Adventures By Disney- Is This the Vacation for You?

Hello Fellow Adventurers!

Where do you go when you want something for everyone ages 7-87, excellent service, all the guidance you care for, and zero effort required? Why you go to the experts of course! In this case I mean Adventures By Disney (ABD to those in the know).

As the resident travel planner in our house and as someone that creates customized itineraries across the globe I have a confession: sometimes I want someone else to do all the work and I just want to show up with my suitcase. But I don’t trust everyone to plan like I do, and my standards are high.  Enter ABD

Something for Everyone.

ABD did a great job of creating an environment that engaged all the guests. For example, more than once the adults would tour a place (museum, chateau, etc.) and while we were entertained by a local expert, the Junior Adventurers were given the opportunity to make their own art (L’Orangerie), solve a who-done-it (Louvre), or play dress up and have a photo shoot (Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte).

One evening the Adventure Guides had pizza and a movie night with the kiddos while the adults enjoyed their own dinner. ABD understands the reality of family travel. Extra activities for the children and some adults only time are important when traveling with multiple generations.

The Highlights you Expect.

Our particular itinerary included L’Orangerie, the Louvre, the American Cemetery, Omaha Beach, Mont Saint Michel, and other major sites. These are all places you would expect and it was nice to have them included. Each visit came with a local expert and front of the line entry.

IMG_0416
Giverny. After viewing Monet’s Waterlillies at L’Orangerie we went to the actual gardens where he was inspired. A highlight for my grandmother and me.

IMG_0435
Mont Saint Michel. We all loved this walled town & abbey. Grandma obviously couldn’t go far so she stayed by a cafe and visited with strangers while we explored. She said she met the nicest people!

 

IMG_6382
The American Cemetery.  Everyone in my family was moved by the visit.

Beyond the Highlights.

What makes the ABD trip so special is the inclusion of places you didn’t expect. In retrospect we all decided some of our favorite moments were experienced while visiting places we knew nothing about.

Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte. Many visitors to the Paris region visit Versailles, but did you know that Versailles is based on a smaller (but every bit as grand) chateau? It’s not on any public transport route and is a little out of the way so chances are you’d miss it without an insider pointing you in the right direction.

IMG_2792
Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte. The Man in The Iron Mask was filmed here.

Les Vergers de Lucy. Apple orchard & cider production. Until our vacation I’d never heard of pommeau, an apple liqueur specific to Normandy. ABD arranged a visit to a local apple orchard owned by a man whose family has been on the land since the mid 1850’s!  We saw how pommeau & calvados (apple brandy) are made and then enjoyed a private tasting along with local apple dishes.

IMG_0443
Bottled cider
IMG_4287
Aging barrels
DSCN3743
Grandma & our host, René.

Caves du Louvre. Wine cellar created for the king when the Louvre was a palace. We enjoyed a private wine (and juice) tasting guided by a sommelier. The visit was interactive and even the children enjoyed it.

IMG_2861IMG_2867IMG_2859

These are just a few highlights that demonstrate the extras you get when you travel with ABD. While you could do the highlights on your own these extras set ABD apart and give you a more in depth experience.

As an added bonus each day comes with a pin specific to the events of the day. The ABD vacation isn’t heavy on the mouse, but it is heavy on the service you know and love.

file.jpeg

 

Service.

Your own personal concierge. One of my favorite things to do when visiting a new place is to set out on foot and just see what I can see.  Nothing beats the thrill of discovery when you stumble across a place you didn’t expect. Of course the flip side to this scenario is when you find yourself somewhere you don’t enjoy. Enter the Adventure Guides.  While the ABD itinerary is jam packed with activities they do set aside “on your own” time and if you’re leery of aimlessly wandering they can steer you in a direction they think you’ll enjoy.

Is Adventures by Disney for You?

Now we get to the heart of the matter. Both during and after the trip my husband and I would ask each other if it was worth it and if we’d travel with ABD again and these are our conclusions:

Multiple Generations– For our particular situation (Grandma in a wheelchair) this was the ideal trip. While some of the major tourist sites have elevators they’re not always (read rarely) easy to find. Having a personal interpreter and tour guide was invaluable in this respect. Also, traveling with multiple generations can be daunting. Everyone in our family found parts of the trip to enjoy.

Parents with Children– Would we travel with ABD if it was just my husband, son, and myself? Depends on the destination. As an avid do-it-yourselfer I generally prefer to be on my own timetable with control over the itinerary. If we were to visit someplace like Asia where I don’t speak the language, and the culture is so different from my own I would likely travel with a group, and the service of ABD has spoiled me for any other touring outfit. Another benefit of traveling with ABD is the almost guaranteed presence of children besides your own. My son enjoyed the company of another boy on the trip and I think that kept him from being bored (not that the trip was boring, but preteens can apparently be bored by any and everything)

Couples Without Children– Would I travel with ABD if it was just my husband and me? Probably not on the land tour though the river cruises have caught my interest.  There were many childless couples on our trip and they all seemed to enjoy themselves, but I would personally probably skip the group experience because that’s just how I’m built.

Single Travelers– I would absolutely consider ABD if I was traveling alone. We met a single traveler on her sixth? seventh? ABD tour. She really enjoyed herself and even told everyone at the end that she never felt unwelcome or out of place amongst the groups of families on the trip.

Infrequent/ Novice Travelers– I would recommend ABD without hesitation to anyone or group that wanted to explore another country but was nervous to do so. And if you’re going to join a group tour then you might as well go with one known for their service!

 

A few final thoughts.

Sadly, ours was the final Esprit de France ABD tour. This particular itinerary has been discontinued in favor of the new Seine river cruise.

Traveling with a wheelchair wasn’t easy. We brought along a collapsible wheelchair because my grandmother can’t walk fast enough to keep up with a group, but she can walk which is an important fact. France (and Europe in general) is not wheelchair friendly as you’d expect given how old some sites are. I could not recommend this trip (or any other to Europe) to someone that is completely wheelchair bound.

 

 

Dreams Playa Mujeres

If you’re anything like me (or a million other vacationers) you spend hours scouring the internet searching for the perfect place to spend your time and hard earned money on a family vacation. So let me further confuse you with more information. I was fortunate enough to visit Secrets Maroma in January with my husband and some friends and that set my expectations for Dreams PM fairly high.

So let’s start at the beginning.

Check in

No sooner did we exit our airport transfer vehicle (Canada Transfers in case you’re wondering) than my husband (Mike), son (Devin), and I were greeted with “Welcome home” and offered sparkling wine for the adults and some sort of drink for Dev. You know they say it to everyone, but it is done with such warmth that you feel special anyway.  They whisked our bags away and guided us to the Preferred Club for check in which was quick and painless. We were issued a welcome kit of information and room keys, and the entire process didn’t last more than 10 minutes. As luck would have it our room was ready so a bellboy escorted us to our room with our luggage.

Comparison to Secrets: equal

 

The Room

IMG_2275
2 Queen sized beds. Super comfortable.
IMG_2278
Lovely little sitting area. We only ever used it as a place to throw clothing.
IMG_2281
Welcome sparkling wine.

The outside of our room (6421) featured a sofa, table and chairs for 2, and a jacuzzi which we only used to rinse and dry swim & gym clothes.

IMG_2285

The bathroom was nicely sized with double sink, full size toiletries, and fully enclosed  separate toilet and shower areas. You don’t realize how important that it until you’re traveling with your son…

 

 

And finally the minibar and coffee maker. Can you believe I forgot to get a photo of the interior of the fridge?! It comes stocked with Corona, Coke, multiple bottles of water, various other sodas, peanut M & Ms, and mini cans of Pringles. There are also a few mini bottles of spirits.

Some things to know:

No iron is provided, but there is a steam machine. Six Nespresso pods are provided each day (2 of which are decaf). You can request more or just walk to Dolce and get a regular or specialty coffee and pre-breakfast pastry (no judgement here). The AC goes down to at least 68 and shuts off if the doors are open. A proper hairdryer is provided and it’s not one of those cheap little ones with no power. The shower has a rain head and a wand.

Comparison to Secrets: Equal (the rooms clearly are not the same but the quality is).

Views from the front and the back of the room.

 

 

Food

Let’s be honest. This one is both important AND subjective.

Our first meal at Dreams was lunch on arrival day. We dined at Tides and all had burgers with fries. They were fine. Not great, not bad, just fine.

 

 

That evening we dined at the World Cafe buffet because that’s where Dev wanted to eat. It was serviceable but absolutely nothing special. Dare I say it was disappointing? Hard to say because buffets are a tricky thing. It was the first and last time we dined there for dinner (though we did go in solely for dessert one evening- the World Cafe does dessert very well and they always had coconut ice cream- hooray!)

The World Cafe also does breakfast very well with the exception of the bacon (big greasy mess) and the pre-scrambled eggs (maybe they were from a mix?). Luckily there are other breakfast meat options and you can have your eggs made to order.  Or you could just eat breakfast breads in all their delightful forms…

There were tons of fruit options as well as pastries, eggs, cold cuts, cheese, smoked salmon, and traditional Mexican breakfast foods. And of course, pastries…

IMG_2335

Breakfast was also available in the Preferred Club lounge and at Maris for PC guests, but we didn’t eat there because… pastry.

 

Speaking of pastry, a delightful selection could be found at Dolce along with ice cream and coffee drinks. They make a fine double espresso to wash down your chocolate eclair.

 

 

Sadly, man (and woman and child) cannot live on pastry alone and lunch options are kind of a dud. I really wish Dreams would construct an outdoor pizza oven like the one at Secrets and offer fish tacos in at least one of the lunch restaurants. I’d say I’m asking for too much, but since they can do it at Secrets it seems like they could do it here, too.

Luckily Dreams offers some delicious a la carte dining experiences. My meat eaters loved Gaucho and we had our favorite meal at L’Etoile. In fact we enjoyed it so much we intended to dine there twice, but they were closed on our final night so the boys decided they needed more meat and back to Gaucho we went.

Gaucho serves meat Rodizio style (presented on a skewer and carved table side with several different meats being presented throughout the meal). Anyone familiar with Fogo de Chao or Texas de Brazil will know what’s what. There is also a grand salad bar with salads,  breads, and side dishes such as pastas and such. Gaucho is popular so arrive early (like when they open) or prepare to wait.

The meat pictured is picanha (sirloin cap) and was the highlight of the meal. Also served were sausages, sweetbreads, wings, ribs, chicken hearts, and chorizo. The first night we all ordered dessert, but on our second visit we were presented with a sample plate of the desserts. They did not disappoint.

IMG_2380
Tres leches, molten lava, & cheesecake

 

L’Etoile is the French restaurant (in case the name didn’t give it away). After seeing escargot on the menu we had to visit because Dev is a huge fan. It was delicious, but not swimming in garlic butter in the little dish with the holes just waiting to be soaked up with fresh bread like we’re accustomed to. At L’Etoile escargot is served provençal style (already de-shelled, cooked, and served on the plate with garnish). We didn’t know what that meant, but now we do and so do you. It was good, but not what we were hoping for.

 

 

While we all enjoyed our meals it was generally agreed that the pork belly was the clear winner followed closely by the steak. Trailing a distant third was the duck which Mike stated was overcooked (I wouldn’t know because… eeew… duck).

A la carte restaurant comparison to Secrets: equal.

Lunch options compared to Secrets: Secrets is hands down the winner. Dreams needs to improve their lunch game.

 

The Gym

All the eating sent Mike and me to gym. That’s kind of a lie. It made me go to the gym. Mike was training for the Boston Marathon so he had to keep up with his program (15 miles on a treadmill- yuck).  The gym was well stocked with a bonus room across a small hallway- presumably for use of the classes offered. It’s all located next to the spa which is situated outside the main lobby by the circular drive. It feels a bit like you’re wandering somewhere you shouldn’t the first time you go.

IMG_2296

 

Comparison to Secrets: I think the gym at Dreams is actually a bit bigger though I can’t say for sure.  The bonus room is certainly different as Secrets conducts the group exercise classes in the gazebo by the pool.

The Beach

After a delicious pastry breakfast and an hour in the gym to make up for it, it was time to head to the beach. The beach concierge for the Preferred Club (and maybe the entire beach?) was Giovanni and he was spectacular. Between him and our server, Luís, we were well pampered. The beach demonstrates one of the most notable differences between Preferred Club and non-PC. Non-PC guests have access to white loungers, umbrellas, and little mini tables, whereas PC guests enjoy bali beds for no extra charge. They are supremely comfortable and provide plenty of shade (a bonus for those that burn easily).

 

img_2392.jpg

Unfortunately for us the water was both cold (it was still only March after all) and there were great swaths of seaweed. I opted to avoid the water and so did the boys after a while. While I’m certain it can be amazing at times it really wasn’t during our visit.

Comparison to Secrets loungers – Bali bed for PC is superior to Secrets, but regular non-PC loungers with umbrellas are inferior.

 

The Aquapark

We enjoyed spending the afternoons at the water slides and in the lazy river. Truth be told I chose Dreams Playa Mujeres partly due to the waterslides. Sadly one of them was out of commission during our visit but we still had fun just using the one. It did seem like tall people tended to bump their ankles on some of the turns, but children and short individuals didn’t experience that. The lifeguards were attentive and verified that the slide exit was clear before allowing the next guest to go down. They also limited the number of people walking to the top at any one time, presumably not to overcrowd the platform at the top.

 

There was also a little people sized play area with slides well suited to toddlers.

 

Excursion

As much as we enjoyed lounging on the beach in the mornings and playing on the slides in the afternoon we decided we needed a little more adventure so we visited the Amstar desk and purchased a snorkeling trip with Alltournative.

We were collected around 9:30 in the morning and began the long and tedious process of stopping at 5 other resorts to collect guests. We eventually arrived at the tour base. They had a great set up with plenty of clean toilets, showers, lockers to store your items, and dressing rooms. There were counters of snorkel gear and life jackets (you’re required to wear them). There was also a sand volleyball court, multiple hammocks and picnic benches, and a serving line of delicious food made on site for your post snorkel meal. All food and drinks were included in the price of the package and I must say they were the highlight. The snorkeling itself wasn’t amazing and swimming en masse following the leader while dodging the fins of the fellow in front of you wasn’t the most fun, but we still saw some cool things so I’m glad we went. The ship stopped at two separate sites before returning to the beach for the feast. They provide a towel for use while on the boat but I recommend bringing your own as well so you can dry yourself after a post snorkel rinse.

 

One additional service provided by AllTournative is an included photographer. Our GoPro pics didn’t turn out well, but the young man taking the pictures really knew what he was doing. The photo package wasn’t cheap, but it’s nice to have our adventure documented in photos we actually like to look at.

 

The Teen Club

Full disclosure- we didn’t step foot inside, but I really, really wanted to. Apparently it would be weird if I asked to play on the rock wall (Mike told me so). But it was so cool…

img_2307.jpg

There were also a bungee trampoline and a basketball court. And that’s just what I could see standing at the wall like some weird stalker lady.

 

Summary:

Overall we really enjoyed our visit to Dreams PM and Dev has already requested that we go again next year. I’m strongly considering it, but there is definitely room for improvement where lunch options are concerned. If you’ve been to Secrets you may be a tad disappointed in the food, but the service will be the same great service you know and love, and that’s what will probably draw us back to Dreams PM next spring.

Disney… Without Children

 

I have a confession to make.

I went to Disney World.
Without my son.
And it was awesome!!
I recently became one of those weirdos that visits Disney World without their children. It was magical.  Not the level of magic that Disney usually displays, but something even better. A long weekend with my husband surrounded by Disney magic brought back echoes of our lives BC (before children). That magical time when we could run off to whatever locale (exotic or not) that struck our fancy, eat grown up food in grown up restaurants, stay in resorts without characters (however charming) everywhere we turn, and generally enjoy life and all that it has to offer without worrying about a little person. It was glorious.
Maybe you think this visit was extra amazing because it’s the first time I’ve ever traveled anywhere without the kiddo. It’s not. If I’m being honest, my husband and I leave my child behind. A lot. But I never really thought we’d visit Disney World without him until……

Wine & Dine Half Marathon

Reason No. 1 to leave your child at home.
Granted this one is predicated on the idea that you and your partner enjoy running (or at least walking). What better way to catch up with each other than race walking 13.1 miles together? Not only do you get a nifty shirt, but you also get some great race bling. The hard part about the half marathon (besides the fact that it’s a half marathon) is that you have to wake up early to catch a bus by 4 AM for transport to the race. Ever try to get your child up early? Now magnify that by 100. Leave the kiddo at home and enjoy this new adventure with your special someone. There are plenty of photo ops and entertainment along the route and you even get to run through parts of Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and Epcot.
As mentioned above, the race starts eeeeearly. Luckily there’s plenty of entertainment while you wait for your corral to begin.
 There are also plenty of porto-potties (a lack of which can ruin a race as any runner will tell you).
The run has mile markers showcasing each country with character photo opportunities along the way. The character lines were a bit long so we skipped those, but they are an option if you’re interested.
Practical Info:
So there are a few things you should know about the Wine and Dine half marathon.
1. Start times appear to be 15 minutes between corrals. If you’re in A, B, or C you probably do want to be in your corral nice and early.  If you’re in corral G because you were a slacker and didn’t submit your time (guilty), then your race won’t start until almost 2 hours after the official start. I wish we’d known this because then we could have slept in and just taken an Uber to the race. Oh well, lesson learned.
2. Don’t forget your ID when you pick up your race packet.  Disney’s website states this quite clearly. Though some of the volunteers may tell you it’s ok, it’s not.  I learned this one the hard way when I forgot my wallet because it was stashed in the safe at the resort. Not the end of the world but I couldn’t pick up my bib until race morning and then I had to email RunDisney to get them to mail my shirt. I felt especially stupid because we run lots of races and this is a pretty standard rule.  On a side note, it’s the only time I’ve ever been told “no” at Disney and it made me sad.

Epcot Food and Wine Festival

Reason No. 2 to leave you child at home

Is the festival adults only? No. Children are welcome and plentiful at the festival, but they’re not your children, so you don’t have to deal with them. That’s right. You have zero responsibility for a little person, so you’re free to leisurely stroll through the many pavilions to sample your way through snacks and adult beverages with your honey.
I didn’t ride a single ride the day Mike and I attended the festival in Epcot and you know what? There were no tears. There was no whining. Just two happy adults enjoying new foods and drinks. Our legs were tired from the run that morning and we weren’t in any rush so we probably only spent about three hours at the park that day and that was more than enough for us.

Be sure to grab the little passport book available at any of the kiosks. It lists the food and drink offerings at each.

IMG_2883

France. Probably my favorite spot. Hubs and I decided the escargot croissant with garlic and parsley was the best thing we ate that day. Sadly I did not take a photo but you can admire my Grand Marnier slushie instead (which is not a festival specific offering and is always available in France.)

We also really enjoyed the offerings of The Almond Orchard (cauliflower risotto) and Patagonia (beef empanada).
IMG_2885
The best surprise of the day was the spinach and paneer cheese pocket with mint raita from Africa. I didn’t share this one very much but it was ok because hubs had a brat from Germany to keep him happy.
Things to know about the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival:
1. No special ticket is required. All you need is a valid ticket to Epcot for the day you visit.
2. No special payment method is required at the kiosks.
3. Most (if not all) of the food servings are the right size for sharing. And you’ll want to share so that you have room to try more things.

The Grand Floridian

Reason No. 3 to leave your child at home.
OK, much like reasons 1 & 2, there are children at the Grand Floridian but they’re not your children and really there weren’t all that many of them when we visited. The Grand Floridian is a lovely property with a level of sophisticated elegance that some (most) of the other resorts lack. There are no animals, no Mickey Mouse wallpaper, no tiki torches. Basically not much to entertain a child which is a not a bad thing if you left yours at home.
thumb_IMG_1701_1024thumb_IMG_1934_1024thumb_IMG_1935_1024thumb_IMG_1936_1024
This was my first time to stay at the GF and I sincerely hope it’s not my last. We were lucky enough to score a corner room with two balconies and the most amazing views.
View from the balcony. A-ma-zing!
thumb_IMG_1700_1024

 

 

Our evening entertainment each night… it’s ok to be jealous.
But wait! There’s more. After the fireworks every evening we were treated to the electric water parade off the other balcony.
 So now you know why you should at least consider joining the ranks of weirdos that visit Disney World without their children. Try it once, and I promise you’ll want to try it again!
For a free Disney vacation quote, email me at amanda@designmytrip.net 

Family Vacation at the Barcelo Palace

All-inclusive.  The phrase causes some people to shudder in disgust (“how will you get an authentic experience if you don’t leave the resort?”) and others to sigh in relief (“I won’t have to worry about a thing AND there won’t be any hidden costs!”). I love a good DIY adventure, but I also believe there’s something to be said for an all-inclusive resort. And I particularly like an AI for a family vacation more geared toward having fun and relaxing. Enter the Barceló Palace.

 

After hours of scouring the internet and speaking with friends and fellow travel agents I finally decided upon the Barceló Palace for my family’s inaugural Mexico vacation (hubs and I had visited before, but it was the 10 YO boy child’s first visit). My most recent AIs were both Iberostar Grands so I knew I wanted to stay somewhere with a posh reputation otherwise I’d spend my entire vacation kicking myself. My secondary criteria was a good beach and plenty of things to do to keep a boy busy. The Barceló Palace promised all this and more. And they delivered.

 

Did I mention I wanted posh? I’m a total sucker for beautifully manicured grounds.

IMG_1506

And a beautiful buffet.

IMG_1288IMG_1292

IMG_1286
Can you tell I’m extra interested in pastries?

And a gorgeous beach. Note that some of the trees have electrical outlets!

Even the rinse stations between the beach and the rest of the resort are pretty.

IMG_1331

As you can plainly see, the resort is beautiful and well kept. It’s also massive. We stayed in the Palace and generally did not feel a need to visit the other parts of the resort though a Palace wristband will gain you entry and access to all the other parts of the resort AND top shelf liquor AND reservations at an à la carte restaurant for every evening of your stay at no additional charge (non-Palace guests must pay $20 per person to dine at these and are limited in the number of reservations they can make).

FOOD.

There are three à la carte restaurants at the Palace: Rodizio, Brasserie, & Caribe. Reservations need to be made at the Guest Services desk around the corner from the check in desk. Do this as soon as you arrive because you cannot do it in advance and spaces fill up fast! I tried to make reservations at Rodizio (churrascaria), Brasserie (French), and La Trattoria (the Italian restaurant in the mall). La Trattoria was booked, but I was able to secure reservations at the other two.  The woman at Guest Services gave me printed receipts of my reservations which I brought with me when we checked in at the restaurants.  While this is not required it did seem to facilitate the process.  A couple checked in after my family without their receipt and some time was spent looking up the reservation.  No big deal, but the receipts made life easier for everyone.

Rodizio. This was a meat lover’s paradise.  My husband chose to have the churrascaria service and was presented with 7 different types of meat. My son chose the enoteca (NY strip) and loved it. I had the spinach lasagna which was very tasty (and I may have helped the boy with his steak). No photos were taken as we were too busy eating.

Brasserie. I was a bit concerned about this one because none of the adult options appealed to the boy. He ended up with a ham and cheese sandwich with fries. Mike and I both had the burgundy escargot which was fantastic (even the boy enjoyed it once we convinced him to try a bite). My beef wellington was pretty good though the pastry was a bit gummy in the center (still a much better job than I could have done). Mike had the duck. he said it was a little overcooked but added that maybe he should have ordered it differently. His crème brûlée was not very good, but the surprise chocolate boxes were.  I really thought we’d receive a box with a few chocolate truffles, but this is what we got instead:

IMG_1466

Yes, the box itself is made of chocolate. Sorry to ruin the surprise. It was so pretty we hated to eat it, but we did it anyway and enjoyed every bite. And it more than made up for the so-so crème brûlée. The Brasserie menu is below (my apologies for the terrible glare).

 

In addition to the three à la cartes, the Palace has two buffet dining rooms (El Mirador and La Hacienda). They share an actual buffet though there are different things on both sides so don’t be afraid to cross the threshold or you may miss out on something delicious! There are different theme nights (i.e. Mexican night or Seafood night).  We dined in El Mirador on the seafood night and discovered that there were plenty of options besides seafood. These buffets are for when you’re dry. When you’re wet, head to the Coral Grill (literally next door to La Hacienda so there’s no missing it). This is a much smaller buffet, but a good place for late breakfast or a snack. Oh! And did I mention that the buffets have serve yourself beer and coffee? I didn’t utilize these, but I did see some people do it.  The waiters were plenty quick with carafes of coffee in the mornings so I didn’t see the need. And speaking of the waiters, never did I see any of them with anything but a smile.  Our service was fantastic at every meal, in every restaurant, and even at every bar. Bring plenty of tip money because the staff works hard and deserves it.

WATER ACTIVITIES

There are plenty of included activities at the Barceló. We did not take advantage of any of the pool slides or the miniature golf, but they are options if you’re so inclined.  We really wanted to take out the water trikes (who even knew that was a thing?) but the water was too rough when we wanted to go. Single person kayaks are also available, but that felt too much like work. Mike got a refresher course in the use of a Hobie cat and took the boy and me out for a ride. Lessons were free of charge, but once again the staff is amazing and should be rewarded, so plan to tip. No payment was required for the use of the non-motorized equipment.

IMG_1483
water trikes. seriously how cool is that?

 

IMG_1481IMG_1495IMG_1485IMG_1480

If you have your own snorkel gear then bring it because you won’t want to miss some of the resident wildlife.

DCIM100GOPROG0172288.DCIM100GOPROG0172298.

ROOMS

All the food and swimming had us going to bed before 10 every night (which is a shame because the shows all start at 9:30).  The rooms were pretty and the bathroom divided in such a way that someone could use the toilet in privacy while someone else was in the bathroom.

The only thing I did not like at the resort was the bed. I despise these beds. They are hard and the sheets are noisy. Yes, you read that correctly. Noisy sheets. After two nights I discovered that if I slipped the mattress protector to the side by releasing two corners, removed the loud sheet, and lined up the pillows to create my own pillowtop mattress, the bed was acceptable. My husband did the same (less the pillows) on the other double bed which was free because my son begged me to sleep on the couch because it was more comfy than the bed. A five star resort should not have a one star bed. So while it’s my only complaint it is a big one.

 

DOLPHINARIS

Right. So I struggled with this one a bit. There is a daily show at 11:30 for no charge and you can pay to interact with the dolphins.  The pool seemed quite small to house 5 dolphins thought it is approved by some European dolphin regulatory group or something.

MISCELLANY

Wifi.  Wifi costs $12/day for one day. The more days you purchase the less the cost per day. Only one device can be logged in at a time. At first I thought this was bordering on a disgrace, but I found that I really didn’t miss it.  We did purchase it so my husband could do some work and my son used it a bit, too. If you use Apple devices you have to go to a special web address to log on and off. Unfortunately one of our devices got “stuck” logged in and we couldn’t free it so Mike was forced to work from his phone. He states he wouldn’t go back unless they fixed the way they handle the internet.

Airport transfers. I purchased a package from Funjet with a private transfer through Lomas Travel. Finding them at the airport was easy peasy. They have a cooler in their vehicles with cold drinks including beer available for purchase at half the price of the kiosk outside the airport.

Included wine. Not a big deal for most of you, but I enjoy red wine with dinner. There was only one included red wine and I never thought to get the name. It wasn’t awesome but it was drinkable (I generally prefer malbecs, blends, & riojas if that helps). Non included bottles can be purchased for 3-4 times what you’d pay at a store in the US.

Excursions. There are several travel companies at the ground floor of the Palace. You can purchase an excursion through them or directly through the resort. We purchased the Tulum Express through Lomas and found ourselves on a bus with guests from another part of the Barcelo who purchased directly though the resort. I did not ask what they paid but I will tell you that I was able to negotiate our price down. I guess the lesson is to shop the price or just pick whoever makes you feel comfortable.

Thanks for reading all the way to the end. I will reward you with the most important advice I have to give about travel in Mexico. When you arrive at Immigration and present the form you’ve been given to the officer, he/she will tear off the bottom and give it back to you. YOU MUST NOT LOSE THIS OR YOU CANNOT LEAVE THE COUNTRY. Seriously. I have a friend whose wife misplaced his and he had to sleep at the airport (until they kicked him out because they close every night) and he had to complete extra paperwork for some government official and pay extra money the following day during business hours. Hungover. With a broken toe. Don’t let this happen to you. I attach a paperclip to the back cover of my passport and store my government papers there. You should, too.

Interested in learning more? Any questions I neglected to answer? Leave a comment or contact me directly at amanda@designmytrip.net.

 

 

 

3 Days in Puerto Rico

 

Hola friends! Have you ever thought to yourself “Self, let’s go to Puerto Rico”? No? Well maybe it’s time you had that conversation. I recently spent about 72 hours in PR and this is how it went:

Day One

Mike and I landed around 4, grabbed the rental car (all car rental companies share one building and it is directly across the street from baggage claim- no need for a tram, bus, or anything but your own two feet), then headed straight for the San Juan Water and Beach Club on Isla Verde. They were packing away the beach loungers by the time we checked in, changed, and made it to the the beach so naturally we headed up to the rooftop bar. We had to try the local brew (Medalla) and decided it was fine.  Nothing to write home about, but it was cold so we were happy .  And the views from the top didn’t hurt.

 

img_0016

A quick discussion with our bartender about local food and drink led us to the conclusion that we needed to leave the hotel and head to Mi Casita (a 5 minute walk down the street) to try their famous mofongo.  Rumor has it that tourists and locals eat there and it did appear that way once we arrived. Mike had the pork mofongo with a Magna (the other local beer) and I had the shrimp mofongo with red wine. Mine tasted better than his, but that was just my opinion. (But I was right)

After dinner and a bit of wandering we ended up back at the rooftop bar for  nightcap. I desperately wanted a mudslide but they were completely out of chocolate syrup so I had a Kokok instead (vanilla, cinnamon, and coconut).  It totally satisfied my dessert craving.

 

 

Day 2- Beach & Old San Juan

We started the day early with an awesome breakfast at a place we’d seen the night before- Playa Papaya. Mike had some sort of eggs and vegetables and I had the biggest most beautiful parfait ever.

 

After breakfast we made a quick walk over to Walgreen’s for important stuff like sunscreen, bug spray, and wine. Then we headed for Playa de Isla Verde (the beach at the hotel).  The sand and water were perfect- no debris on the beach or in the water and the surf wasn’t rough.

img_0043
Playa de Isla Verde

Around 11 we left the beach (sad face) so we could shower and check out by noon. We opted to leave our luggage at the hotel with the car and catch an Uber into Old San Juan so we wouldn’t have to deal with parking, etc.  That turned out to be a great idea. Our Uber driver dropped us at the Plaza de Armas and off we went.  We meandered along the Paseo de la Princessa Calle Shumberg toward El Morro stopping to take pictures of the multitude of statues and giant trees along the way.

 

img_0055
Plaza de Armas

img_0065img_0062img_0069

El Morro

 

Entry to El Morro is $5/adult and there’s plenty to explore. Bonus is that it’s on a hill with a great breeze.  In fact, the grounds in front are popular with kite flyers and we saw several while we were there.  After our visit we walked down into the city to find Senor Paleta for fresh made ice cream as recommended by our Uber driver.  The ice cream was cheap and delicious.  Try the dulce de leche.  I would have taken a picture, but I was hot and my ice cream was melting so you’ll have to take my word about the whole thing. We passed some interesting things along the way.

 

A quick Uber trip after that took us back to the San Juan Water & Beach club to collect our car and head down the coast for the Wyndham Rio del Mar.  (Pro tips- Waze works great in PR. Download it and use it if you plan to drive. Also, leave San Juan before 4 if you want to beat the traffic).

Sixteen miles and 40 or so minutes later we were pulling into the Wyndham Rio del Mar. Check in was painless and the room was lovely though freezing (the AC worked very well). Room keys are bracelets (a la Disney World style Magic Band) and they are different colors based on your resort (The Wyndham is connected to Margaritaville). In all honesty I was concerned about the 2 resorts in one but it wasn’t a problem at all and the facilities throughout were the same with no noticeable difference from one side to the other.

We made it to our room and put on our swimsuits then headed down to the pool bar. Sometime around then I realized I’d lost my camera. After some frantic searching and phone calls we discovered I’d left it in the Uber driver’s car. So we killed time at the resort then went back to San Juan where we killed some more time waiting for our guy to get out of class. Dinner that night was at Church’s Chicken. I’m pretty sure you don’t want pictures of that which is good since I didn’t have my camera.  Anyway, that pretty much killed that evening.  We were exhausted by the time we made it back into the hotel and crawled into bed.

 

Day 3- El Yunque, Los Kioskos de Luquillo, Wyndham beach/pool

We woke up bright and early and ready to explore El Yunque! We grabbed coffee and muffins at the hotel, picked up the car, then headed across the highway to begin our exploration.

We arrived at the first point of interest shortly after 8AM. Our early arrival gave us loads of time to explore the trails, waterfalls, and towers without fighting crowds. We spent approximately 5 hours wandering the park and loved every minute of it.

Pro tips for El Yunque- bring a rain jacket, shoes with some sort of traction (my trail running shoes worked great and Mike’s hiking sandals were pretty good except for a few spots where he had to watch his toes on rocks), water, and a snack if you plan to explore as much as possible.  There is a snack shop in the park (there may even be more than one), and rumor has it that the food is good, but we didn’t stop.  Also, as mentioned earlier, arrive at the park early so you can enjoy the trails in peace and get some great photos without fighting crowds.

Los Kioskos de Luquillo

Playing in the rain forest made us hungry so we left the park and drove about 2 miles down the highway to the Kioskos de Luquillo.  In my head I pictured Oistens in Barbados- just a total warren of food shacks, but it turned out to be more of a really long strip center of food shops. Mike wanted ceviche so we stopped at the first place that advertised it and looked good. Three Medallas, one ceviche, one crab arepa, & an order of tostones later, we were full and happy. Yareh- Kiosko 43 is the place to go!

The remainder of the afternoon was spent at the beach and the pool back at the resort. We briefly considered going kayaking that night on Mosquito Bay to see the bioluminescence, but quickly discarded it as being too much work after our morning adventures (plus Mike didn’t want to drive).

For dinner we ordered a large pizza from the resort bakery (it was actually pretty good), took it to our room, and enjoyed it on our balcony. And remember that bottle of wine we bought at the Walgreen’s? Yep. We had that with our pizza. So we saved a ton of money and didn’t even have to leave the resort to do it. Pro tip- bring your own wine/whatever to enjoy in your room or on your balcony. Wyndham does have a strict no cooler policy so don’t expect to hang out at the pool with your budget beer.

 

Final Day- Day 4- Day 3.5?

Yes, I know I said three days in the title and now I have a day 4. What can I say? We spent the morning hanging around the beach and pool then gathered our things and said adios to the lovely people at the Wyndham. A few things to note- check out time is 11 AM. They’re happy to store your luggage for you if you want to enjoy the pool/beach after your check out, but there are no showers at the fitness facility to get cleaned up before you head back to the city to catch your flight.  I did ask the concierge about this and he referred me to the night manager who informed me that I could shower at the golf pro shop. I got the impression this isn’t highly publicized, so now you know. Make sure you turn in your towel cards AND your wristbands upon check out or you will incur fees. And the valet will want to see your final hotel receipt before you depart (probably to make sure you were honest and paid for valet instead of self parking). Though it’s only about a 35 minute drive back to the airport the Wyndham manager told me they usually recommend departing the resort 3 hours in advance of your flight due to increased Sunday traffic (people driving back to the city in anticipation of the work week) and to give yourself plenty of time to get through “agriculture” (a quick x ray of all your belongings as soon as you enter the airport). He said sometimes it takes 10 seconds, sometimes more. Luckily we were in the 10 second group.  Easy peasy.

A final note about the airport- you exit security straight into the duty free shops. A & B gates are to your left and that’s also where you’ll find the cheap food- Subway, Church’s Chicken, and a handful of others. C & D gates are to your right and there are limited options on this side. Most notably there’s a Margaritaville where you’ll pay $10 for a beer and $18 for a sandwich. So save yourself some $$ and go to the left.

 

Final Thoughts/ Miscellaneous Info

1- First of all, everyone speaks English- this isn’t surprising, but now you know in case you were wondering.

2- The roads are in good shape and Waze works like a charm so do yourself a favor and rent a car. We ran into a woman at the resort that had not rented a car but really wanted to go explore El Yunque at her own speed without signing up with a group. Bummer for her.  (BTW, El Yunque is part of the National Park Service and it’s free).

3- The Wyndham offers an All- Inclusive option. Skip it.  The people I spoke with on the AI plan were disappointed in their options. Apparently not all restaurants at the resort are part of the plan.

4- The beach at the Wyndham isn’t all that great. Yes, I know we spent a lot of time there, but there was organic debris all over the beach and a few yards out in the water. Maybe it’s from the river up the coast or maybe it was from recent storms? Either way, that combined with a rough surf made for a sub-optimal beach experience. The pools (adult/quiet & family/activity) however were great as was the service we received from the entire staff.

5- Bring a reusable water bottle.  The tap water is fine to drink and doesn’t taste weird so why spend the extra money on bottled water if you don’t have to?

 

 

 

Getting to Know Me

Hi everyone. As I figure out the world of blogging I thought I’d take a minute to tell you a little about me.  I’m married (to the most patient man on earth) and have an amazing son.  I prefer puppy pictures to baby pictures and I prefer red wine to white. I love to cook, read, and run. When I’m not busy doing those things I’m busy planning my next trip. After bumping around the world for the last few years, I’ve learned that the best experiences are whatever make you happy. Everyone’s got their own style and that’s ok.

IMG_3013
Iberostar Grand Hotel Paraíso