December 30, 2010

Las Casitas Village Review (Puerto Rico)

In June we spent 8 nights in Puerto Rico at Las Casitas Village at El Conquistador Resort and Golden Door Spa. With a 13 yr old boy and 10 yr old girl, we need more spacious accommodations when traveling. So when reviewing hotel options for this trip, it was obvious that a villa at Las Casitas was going to be the ideal choice.

(NOTE: These pictures do not do the island justice. A low pressure system which turned into Hurricane Alex after our departure was parked over the island, causing rain & clouds.)

When we checked in, our expectations were exceeded as our casita was absolutely HUGE! It was 1800 sq ft with 2 bedrooms, 3 full baths, a spacious living room, a fully equipped kitchen, and separate dining area. The master bedroom had a king bed, lots of closet space, and opened to a balcony with table & chairs. The kids’ room had two queen beds and a large dresser, plenty of space to store their clothes. Their bathroom was smaller but had 2 sinks and a tub/shower combo. The living room also had a sofa bed so it could have easily accommodated two more people.

Guests of Las Casitas can use all of the facilities of El Conquistador, but the privileges are not reciprocal, so we always felt like we were members of an exclusive club. Because they are perched on a bluff, both resorts offer beautiful views of the ocean and other islands in the distance. I would highly recommend booking an ocean view casita, as the views were gorgeous. We could see St. Thomas from our balcony on a clear day.

The walk from Las Casitas Village to the main hotel was quite long and involved many steps, so those who are mobility-challenged might find getting around difficult. But there is a shuttle service between the resorts as well, and if it was raining, they would drop you off as close to your casita as possible. I have to admit, I was at first at bit dismayed to see how far we had to walk, but I quickly got over that. It was enjoyable because of the lush landscaping, and the kids could look for geckos and lizards along the way. I also appreciated the extra exercise after indulging in treats all day.
A funicular, or tram, runs from the resort down to the marina, where there were more shops & restaurants, a small water park (additional fee), and a ferry to the resort’s private island. The ferry ride was only 10 min, and it was nice to have exclusive use of a beach, so we didn’t see this as a huge inconvenience. There is also a very nice public beach a few minutes’ drive away.

As villa guests, we had the option of eating at the main hotel buffet, but more often we chose to eat at the small outdoor dining area at Las Casitas. It was rarely crowded and service was more personal, but we had the same buffet and cook to order options. There was a small café next door to the infinity pool, but most dining was at El Conquistador, and there was quite a large selection from casual diners and poolside pizza to four gourmet restaurants.
The casitas are ideal for families traveling together, because of the extra space and conveniences of home. But they are also grouped in courtyards so several casitas share their own “private” pool & hot tub - an ideal setup for a larger group of travelers. For a change of scenery, or activities like pool volleyball, casita guests can also venture over to El Conquistador.

The large resort complex offers lots of options for all ages and interests, which makes it an excellent choice for family reunions, weddings, or corporate events. Activities on-site included tennis, golf, & scuba lesson, and excursions could be arranged through the activity center or the marina. On rainy days, movies & games were offered for kids, and for adults there was a small casino, plus live music in the lobby in the evening. We really enjoyed having the many activities of El Conquistador available to us at the, but being able to retreat to our quiet oasis at Las Casitas when we needed some downtime.
The resort is located about 1 hour from of San Juan, in a location convenient for enjoying the many outdoor activities for which Puerto Rico is known. You can read about those in one of my earlier posts.

For more information about planning the family vacation of your dreams, contact Suzette at suzette@family-treks.com.

December 16, 2010

Ginormous Gingerbread - Part 3

And here is the final installment in this year's hotel gingerbread gallery:

Disney's Boardwalk Inn

Princess Kaiulani, Oahu

The Homestead, Virginia

Four Seasons Denver

Langham Hotel London

Four Seasons Las Vegas

Disney's Contemporary Resort

For help planning the family vacation of your dreams, contact Suzette Mack, Family Travel Advisor at suzette@family-treks.com

December 14, 2010

Ginormous Gingerbread - Part 2

Here are more amazing gingerbread creations from hotels & resorts around the world.

Ritz Carlton Bachelor Gulch

Fairmont Royal York Hotel

Hyatt Regency Vancouver

Ritz Carlton Charlotte

Fairmont San Francisco

Fairmont Scottsdale Princess

Westin Calgary

Fairmont Vancouver

Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island

Want to plan a "sweet" family vacation for 2011? Contact Suzette Mack, Family Travel Advisor at suzette@family-treks.com

December 8, 2010

Ginormous Gingerbread - Part 1

Continuing a tradition on my blog, here are some impressive gingerbread creations from hotels & resorts around the world.

Ritz-Carlton Naples, FL

Four Seasons Sydney, Australia

Manchester Grand Hyatt, San Diego

Embassy Suites South Anaheim, CA

Louisville Marriott, KY

Four Seasons Washington, DC

Fairmont Hamilton Princess, Bermuda

More photos coming! If you have a photo to share of a great gingerbread creation from a hotel or resort, please send it to suzette@family-treks.com.

November 29, 2010

Playing in Puerto Rico

I always knew we would take a family vacation to Puerto Rico, I just didn’t know when (so many places, so little time!). After a more “urban” vacation last year, to Walt Disney World and New York City, we were ready for something a bit more natural. So it was a an easy decision, as I knew this was a destination that offered our favorite things: lots of outdoor activities like hiking, snorkeling, and kayaking, interesting historical sites, and beautiful Caribbean beaches.

Here are some highlights of our trip:

El Yunque Rainforest – The only tropical forest in the US, it feels a world away from the beaches and city, like stepping back in time. An easy hike led to a beautiful waterfall, but the real fun was in the journey along the way. The park is not only a scenic wonder, it is of great scientific importance, too. It contains over 240 species of trees and plants, and rare wildlife including the Puerto Rican Parrot, which is one of the ten most endangered species of birds in the world.

Culebra Island – A visit to Culebra takes a little bit of planning, but is well worth the effort. If I had any qualms about my family’s seaworthiness, the test was passed on the 90 min ferry ride through choppy waters (flights are available, too). But the bumpy ride was well worth the trip, not only to see Flamenco Beach (shown above), one of the most beautiful in all of the Caribbean, but also to kayak & snorkel in an amazing, but off the beaten path, preserve. Our tour company, Kayaking Puerto Rico, was not only professional and knowledgeable, but they catered to the kids in our group that ranged from 6 to 13 yrs of age. And they took photos during the whole trip using a high quality waterproof digital camera which we were welcome to download from their Facebook page.

Old San Juan – The city itself is gorgeous with narrow cobblestone streets and brightly colored buildings. But the 200+ year old forts, El Morro and San Cristobal, were the highlight, with 18 ft high thick stone walls, cannons, and sentry boxes dramatically suspended over the corners offering panoramic views of the ocean. While my kids, like many, can only tolerate so much history in one day, they were happy to spend hours just exploring the labyrinth of tunnels, spiral staircases, and dungeons.

Bioluminescent Bay - Though it was the most touristy of our outings, it was also one of the most memorable. After a relatively short and easy paddle through a mangrove forest at sunset, we reached the center of a large lake. It was nearly pitch black as we sat lined up in our kayaks, bobbing quietly. Then the guide gave the signal to swish our hands in the water. The silence was broken by the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ as the water mysteriously lit up with thousands, if not millions, of tiny glowing particles which cast an eerie glow in water’s wake. We had fun splashing each other with our paddles to watch the bright speckles run down our legs and backs like little sparks. This was truly a wonderful and amazing natural phenomenon, and we would not hesitate to experience it again.

Many Southern Caribbean cruises depart out of San Juan, so it's easy to visit these sights before or after a cruise. Most of them are a 45 - 60 min drive away from the port, so I'd suggest at least 2-3 nights at one of the beach resorts along the coast for a great pre- or post-cruise trip.

I am going to post a review soon about our hotel, Las Casitas Village at El Conquistador Resort. It is great for families, and would be perfect for a destination wedding or family reunion.

For more information about planning your family's next adventure, contact Suzette at suzette@family-treks.com.

November 17, 2010

Top Ten List for Family Travelers

This weekend I attended Brownell Travel’s annual sales meeting in Atlanta. I spent an intensive two days meeting with travel suppliers from all over the world to find out the latest news for families. Here is my top ten list from the weekend:

1. Ireland is an amazing value right now due to their struggling economy. Families can have an affordable European vacation while at the same time helping a country in need. There are activities to please all ages, from fishing & falconry to castle and farm visits, and family-friendly accommodations, including connecting rooms, are the norm.

2. The Mansion on Peachtree, a Rosewood hotel in Atlanta, is offering "Elf on the Shelf" packages over the holiday, and guests of all ages can join the search for the elusive little elf. A whimsical tea service will feature a book reading and signing by the authors.

3. The lodges run by explora in Patagonia and Atacama not only welcome kids, they offer family rooms. With all meals, excursions, drinks and transfers included, it’s an easy way to visit some of the most dramatic and remote areas on the planet.

4. Brendan Vacations has added four new family trips, including “Monkeys, Jungles, and Volcanoes” in Costa Rica and “Trails of Liberty” in the eastern US. Designed for all ages, the family trips include rooms that sleep four, and kid-friendly activities such as making a chocolate bar at the Hershey factory.

5. A ski butler at the Ritz Carlton Bachelor Gulch makes getting on & off the slopes with kids easier. When you’re ready to hit the slopes, your equipment will be ready and warm. And at the end of the day, there is no need to go back to room before heading out for a meal or another activity. They also have a hot chocolate sommelier!

6. Crystal Cruises’ Family Memories program provides special amenities with a minimum of only 3 cabins booked together, including prepaid gratuities, shipboard credits, and a family photo. And children under 17 are free when sharing a cabin with two adults.

7. Sardinia is easy to visit being only an hour flight from Rome or Milan. With gorgeous beaches and a Mediterranean feel, it is a relaxing way to wrap up a tour of Italy, especially when traveling with kids.

8. Alnwick Castle, which portrayed Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies, is 3 hours by train from London, a reasonable day trip for fans. The current home of the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, it offers fun activities for kids including knight training and Dragon’s Quest.

9. The iconic Hotel Cipriani in Venice has introduced “The Smile Club,” a complimentary program for children ages 4-12 to play and experience Italian culture, leaving parents free to go sightseeing or just relax. Activities include traditional Venetian arts & crafts, pizza-making, treasures hunts, and fruit-picking, and even mini-manicures.

10. Viviani Wine Country Specialists can craft a family itinerary for all ages in Napa & Sonoma, from a private safari (yes, a safari in California!), to kayaking and cycling, to sailing on San Francisco Bay where kids can try their hand as captain.

This just scratches the surface of the information I received this weekend. Over the next few weeks I’ll write in more in-depth about specific suppliers & destinations. In the meantime, if you'd like help with planning the family vacation of your dreams, contact me at