January 29, 2012

Hotel Les Mars: Romance in Wine Country

No matter how much we love our kids, parents need some time alone, too. For our anniversary this past fall, my husband and I escaped to the wine country north of San Francisco. Our favorite place to stay is Healdsburg, because of the charming town square filled with cafes and shops, and the dozens of fantastic wineries just a short drive away. And no matter what time of year we go, the scenery is spectacular, and we never run into the traffic or crowds that are often found in Napa Valley. I personally prefer fall, though, because the weather is mild and the vineyards are showing off their fall foliage.

The choice of where to stay was easy: There is nothing as elegant or romantic as Hotel Les Mars, just a few steps off the main square. A Relais & Chateaux property, it was built from the ground up in the style of a French chateau, so everything from the headboards to the library bookcases were handcrafted to complement one another. We truly felt we were back in Provence, especially with Old World touches like a skeleton style room key on a tassel, which was really an electronic key card.

Our room was absolutely gorgeous. A small foyer led to nice sized room with a canopied four poster king bed. Each room has a fireplace, its own wireless router, iPod station, bookshelves & armoire, TV, and DVD player. The bathroom had a spacious rain shower and, in keeping with the European authenticity, a bidet. Antiques can be found throughout the hotel; in fact the desk in our room was the oldest item on the property.

Rates include a delicious continental breakfast of pastries, yogurt, granola, juice, fruit, and coffee. Each evening we put the room service order form outside our door, and the next morning we enjoyed it in front of our fireplace, lounging in soft, fluffy bathrobes.

The staff was well trained and ready to do whatever it takes to please a guest. We were greetly warmly when coming or going, and they made sure we always left with plenty of bottled water, which we really appreciated after visiting a few wineries. We also enjoyed chatting with them and other guests at the evening wine & cheese reception in the library.
I also want to note an amenity that summer visitors will appreciate when temperatures soar: a swimming pool. It was small, but retained the French ambiance of the hotel, and would be the perfect place to relax at the end of the day.

If you’re planning a romantic getaway, you can’t go wrong with Hotel Les Mars. I am happy to share with my clients my personal wine tasting guide, or for those who would like to do something extra-special or unique, I can arrange a day to remember: a private winery tour, yacht charter, cooking or photography classes, hot air ballooning, and more.

January 21, 2012

What You Need to Know About Vacation Rentals

This week I received a link to an article about vacation rentals, and it reminded me of some of the experiences I had before I became a professional travel advisor.

For our first trip to Alaska, I did most of my research using tourism brochures I ordered through the mail. We needed a place in Fairbanks for a few nights before and after a backcountry tour, someplace where we could safely leave our car. We found a B&B that was in a good location and was reasonably priced. On arrival, we learned that in Alaska, pretty much anybody could rent a room out of their house, provide a can of juice and a packaged muffin, and declare themselves a “Bed and Breakfast.” Our host was also a man who was, well, an interesting character. I will just leave it at that.

The day before we were to depart on our tour, we were informed that he was able to book the room for more money from someone else, so we were asked not to return. We weren’t too keen about returning either, or leaving our car there, but now we had less than 24 hours to find alternate accommodations & parking before leaving for a 2 week trip! Soon we found ourselves at a payphone on the corner, calling the tourist information hotline for help. Fortunately we found a very lovely inn, which was every bit the B&B we had imagined, and were able to continue on our vacation with peace of mind.

(Now to be fair, I have to mention that in Seward our B&B was the spare room in the basement of a home owned by an elderly couple. But in this case they were truly lovely people, and in the morning, we were ushered us to a table in a waterfront room where we were served a delicious homemade breakfast.)

Our Alaska experience also came to mind when we were driving through Provence this past spring. I was amazed at all the B&B signs along roads which led to accommodations which looked quite questionable. I wondered how many unsuspecting tourists, pleased at getting a “great deal” for a bed & breakfast in France, showed up only to find that their “quaint” or “charming” rental was not quite what they had pictured.

Another memorable incident was when we booked a condo in Lake Tahoe for Christmas through an ad in the paper. I spoke to the owner on the phone, who was very friendly and answered all my questions. I had a good feeling, so I mailed off a check. We planned to drive up late at night a few days before Christmas, and then family was flying in from around the country on Christmas Eve.

We arrived at the condo well after 10 pm, and looked for the key where the owner said she hid it. Nothing. We spent a frantic half hour searching with a flashlight, then the realization began to hit that we could be victims of a scam. How easy it would be for someone to advertise a non-existent rental, take your money, and then just disappear! It was bad enough worrying about where we were going to sleep for the night, but we also had to figure out what to do with 10 other people arriving on Christmas Eve!

I was finally able to reach the owner by phone, and fortunately she had a relative with a spare key who lived about a half hour away. It turns out that the condo had been put up for sale, and the key was being kept in the management office. We were supposed to go there to pick it up but that message had never been delivered.

My point is not to scare anyone away from renting a bed & breakfast, villa, or private home. My point is to use caution and due diligence. The safest way to book is through a local realtor or management company, who has personally inspected all the properties and can recommend one that is the best fit. (This is especially important when traveling with very young children, when you need to ask very specific questions about safety hazards such stairwells, decks, unfenced yards, etc.) Or contact a professional travel advisor who works with multiple agencies, and can also tap into their network of contacts who can recommend hidden gems they’ve discovered through their own travels.

For help with planning the family vacation of your dreams, contact me at suzette@family-treks.com.

January 10, 2012

Five Resolutions for the Family Traveler

1. Make sure you have a valid passport – If it expires this year, get it renewed early, as many destinations require that your passport be valid for at least six months beyond the last date of travel. Getting passports for children is a good spring break or summer task, since they have to be present, and most passport agencies close by 3 pm. I made the mistake of procrastinating, and ended up having to take my kids over Thanksgiving break which made a busy time even busier. And I had to go twice because I didn’t read the instructions thoroughly and forgot some required documents! Even if you’re planning a trip that doesn’t require a passport, like some cruises, it’s still a good idea to carry one, as I’ve discussed previously.

2. Create a travel roadmap - Kids grow up fast, and their abilities and interests change with each passing year. If like most families you are limited to taking your trips during school vacations, that means you can only fit in 1-2 trips a year. So make your travel wish list, then think about the ideal age for your kids to experience it. For example, a trip to Washington DC or Gettysburg is more appreciated by kids who have studied American history. A cruise is a great way to experience Europe with very young children, since you don’t have deal with challenging travel logistics. Though Alaska is one of my favorite destinations, I have been waiting until my kids are teenagers so that we can have an authentic backcountry experience. Your roadmap doesn’t have to be etched in stone, but I personally find it less stressful to have some idea of where I am going over the next couple years, rather than trying to figure out where we are going only a few months ahead of time. And you almost always save money planning earlier rather than later….which leads to the next resolution.
3. Don’t chase travel deals – There is nothing wrong with trying to find the best value , but only after you’ve made sure you have planned the trip that is truly right for your family. And it can be very risky to procrastinate on booking your trip because you want to see if some “last minute” deal comes up. If your family vacation time is as precious as mine, you won’t want to take the risk of not getting what you want. Trust me, you aren’t missing some amazing travel deal by booking early. In fact, there is a good chance you missed a great affordable place to stay because the savvy travelers/travel agents know about these places & book them up early. (This is very true for Europe.) Also, the lowest rates are not necessarily on the internet. There are many unadvertised packages & promotions available through travel professionals who have preferred relationships with suppliers. For example, this holiday season a hotel was offering free nights & free breakfast on their website. A traveler who booked with me would have paid the same rate, but also received an automatic upgrade to Club level accommodations, and have stayed in a room hand-picked by the sales manager. So how do you find out about these deals and get VIP treatment?

4. Find a trusted travel advisor – If you plan to make travel part of your lifestyle, take time to research & interview travel advisors. By building a relationship with a professional you trust, you will save time and money in the long run. A good travel advisor takes time to get to know you and your family, so they understand your “travel personality.” No more wasting time trying to sift through the vast amounts of information on the internet (which can be unreliable or outdated). Instead you can relax & let your travel advisor tap into his or her industry network to find the hotel, cruise, tour guide, etc. that is the best fit for your family. And because you have shared your travel roadmap with them, they can keep an eye out for opportunities to make your travel dreams come true.

And last, but absolutely not least:

5. Buy travel insurance – Or at least buy it when the amount of money you could lose due to a last minute illness, injury, death in the family, cancelled flight, etc., is more than you care to stomach. A good policy from a reliable company is very reasonable, and the peace of mind you’ll have is priceless.

Happy New Year and Happy Travels!