April 14, 2014

New Orleans' Hidden Luxury Hotel

I recently visited New Orleans for the first time, and I had some trepidation because of its rowdy reputation.  On top of that, my friends and I were staying in a hotel right on Bourbon St, yikes!

But I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.  When I walked into the Royal Sonesta Resort, it was like entering an oasis.  The lobby is impressive with large floral arrangements, interesting artwork, and traditional French Quarter architectural features.  On site there is a coffee shop, a jazz bar, a well-known restaurant, an oyster bar, and a pretty outdoor terrace with fountain.  An outdoor pool with a bar and spa cabanas is sequestered in the center of the hotel, a nice amenity year-round.

There were four of us celebrating a friend’s birthday, so we booked a split level suite, which turned out to be the perfect set up.  It had a spacious living room on the first level, with both a double and single sofa bed, and a spiral staircase led upstairs to a bedroom with a queen bed and bathroom.   There are only eight of these suites, some of which are located poolside, so they can book up early.

Royal Sonesta Split Level Suite - Living Room
Royal Sonesta Split Level Suite - Bedroom
Our suite opened to a shared patio area with covered tables, and despite having lively Bourbon St just on the other side of the wall, it was amazingly quiet.   Service was very good, everything we asked for was delivered promptly:  extra towels, extra blow dryer, even middle of the night pizza.  The hotel also has an exclusive Club Level on the 7th floor which serves breakfast, cocktails, and hors d'oeuvres.

Patio outside our suite
The location was excellent, with Canal St. only 2 blocks away, and Jackson Square and the waterfront an easy 10 minute walk.

For those who want to be close, but not right on, Bourbon St, Canal Street is lined with  many hotel options, including the regal Ritz Carlton New Orleans, which I also toured.

Like many hotels in the French Quarter, the hotel is quite large, taking up almost a whole block with its 527 rooms and suites.  The first three 3 floors used to be a department store, and a beautiful fountain outside the spa on the ground floor is a leftover from that era.
Fountain outside the spa
There are several public spaces, including a former “smoking lounge" with sofas and game tables,  a pretty outdoor courtyard with wrought iron furniture, and gaslight lamps, and the Davenport Lounge, named in honor of headliner Jeremy Davenport who has performed there for many years.  The dining room opens to this lounge, so guests can have a supper club experience.
Former smoking lounge off the lobby
The Davenport Lounge
I was first shown the 2800 sq. ft. Ritz Carlton suite, which had traditional décor with muted wall colors, ornate drapery, and wainscoting.   It was recently renovated, and a pool table was added.   It has hardwood and tile flooring, a full kitchen, living room with fireplace, and a large outdoor terrace with panoramic views overlooking the French Quarter, all the way to the river.

The Ritz Carlton Suite
Canal St view from the private terrace
Standard rooms and suites also have traditional décor with richly colored bedding. All suites have sofa beds, so they can accommodate a family of four if the children are young, and rollaways are also available.  French doors separate the bedroom and living room giving parents their privacy.
Standard room at the Ritz Carlton New Orleans 
One Bedroom Suite
If families want connecting rooms, there are 38 available in various configurations.  Some rooms have connecting doors, but many are set up as a “lock off suite” - separate rooms that share a foyer with a master door that can be locked off from the hallway.  There is even one suite that connects to 2 king rooms to create a 3 bedroom suite.

So I've talked about two very large hotels, neither of which are hard to miss.  So where is this "hidden hotel?" 

Well, it's inside the Ritz Carlton! Their Club Level is not just a dedicated floor, it is a “hotel within a hotel."  Club guests have to check in at the main lobby, but from that point on they never have to enter the main hotel as they have their own elevator and private drive. It's completely exclusive, offering guests an intimate and personalized boutique hotel experience combined with the amenities of a full size hotel.

The décor is distinctly different, with more neutral colors and wood floors, to give the feel of being in a Southern home. (In order to prevent scratches, rollaways are not allowed in these rooms, but they have air mattresses which are fun for kids. They fell like they are camping!) 

Club room at the Ritz Carlton New Orleans
The Club Lounge was very spacious, with multiple rooms and plenty of seating.  In addition to the usual food spread, there was a 24 hour “grab and go” station which is great for those always hungry kids.

The Club Lounge
Grab N Go Station in the Club Lounge
So if you want to experience Ritz Carlton service and luxury, but don’t want the "big hotel" feeling, then a Club room is the perfect solution!

While Bourbon Street does not exactly cater to children, the rest of the city offers family friendly activities, and the concierge can provide a “Top 10 List.”  The hotel provides POLO Kits (Protect Our Little Ones) which include outlet covers, infant/toddler bath amenities, and (if needed) a forehead thermometer strip, and parents can also request  cribs, pack & plays, infant bath tubs, humidifiers, a diaper pail,  microwave and mini-refrigerator.  

And of course, my clients receive exclusive Ritz Carlton STARS amenities, which include daily breakfast, a welcome gift, and upgrade on arrival if available.

If you’d like more information about planning a trip to New Orleans, or cruising from there, just send me a note at suzette@family-treks.com.

Cruise ship in port

February 27, 2014

Be Suspicious of Quick Answers to Your Travel Questions

I really need to quit reading the Q&A in the newspaper's travel section, because I always seem to get riled up.  Basically, readers write in with questions, such as what to do and see in a particular location, or what hotel or cruise is "the best."  And they get a brief answer, usually with very specific recommendations.

If a client called and asked me any of these questions, we would spend a minimum of 15 minutes in conversation before I would consider giving them an answer.

No cookie cutter answers
for my clients!

In fact, I’d be asking them a whole lot of questions right back, such as:
  • Can you tell me more about who is going on this trip?
  • Why are you going, what is your vision, are you celebrating anything?
  • How old are your kids, what are their interests & activities?
  • What are your favorite hotels?  
  • What do you like to do on vacation?
  • Have you ever cruised before, traveled outside the US, etc?
  • What are your hotel “must haves” and what do you like to avoid?
  • Do you want to be in the middle of the action or do you want a quiet retreat?
And something that is really important to families: do you need guaranteed connecting rooms or a specific bedding arrangement?

The answers I receive usually create more questions: “So you’re taking along the grandparents.  Do they have any mobility issues, or they ok with stairs and long walking distances?”
Spiral staircase to get to breakfast
Paris elevator - not for claustrophobes!
You can buy a guidebook and or easily find on the internet a list of top attractions of any destination.  But is a book or a website going to say “Since you are a gourmet cook, why don’t you check out this market, it’s the best one in the city.  Or better yet, how about a Farm to Fork tour?” 

Farmer's market in Provence

“Since your teens are active and enjoy being outdoors, this is a great place to rent bikes to explore the area.”


“This hotel has a zero-entry pool so it’s much easier to monitor your toddler, they can sit and splash in shallow water.  Then you don’t have to stand in the pool holding them the whole time.”  

Turks & Caicos waterpark
So you see there is no one right answer when it comes to travel.  Even the most expensive, top rated, most talked about hotel in the world is not “the best” hotel for everyone.  And the “must do/must see” list for a retired couple traveling alone is different from that of a family with young children.  
As for selecting a cruise, don't even get me started! 
When you thing about the variables for just one destination:  the cruise line, the ships within that line, cabin types, ports visited, onboard activities, etc. it staggers the mind. 
Small ship
Big ship
Or something in-between
My job is to make sure I give the best answer for each and every client.  And that requires a lot of communication between us.  Many people email or call to ask about rates for a specific hotel, often because their friends recommended it.  Personal recommendations are great, I use them all the time.  But is that really the best fit for you, of ALL the hotels available? 

After all, think about your friends and family members.  Do you all drive the same model car?  Like the same food?  Have the same hobbies?  I have over 300 Facebook friends, but there are only a handful that have the same travel style as I do.
Do you like cool, modern elegance...

Or warm, rustic luxury?
One time I had just returned from the destination featured in the Q&A section.  And while the “expert” recommended a couple things I agree with, there were several things I think he/she missed, and I would have narrowed the list even further if I knew the ages of the travelers.  They also made a dining recommendation which baffled me, as the town had many other much better restaurants.

So don’t believe everything you read!  

For help with planning the perfect vacation just for you, contact me at suzette@family-treks.com.

February 14, 2014

Five Factors to Consider When Selecting an Alaska Cruisetour

Alaska cruise brochures can be the most confusing to understand, even for an experienced travel advisor.  And the cruisetour section can be especially intimidating - so many choices, and so many tours that look similar.  

Of course, the easiest way to sort it all out is to ask your trusted travel advisor for guidance, as they ask the right questions to find the best fit for you. But if you'd like to figure it out on your own, or want to do a little research before reaching out to a professional, here are some tips to help you get started.

1) Do you want to do the cruise or the tour first?

I personally prefer a northbound cruise, because I enjoy the increasing anticipation of getting closer and closer to Alaska.  Also, the ports of embarkation, Vancouver and Seattle, offer a lot to do and see.  Since most travelers need to arrive at least one day prior to embarkation, they can use that time to explore one of the cities.
Vancouver cruise ship

However, the land tour requires a lot of moving around, so it’s more tiring than the cruise portion.  For that reason, many travelers opt to do the tour first, then spend the end of their trip relaxing.   But if you feel that you need some R&R before going on an adventurous land tour, then cruising first would be the better choice.
So, you see, it’s really a matter of personal preference.

2) How much time do you have?

The shortest cruisetour is 10 days (7 day cruise + 3 day land tour), but you generally need at least 11 days to allow for travel to the start of the cruise or the tour.  The less time you have, the fewer options available.  Most tours that stay within Alaska run a maximum of 13-14 days,  and Yukon tours go up to 16 days.

Market in Anchorage
Market in Anchorage
3) Where do you stop and for how many nights?

While it may seem there are a baffling number of tours available, on close inspection you'll notice that they generally visit the same areas.  The main differences will be the order of the itinerary, and the number of nights in each location (typically 1-3).  I find my clients fall into one of these groups:  they either want to hit the maximum number of places in the least amount of time, or they want to visit fewer places and have more free time for activities. 
Downtown Talkeetna
Downtown Talkeetna
Think about what you want to see and do, and note in which town those activities are available.  Then mentally walk yourself through the itinerary.  Are you OK with how often you will pack and unpack, how many early mornings you will have, how often you’ll be on a bus, how much free time you will have?  Will you have time for any "must do" excursions?

Some cruise lines offer “Direct to Denali” service which means they take you from the cruise ship to Denali National Park the same day.  It’s a long day, but it allows you to spend more time at Denali if that’s important to you.

Alaska Railroad
Alaska Railroad passing through Talkeetna
4) What Denali Park tour is included?

All accommodations are located outside the park boundaries.  The only way to travel deep into the park, and have a chance to see Mt. McKinley (if weather allows), is via a National Park Service bus.  Almost all cruisetour itineraries include one of the narrated bus tours, which vary in how far they travel into the park (15 to 53 miles, 4-8 hrs roundtrip).   The further you go, the more spectacular the scenery and the more opportunity to see wildlife. However, note that none of the narrated tours go as far as Eielson Visitor Center.
Denali Park shuttle bus
Park service bus
Denali Park Road
Denali Park Road
5) Would you prefer traveling on your own?

A cruisetour is the most seamless way to visit interior Alaska before or after a cruise.  If you want someone else to do all the planning, driving, and luggage handling, then that is the best choice.  But if you want to be more independent and even get off the beaten path a bit, you might consider doing a land tour on your own.  
Sled dog pups at Iditarod Race Headquarters
Sled dog pups at the Iditarod Race Headquarters
While there is plenty of public transportation in the Denali Park area, having your own car gives more flexibility in how you spend your time.   Though the distances in Alaska are long and services are limited, driving and navigating is quite easy.  You can start right at the cruise port, or you can travel to Anchorage and pick up a car there.
Driving to Denali
Driving to Denali from Anchorage
In my opinion, one of the biggest benefits of traveling independently is having time in your schedule to take the park service shuttle into Denali instead of a tour bus.  If you are up for the long day (11-12 hrs), then you can travel the entire length of the park road, over 80 miles, and enjoy all the amazing scenery this beautiful, remote wilderness area has to offer. It is truly the trip of a lifetime.

Brown bear in Denali Park
Brown bear on Denali Park Road
I’ve traveled all over the state of Alaska, so whether you travel by ship, bus, train, or car, I can custom design an itinerary just for you, and provide insider tips for a fun and memorable vacation.  For more information on how to get started on your dream trip to Alaska, contact me at suzette@family-treks.com.

January 18, 2014

Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara: A Perfect Family Retreat

Spacious cottages, a beautiful beach, expansive lawns, an exclusive beach club, complimentary kids’ club, and gorgeous sunsets.  What more could you ask for in a family resort?  The Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara offers everything a family could want, whether traveling alone or with the grandparents, siblings, and cousins.   Located just 2 hours from LAX, it’s easy to get to from anywhere in the country, and it makes a great stop on a driving tour of the California coast.

The resort is separated from the Pacific Ocean by a quiet two lane road used primarily by local residents.   In summer, butlers tend to guests soaking up the sun on quiet Butterfly Beach. A huge lawn area gives kids (and pets) plenty of room to run around, or play a game of croquet. 

Music plays underwater in the centrally located Jungle Pool, and two hot tubs offer different temperatures to ensure everyone a comfortable place to relax.  While children are entertained in the complimentary Kids for All Seasons program, parents can enjoy the huge spa, rated #1 in the US by TripAdvisor.

All rooms are beautifully furnished, but the cottages are the real gem of this resort. They are comprised of 4 units:  a 1 bedroom suite plus 3 more bedrooms, which can be booked separately, or connected to make up to a 4 bedroom cottage.  The main building has standard rooms and suites as well, many of which are connecting.  Room size and décor is similar across the property, except cottage rooms have hardwood floors instead of carpeting.  Deluxe rooms have outdoor seating areas, and one bedrooms suites all have a king bed and sofa bed and a steam shower.  All the rooms are unique, accented with antiques and beautiful tile work in the bathrooms.

And if that isn’t enough, families can stroll across the street to the exclusive and historic Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club.  Today there is no longer a casino, but it does have its own fitness center, restaurant lined with pictures of Hollywood "royalty," and a large lap pool.   An oceanfront  hot tub and children’s wading pool offer the best sunset views on the property.  Club access is complimentary for some room categories, but clients who book with me receive admission as part of the Preferred Partner amenity package.

 The other Four Seasons Preferred Partner amenities include: 
  • Daily full American breakfast for two people per bedroom
  • $100 food and beverage credit
  • Upgrade based on availability at time of check-in (excluding signature suites and villas)
  • Complimentary high-speed Internet access for suites
For more information on planning a family getaway to Santa Barbara, contact me at suzette@family-treks.com.

December 15, 2013

A Whale of a Good Time at Dana Point

I live in northern California, but travel regularly to Anaheim for my son’s hockey games.  While we usually have a tight schedule, we always try to fit in at least one fun family activity for my daughter’s benefit.  Last year, we visited the Long Beach aquarium, which was really fun despite being much smaller than my beloved Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Southern California sunset
SoCal sunset 
Since the Thanksgiving tournament fell late in the month this year, it overlapped with the beginning of the gray whale migration. I have been hearing that marine mammal sightings along the California coast have been exceptional this year, they’re having a feeding frenzy due to unusually high numbers of anchovies.  Passengers on whale watch cruises are being treated to some of the best shows in decades, amazing even experienced marine biologists.

While everyone else headed out shopping on Black Friday, we headed to Dana Pointonly a half hour drive from our Anaheim hotel, which took us through San Juan Capistrano, with its famous mission and sparrows.  We booked a 2 hour whale watch tour with Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching, and I was a little concerned as we woke to a pretty good rain.  But by the time we arrived for our mid-afternoon cruise, the showers had stopped.  It was still cloudy, but I consider these perfect conditions for being on the water, as overcast skies make for more dramatic pictures, and there’s less glare off the water. 
SUP at Dana Point
Paddleboarder at Dana Point
Whale watching tours are available year round, as different types of whales have different migration seasons. And many marine animals including dolphins, sea lions, and the elusive orcas can be spotted year-round.  I even saw a great white shark on Dana Wharf’s sighting log for October!  Gray and humpback whales migrate between December and March, traveling south to Mexico in winter, then heading back north in the spring. We heard that the migration had started early this year, and in fact Dana Wharf had spotted their first gray whale a few days earlier, so we were optimistic as we headed out. 

The boat was very comfortable, with plenty of seating at tables on the top deck, and even more indoor seating below.  The main deck also had space to walk entirely around the ship, so there was always a good vantage point. A small galley offered grill items such as hot dogs and hamburgers, hot and cold drinks, and a good variety of snacks including popcorn, chips and fruit roll-ups.   The water was very calm so the ride was smooth, and the captain kept up an interesting and educational conversation.

Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whalewatching
Ready to cruise with Dana Wharf
Our first stop was a buoy loaded with sea lions, and nearby a large bull entertained us with water acrobatics.  I am always amazed how these creatures can hurl themselves several feet out of the water to get on solid ground (or metal, in this case).

sea lions on buoy at dana point
Catching some rays
It wasn’t long before the captain announced that he spotted a gray whale, and he quickly turned the boat to follow it.  We cruised slowly as the whale swam parallel to the coast, dipping in and out of the water and giving us a good look at the barnacles on its back. Fortunately for us, it was a “fluker.”  Each time it went into a deep dive, it gave us a nice flip of its fluke before disappearing for 5-10 minutes.  
gray whale fluke
A whale watching highlight
It went on like this for over an hour, until it was time to head back to the marina.  While we enjoyed the views of the coastline and snacked on warm popcorn, one of the crew members came by with a chart of marine mammals, so we could learn more about the whale we had been watching and ask questions.

Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel
Laguna Niguel shoreline
(Ritz Carlton on the bluff)
I am eager to go whale watching again soon, as every trip is different and you’ll never know what you might see. As we get further in the season there will be more whales, and they’ll be traveling closer to shore with their babies as they had back north.

Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching is located at Dana Point Harbor, which has plenty of free parking plus many shops and restaurants. Tickets for the Catalina Express can also be purchased there, which I hope to try out on another visit.  The Catalina Islands are just a 90 min boat ride away, making it an easy day trip or weekend getaway.

Just a few miles north of the harbor is the Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel, a fantastic resort for families any time of year.  It’s perched on a cliff, so it offers stunning ocean views, and quick access to a nice beach.  The hotel was decorated for the holidays, including an elaborate gingerbread display.  

Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel gingerbread display
Huge gingerbread display!
Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel Holiday Surfboard Auction
Surfboard Auction
We also enjoyed looking at the custom-painted surfboards lined up for their annual holiday auction to benefit Surfers Healingan organization that helps people with autism experience surfing.  Virtuoso amenities for my clients are daily breakfast, an upgrade based on availability, and a $100 resort credit.

Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel
Gorgeous full ocean views
Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel beach
View of beach from the resort
This Ritz Carlton was one of the first resorts to offer the award winning Eco Adventure Program, created by Jean-Michel Cousteau, which offers unique excursions for children and families to showcase the area's natural wonders and promote environmental responsibility.  In fact, on our whale watch cruise, two Eco Adventure staff members were escorting a family as part of their whale education program.  The program is being expanded to more resorts, including Dorado Beach (Puerto Rico), St. Thomas, and Grand Cayman.

For help with planning a fun family getaway, just send a note to suzette@family-treks.com.