August 11, 2016

Six Trips Which Should Be Booked at Least a Year in Advance

Some destinations require advance planning due to limited availability, high popularity, or both.  Often the best options book up early, and in some situations there may be only one good option!  If any of these are on your list for 2017, you should start planning now.

African Safari   

The best Africa lodges and tented camps are small and intimate, often less than a dozen rooms, so there isn't much space to begin with.   Safaris are popular for family reunions or celebration trips, so it's not uncommon for one group to book the entire property.   Families should note that lodges might have only one family suite which can sleep 4 people, otherwise you will have to book two separate rooms.  

Who says you have to rough it while on safari?
The other key to a fantastic safari is having the right guide, and the most knowledgeable and respected ones are booked year round.  Even the escorted tours, that generally stay in larger lodges, are fully booked a year out. 

My client's South Africa wildlife encounter.

Due to a short travel season and high demand, hotels are booked to capacity every summer. The problem is exacerbated when cruise lines block chunks of hotel space far in advance, and I've had to reach in my bag of insider tricks to get even one room for my clients.  Wilderness lodges are small, and I know at least one in Denali that is already sold out for most dates in summer 2017.   

This beautiful lodge, built by the owner, has only 14 rooms.
Lucky family got a clear view of Denali!
Want to travel on an expedition cruise so you can get up close to nature?  They carry less than 100 passengers so you have to grab your spot early.  You can find space on large ship cruises on fairly short notice, but the options will be limited.  Your choice of cabin location or itinerary may not be available. In my experience, the best rates and perks come with booking earlier rather than later.
My clients got up close to a calving glacier on their Lindblad cruise.
Tuscany Villa

Yes, there are lots of villas available at any given time if you are searching on the internet.  But if you want to book a property that you know has been vetted by a reliable source so there will no unpleasant surprises on arrival, you need to plan early.   And if you want one with everything on your wish list (a pool, near a quaint town, centrally located, etc.), all the more reason to plan early.  Those villas you see available in April for summer travel?  There's a good reason they are still on the market.  

Wine-tasting with a fabulous view.

An easy day trip to Florence

Its popularity has skyrocketed for travelers seeking adventure, especially as it's considered one of the safest European destinations.  Unfortunately the tourism infrastructure has not kept up with demand, so hotels and our preferred tour partners are heavily booked. Reykjav√≠k is a decent sized city, but finding accommodations in the countryside can be quite tricky.  And when you find yourself in a remote location with limited resources, you definitely want to be traveling with someone reliable.
Clients captured this gorgeous double rainbow on their epic family adventure. 

National Parks

The national parks are always popular, especially with families, but even more so as travelers prefer to stay close to home rather than venture out of the country.  Because of the convenience and historical aspects, staying at a lodge within park boundaries is highly desirable, so even the most modest accommodations book up early. 

Can't get much closer to the Grand Canyon rim than by staying at El Tovar

A little chilly on top with the residual snow,
but great weather for a hike into the canyon
This year's centennial celebration increased demand, and I expect spillover into 2017 from travelers who got locked out this year.  Guided hiking and cycling trips are especially popular with active travelers, but their set departure dates mean you have to book early.

There is much more to Yellowstone than Old Faithful!
Any Destination Over the Holidays

It's not uncommon for the top beach and ski resorts to have waiting lists more than a year in advance.  And most have strict minimum night stays, so you need to make sure you've blocked enough vacation time. The best rooms and suites (and guaranteed connecting rooms for families) are always the first to be snatched up.   

Ski out right from the terrace at the Ritz Carlton Lake Tahoe
The new Four Seasons Ko'Olina on Oahu does not have
a waiting list for the  holidays. Yet.
Imagine how happy and relaxed you would be to know you have the trip of your dreams planned out a year in advance. And research shows that the anticipation of a trip is what makes us happiest, so why not extend that feeling as long as possible?

Whether you plan to travel next week or next year, just send a note to suzette@family-treks.com and we'll get started setting up something for you to look forward to!

Our Amalfi Coast visit

July 22, 2016

High Adrenaline Hawaii

I recently vacationed on the Big Island of Hawaii with my family which includes two teens.  We had not been there since they were very young, so this time we got to experience some more active adventures.

This island has a large variety of unique activities, so if you are looking for more to do than just lay on the beach or by the pool, it could be the perfect destination for you.  Check out some of the fun things we did:

Stargazing at Mauna Kea
While looking through telescopes is not a high energy activity, getting to the top of the volcano does take some effort.   The Visitor Information Center is at 9200 ft, and at nightfall temperatures drop into the 50’s or below.  So we packed long pants, hats, gloves, and sweatshirts along with our bathing suits.   If you have a “true” 4WD drive vehicle you can drive to the  14000 ft summit on a steep gravel road (check safety guidelines first). 
Setting up the telescopes
Here you have one of the clearest night sky views on the planet, we could easily see the Milky Way with the naked eye.  We also  saw Jupiter, Mars and Saturn through telescopes, and watched deep space images on video monitors.
The Milky Way seen from Mauna Kea

Zodiac Raft Trip to Kealakekua Bay
Inacessible by car, Kealakekua Bay is one of the most protected harbors on the island and has exceptionally clear water. It is also the site of the Captain Cook Monument, the only foreign-owned land in the United States.  The crew will fill you in on the whole story.  You can also book catamaran trips and kayak trips, but if you like speed and watching dolphins surf next to you, the zodiac boat is the way to go.

Chasing a fish off a volcano
Exploring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
There is a lot to see here, and I generally recommend my clients spend a night or two at the summit. (I review the pros and cons with my clients as we design their itinerary.) 

Checking out a steam vent with a GoPro
Walk through a lava tube
We powered through a full day trip from our resort, and were still able to drive the entire length of Chain of Craters Road, have dinner, then go back to see the glow in the caldera after dark.
Kilauea by day and night
What’s exciting right now is a new lava flow which started right before our arrival.  It does require  advance planning as views are only accessible from a parking area about 45 minutes outside the park entrance, and you must hike a few miles along an emergency road.

Note: Lava conditions can change in hours, so visitors need to read the current updates on the NPS website, and talk to rangers before heading out on any hikes.
Lava arches at the end of the road

Night Snorkel With Manta Rays
This was not only the highlight of our trip, but could very well be one of the most amazing wildlife encounters we will have in our lifetime. Because of the particular tour we booked, we had at least a dozen huge manta rays (3-10 ft. wing span) swimming within inches of us.  Yes, it was scary at first, but it didn’t take long to relax, realize we were safe, and enjoy the experience.  You can see a video my son took with his GoPro here.

This isn't a spaceship, it's the underside of a manta ray!

And More Snorkeling!
The Big Island is known for some of the best snorkeling in Hawaii and we were not disappointed.  This is one of our favorite activities (we call ourselves "snorkel snobs"), so we chose a resort that had good snorkeling on site and several good beaches nearby, including one with black sand.  There were also lots of turtles at our resort, so it was not unusual to see them in and out of the water. 
Great snorkeling right at our resort
Lots of coral reefs and fish like this Moorish idol
There are many other fun adventures on the Big Island that we didn’t have time to fit in our trip:

Waterfall zip line ~ ATV or horseback riding at Waipio Valley ~ Swim with dolphins
Akaka Falls

Helicopter flightseeing  ~ Lava hike ~  Bicycling tours ~ Scuba and SNUBA

Lava fields
For more information about how to plan a fun Hawaii vacation for your family, send an email to suzette@family-treks.com.

June 26, 2016

Beating the Heat at The Ritz Carlton Rancho Mirage

I recently traveled to the Palm Springs area for my nephew’s graduation.  My sister and I grabbed the opportunity for a one night girls’ getaway, and I instantly thought of the Ritz Carlton Rancho Mirage, a property I have been eyeing for a while. I have many clients who travel to this area to visit family, or attend events like the Coachella Music Festival.

Palm Desert
The desert is hot in summer, of course, but this particular weekend it was even hotter than normal, with temperatures around 115 by mid afternoon.   Now why would someone want to spend good money at a luxury resort in these conditions??  Would you do anything other than sit in your room? 
Note the time at the top
Well, in fact I learned that this is the BEST place to be when temperatures are soaring, for several reasons:

> If you are going to be stuck inside, why not be stuck inside a beautiful resort with an elegant bar and restaurant with views, or a spacious room with comfy beds?

Inviting seating area in the lobby

Indoor - outdoor decor
Lots of space in even the entry-level rooms
> Most homeowners' pools are too warm to enjoy when temperatures soar above 100 deg.  But the Ritz Carlton’s pools were chilled, so they were refreshing, and after a quick dunk we were even comfortable sitting on the lounge chairs for quite a while.

Checking out the family pool from the poolside bar
> The resort had many outdoor shaded seating areas.  And while it’s still hot in the shade, it is cool enough to be tolerable. When you've been out in 115 deg temps, the upper 90's feel relatively cool.

Outdoor bar seating
A quiet area in the shade around the corner from  the bar
> There are misters outside the rooms and around the pool, so you don't even have to get completely wet to be comfortable.

Our private patio with misters and a shared firepit 
Sure doesn't feel like it's 115 now!
We were at the resort for exactly 24 hours, and we relished every minute.  We enjoyed a fantastic wine tasting while waiting for our room, hosted by a rep from Michael David wines. 

Big reds - yummy!
Ready for a group of locals to visit
Once in our room, we quickly changed and headed over to the quiet adult pool, with fabulous views across the valley.  

So peaceful!
Location, location, location!
We had to drag ourselves away for our dinner reservation at State Fare, and when I heard they were known for their hamburgers, I knew exactly what to order.  And my sister was happy to try the fried avocados that she had heard others rave about.  

It was as good as it looks.  And those fries!!
Guests dining at the steakhouse have a fantastic view of the valley

After dinner the temperatures had dropped to more reasonable levels, so we strolled around the grounds.   We knew the rooms on the west side were getting a great sunset view, as we could see the last rays glowing on the mountains across the valley.

Firepit rooms next to the lawn are perfect for families,
Never tired of the reflecting pool, which was always changing

Kids were playing lawn games as parents watched from their patios with fire pits, and some guests were eagerly waiting for the telescope to be set up for stargazing.   There were plenty of private spaces around the resort where guests could sit and chat.
Whimsical decorations
Bye bye sun, hello cooler temps!
The next morning we grabbed our coffee and found a quiet spot to read and enjoy the view, then took a tour of the spa.

Morning light
Great nighttime and daytime views from this spot
Another look at those firepit rooms
The co-ed lounge at the spa
For our remaining hours in paradise we hung out by the main pool, which was just steps from our outdoor patio.  After lunch, we relocated to our patio with the misters to enjoy our last few hours of our girls' getaway. It was with great reluctance that we packed our bags and headed home.

Yummy poolside tacos!
Really, we have to leave?
When I book clients at the Ritz Carlton Rancho Mirage, they receive these complimentary Virtuoso amenities:

* Upgrade on arrival, subject to availability
* Daily buffet breakfast, for up to two in room guests
* $100 resort credit
Early check-in/late check-out, subject to availability

Yes, this breakfast is free for my clients!
And more breakfast around the corner (surrounded by wine)
So don't be scared to head to the desert in summer.  It might turn out to be a really cool vacation!