoon Iceland

8. Don’t rush it: be sure and visit the restaurant, the observation decks, and the steam rooms. We took the opportunity to make this our first destination. Most International flights arrive and depart at the same time, and most patrons will make this a stop just prior to return flights in the afternoon/early evening, as the Lagoon is near the airport, and at least 30 minutes from Reykjavik. We arrived just as they were opening, and we witnessed a gorgeous sunrise and small crowds. We were able to relax, use the lounge chairs and booked a table in the restaurant.

The Blue Lagoon Iceland

9. Don’t be a tourist and pay 4.00 for a bottle of water. Iceland is known to have the cleanest water in the world, running through its plumbing. There is a faucet just to the right of the first floor snack bar, with cups provided. There are also spigots under the bridges in the lagoon for drinking and rinsing.

The Blue Lagoon Iceland

10. Towels (and bathrobes, if you buy the splurge entry) are provided, and if you forget your suit, a bathing suit can even be rented. All towels are identical; however we brought our children their own, so they were easily identified. If you have the suitcase room and don’t like the thought of sharing, consider bringing your own.

Getting There:  Fly direct into Keflavik Airport from over 80 destinations in Europe in North America.


The 8 Most Amazing Natural Sights in Southern Iceland

Iceland has quickly become one of the HOTTEST travel destinations, and it comes as no surprise to those who’ve been. This country is a natural wonderland, full of history, folklore, Vikings and trolls; yes, trolls.  With so much to see and do, one thing you simply MUST NOT do, is stay within the Reykjavik city center.  Whether this is a stopover for 24 hours, or Iceland is your only destination, rent a car, book a bus tour, or hire a private guide and get out and enjoy the incredible natural beauty you will find no where else in the world.


This is Iceland’s fourth largest ice glacier, with its highest peak around 4500 feet. What is most fascinating and frightening, is it sits atop an active volcano that is past due to erupt. Katla, has erupted in routine intervals, totaling 20 times since 900 A.D. and has been quietly brewing since 1918. Occasionally, closures to the glacier occur if movement underground is detected. But for now, visitors enjoy snowmobiling, hiking, or exploring the caves underneath, as well as aerial touring.


myrdalsjokull Ice Glacier iceland
Myrdalsjokull Ice Glacier


Head underground and experience a 5200 year old tunnel created by an eruption in the Leitahraun Lava Fields, located in the mountains of the Reykjanes Peninsula.  Guided tours take visitors deep into this fascinating  cave, adorned with colorful rocks, stalagmites, stalactites, and ice sculptures. Be prepared when the guide cuts the lights to give visitors a glimpse into what pure darkness is–trust me, it’s not for the faint of heart.

Entrance to the Lava Tunnel, Iceland
Entrance to the Lava Tunnel

The Lava Tunnel, Iceland
The Ceiling caved in, allowing natural light to the entrance of the cave.

Inside the Lava Tunnel Iceland
Stalactite and stalagmite formations

Inside the Lava Tunnel Iceland
Deeper into the cave.


Gunnuvher is the largest of Iceland’s natural geothermal mud pools, created by hot gas underground, that comes out of fissures in the earth’s tectonic plates. The legend of this incredibly powerful (and dangerously hot) geothermal geyser, involves a witchy woman, a priest, and a ball of string. I do believe there may be a joke in there, but there’s nothing funny about standing on the viewing platform and watching the smoke billow from underground as the earth boils around you.  Stay on the path in this area as you take in the beautiful colors surrounding the platform, created by mineral deposits in the earth.

Gunnuhver Hot Spring Iceland
Notice the Original Footbridge next to the Geyser…did I mention the temperature can reach upwards of 550 degrees F?


Reykjanesta is Reykjanes Peninsula’s southwestern most point.  It is characterized by Reykjanesviti (lighthouse), the Valahnjukur cliffs, sea stacks, and a statue of The Great Auk.  The largest of the sea stacks is thought to be a night-troll named Karl, who turned to rock after being caught by daylight.  Listen as the waves crash violently against the rocks, watch the sea foam and resident flocks of Arctic Tern, fly simultaneously, and try not to get blown away by the hurricane force winds.  If you aren’t afraid of heights and wind, there is a path to get a closer view of the coastline and Eldey Island on a clear day.

Reykjanesbær Iceland
Karl, the Troll at Reykjanesbaer


The Great Auk
The Great Auk with Reykjanesviti in the background


Located in the small town of Vik, this black sand beach is considered to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Reynisdrangar is the name of the basalt stack formations in the waters.  According to local folklore, they are thought to be night-trolls, turned to rock in the daylight, while trying to pull ships from the sea.  Explore the caves, enjoy the waves crashing on shore or look for Puffins.  If you are visiting during Spring or Summer months, do not underestimate the power of the ocean.  It is not uncommon for unsuspecting tourists to be swept out to sea and is recommended never to turn your back on the waves here.

IcelandBlack sand Beaches of Vik


Seltun is part of a large Geothermal field, known as Krysuvik. There are several wooden bridges and paths that take you through the bubbling, steaming mud pools.  You are surrounded by yellow, red and green hues, created by the reaction of the high mineral content in the soil and the sulfur underground. Several craters have occurred due to the explosion of overheated underground water.  Graenavatn is an incredibly beautiful bluish-green lake, created from one such explosion.  While beautiful to look at, driving around it is an adventure;  there are no guardrails to prevent you from being blown into the lake should a strong Icelandic gust of wind happen along.

Sultan Geothermal Area Iceland
The water was approximately 100 degrees F.

Graenavatn Lake
I took this photo from the car window and did not Zoom in…the road really is that close.


Too dangerous for winter hiking, but those who dare can hike behind the falls for a spectacular view in summer. Local legend tells the story of a famous Viking hiding a chest of treasure behind the falls. No one has ever unearthed the chest, but supposedly someone did manage to reach it and rip a handle off. It was donated to a local church and is now on display in the Skokar Museum.  This spectacular 200 foot waterfall is supplied by the Eyjafjallajökull Glacier, which sits atop a very active volcano that last erupted in 2010.  There are several other smaller falls, all within walking distance of Seljalensfoss, which should also be explored, if time allows.  Come hungry and be sure to fill up on hearty meat (sheep) stew from the little commissary on sight.  For 15.00 USD, it’s a bargain at standard Icelandic prices!


Sheep Stew Iceland
Sheep stew–yummy


These majestic falls have a vertical drop of 200 feet and an opening 82 feet wide. This is 35 feet higher than Niagara Falls.  Whether you remain on the ground and view from the base, or you venture the 370 steps to view from the top, it’s impossible not to be awed by its power and beauty.  As millions of gallons of water spray over the falls daily, it is also very common to experience a rainbow or double rainbow as you view it; as if it wasn’t beautiful enough on its own.

Skógafoss Iceland
Rainbow and Skógafoss

Skogafoss Iceland
370 steps to the top and 370 steps back.

Cong, Ireland–Falconry, Castles and the Hungry Monk

Ireland is a magical place full of stunning scenery, historic ruins and amazing people. Dublin is a great city, but if you’re the adventurous type, I encourage you to get out into the scenic countryside and explore some of the quaint villages. I promise you, it’s worth it.

Ashford Castle, Cong Ireland
A view of Ashford Castle from Lough Corrib

My husband and I traveled to the Village of Cong, County of Mayo, located in Northwest Ireland. It’s peak season in July, and while prices are at their highest, this time of year has its advantages, as the sun rises around 5:00 am and doesn’t set until 10:00 pm, allowing you to really maximize the day. We stayed at the historic Ashford Castle, former home and estate of the Guiness family—a definite splurge but worth paying for. The 350 acre estate is also home to  Ireland’s School of Falconry, an experience so unique, we left wanting to get our own back home.

Ashford Castle Hawk Walk, Ireland's School of Falconry, Things to do in Cong Ireland
The best experience ever!

We started our “Hawk Walk” in the morning and were the first people of the day. Edward, our instructor, gave us a tour of the grounds along with an introduction to falconry.  He explained how unlike other birds of prey, the Harris’s Hawk is not loyal to one person; therefore, it is the best to use for multiple handlers.

The experience was unlike anything we’ve ever done—a true bucket list type moment. The walk lasted an hour with us starting out in a park like setting before heading out into the thick of the woods, making it more challenging for the hawks. From the looks of them, you’d think it would be hard to hold up your arm and carry them around, but in reality, they truly are, “light as a feather.” Watching them maneuver through the trees without so much as grazing a branch or a leaf, is mind blowing.  When you call them in, and they come flying towards you at top speed, you can’t help but brace yourself at first, thinking they’ll latch onto the glove, but they simply land gracefully and quietly. Once the hawks were full, we headed back to return our hawks and head into the village for the day. (The walk is is how they feed them. A hawks life expectancy in the wild is about four years, but in captivity it’s approximately twelve.)

The Village of Cong, is very quaint with amazing historic ruins to walk through. There is no cost to tour the ruins; you simply wander at your leisure. It’s also the film location for an Oscar-winning, old movie classic, “A Quiet Man” starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. There is actually a statue of them in town and you can also tour the Quiet Man’s Museum which has an exact replica of the White O’Morn Cottage featured in the film.

The best place to eat hands down is the Hungry Monk. My lunch was simple–smoked salmon with salad and a piece of Irish brown bread. And, if you are into dessert, this is definitely the place to calorie splurge; it’s worth every single bite!

Restaurants in Cong Ireland, the Hungry Monk
My simple and delicious meal at the Hungry Monk!

Getting there: Cong is located approximately an hour and thirty minutes north of the Shannon Airport via the M-18.

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