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How to take GREAT photos while on vacation!

Jane’s Corner:  How to take GREAT photos while on vacation!

Welcome to my corner……of the world! It’s a great pleasure to join The Travel Mechanic team as a monthly guest blogger!  

BloggerI invite you to travel along with me through my blog articles and many pictures. My love for travel started at a very early age through the wonderful opportunity to live, grow up and go to school in England. The experience was life-changing, and it was the catalyst for my long-time passion of exploring the beautiful and interesting places that other people call home.

 

Souvenirs of the heart and photos from the road

Many people say that the most valuable souvenirs from their travels are their photos.  I’d agree with that, and my pictures are very important to me.   This month my plan was to write about taking pictures of interesting subjects, beautiful scenery and a few well-chosen shots with you in them so that you can show that you really did visit Mont Blanc, or the Grand Canyon or the Taj Mahal!  I planned to discuss artful cropping, sharpening and enhancing color.  Then…….
MY COMPUTER LOCKED ME OUT!  (I didn’t just raise my literary voice, did I?)   What to do?
While I was mulling over this dilemma, I serendipitously read an excellent article in this month’s Travel and Leisure by travel writer, Pico Iyer.  The article is entitled “Kicking The Bucket List” which encourages the reader to stay open to possibilities while traveling.  I wondered if that might also apply to writing about travel.   That led me to Plan B for this article.
In Lucerne a few years ago, my Nikon CoolPix somehow disappeared from my wrist while we were walking between a restaurant and our hotel.  With it went more than 600 photos.  My only alternative was to start using my iPhone to take photos for the rest of the trip. As you know, mobile devices have opened up a new world of photography and offer the ability to share instantly with family and friends.
Photos can be so much more than just recording a lovely scene.  They can actually open our eyes to what’s behind that beauty.  On a recent trip to Vancouver, I took many photos in the Dr. Sun-Yat Sen Classical Chinese Garden.  A place of tranquility – I had the feeling I had been there before.  Then I realized the striking similarity to Monet’s Japanese Garden at Giverny and the lily pond at the Melzi Gardens, Bellagio, Italy.   I put these photos side by side – actually I put them in a collage using my iPhone collage app.  Then I started to understand what was in the mind – and, dare I say, the soul of the designer and the artist.  It made me feel that they allowed me to communicate on a much deeper level with them.  It made the experience and the photos much more than the sum of their parts.   

 

 

 

 


On a visit to a German Christmas market in Denver, I took photos with my iPhone of the charming wooden figurines.  Unfortunately, there was a rather large “blue shoulder” and an unwanted “head” in my shot!   By doing a quick crop, I had a respectable photo of my intended subject and no one was the wiser!  

 

 

A word about cropping, you don’t lose anything by cropping – except maybe a trash can or an unwanted car!   Most photographers will advise you to be brutal about cropping!   In the digital age, if that makes you shake in your shoes, you can always save your original photo.
When I travel, I keep my eyes open for surprises.  In August 2016, it was the lighting of the Olympic cauldron in Vancouver to celebrate the opening of the summer games.  Yes, I got some pictures, but the best part was the unexpected opportunity for that rare experience.  
My friends and family know my motto — I brake for brides!   In Venice, a stunning bride in a very striking gown walked right in front of me!  I was soon in hot pursuit, and realized that the “happy couple” were actually models on a photo shoot.  No problem!  I became the auxiliary photographer, got some great shots, and found myself in a section of the city that I had never visited.  It was a great adventure all the way around!


My travel schedule is very full for the next two months — Pittsburgh for my granddaughter’s college graduation followed by a trip to Los Angeles.  Then I’m going to Eastern Europe followed by a visit to Paris (which is always a good idea!).  I’ll return to “Jane’s Corner” in July with glimpses of Kraków, Budapest, Vienna and Prague.   Happy Travels!  Wonderful Memories!

Jane’s Corner: Lucky in Dublin

Happy St. Patrick’s Day from Dublin Ireland!

Welcome to my corner……of the world! It’s a great pleasure to join The Travel Mechanic team as a monthly guest blogger!  BloggerI invite you to travel along with me through my blog articles and many pictures. My love for travel started at a very early age through the wonderful opportunity to live, grow up and go to school in England. The experience was life-changing, and it was the catalyst for my long-time passion of exploring the beautiful and interesting places that other people call home.

 

 

I’m not sure if that’s due to the Irish optimism, love of life and good times or if it’s because of the approximately 1000 pubs in the city and surrounding area. Whichever it is, you will find a combination of interesting history, culture and traditional foods and drinks. Let’s say you have just three days to spend there — what do you do? With some advance planning, you will absorb the multifaceted vibe of Dublin. Here are a few travel tips.

Stay in a city center hotel if at all possible. Location is important and since Dublin is a very walkable city, you will be able to take advantage of that if you choose a central location. The city is divided by the river Liffey and I find that the south side of the river has a more lively atmosphere. There are many hotels and B&Bs in every price point, so you’re sure to find one that fits your needs. My own favorite is The Shelbourne Hotel because if its proximity to St. Stephen’s Green, a beautiful park in the city center, and because of the hotel’s unique historical significance. It is where the Irish Constitution was drafted in 1922. The hotel is also very proud that many notable people have stayed there including Princess Grace of Monaco. When I win the lottery, I’m going to stay in the Princess Grace Suite!

Shelborne Hotel, Dublin

Visit some of the most important and well-known historical and cultural sites. The most renowned exhibit is the Book of Kells, the magnificent work of art created by monks in the 9th century. As an artistic creation it is a masterpiece, and it is kept in a beautiful permanent exhibit in the Old Library at Trinity College.

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If possible, inquire in advance for tickets at the Dublin Visitor Centre or the Irish Tourist Board since this is probably the most visited attraction in Dublin. While you are at Trinity College, spend a little time in the Long Room, an impressive chamber housing approximately 200,000 of the library’s oldest volumes. Its size will astound you! Dublin Castle is both the site of a Viking fort and has long been used as a government center. It is still in use today, and you will get an inside perspective of Ireland’s complex history on a tour of the castle. 3 St. Patrick’s Cathedral is most interesting for the fact that the poet and author, Jonathon Swift, (think Gulliver’s Travels) was Dean there in the 18th century. What do I think is the most fascinating cultural site in Dublin? It’s the Guinness Storehouse at St. James Gate! There is a beautifully constructed museum which shows the process of the manufacture of “porter”, and your tour ends with a visit to the Gravity Bar where you can have your own “pint” and admire the great city views from the 7th floor. I’ll share my “Aha Moment” while visiting an exhibit at the storehouse when I realized “Oh my goodness, 4THAT Guinness Book of World Records!” Once again, there’s more to Guinness than a drink!  Throughout the city, you will see a unique architectural feature of the 18th century Dublin townhouses – the elaborate and brightly-colored Georgian doors. They have become so

well-known that they have their own souvenir posters and calendars.

 

 

 

Here’s my insider tip for visiting Dublin – get a 24-hour Hop-On, Hop-Off bus pass. Buy it at about 3pm and ride around so that you get an overview of the city. The next morning, get back on the bus and stop at the places that are interesting to you. You will even be able to go to the Guinness Storehouse which really is not in walking distance to the city center.
Absorb the vibe and life of the city. I mentioned my preference for the south side of the Liffey. That’s where you’ll find Grafton Street, the main shopping area and pedestrian-walking street, which stretches from Saint Stephen’s Green to Trinity College. 5 Grafton Street and its side streets are full of pubs. In Ireland, a pub is a place where you can get everything from a cup of tea to a whiskey. You can also get a reasonably-priced lunch or dinner. One of my husband Alan’s favorites is the “toastie, a small sandwich (grilled cheese Irish style!). A lunch feature at some pubs is the Carvery Lunch which is actually a very large meal including a choice of several meats or fish, potatoes and lots of vegetables. The plate is served at a buffet counter and you tell the server what you would like on your plate. Believe me, that can be your meal for the day and it’s the best value around.

 

 

The south side is also where you’ll find the Temple Bar area, a vibrant street which seems to be a continuous celebration in progress. Yes, it is anchored by THE Temple Bar, a Dublin institution. You might be surprised that the pub is actually quite small.6
However, the area is full of restaurants where you will find traditional Irish food — try The Boxty House — and pubs where, even if you are alone, you won’t be for long if you just take a seat at the bar! You will find there’s plenty of good “Craic” — that’s the conversation and entertainment! I once saw a sign that read “An Irish pub is much more than a place to get a drink.”  8That’s true on so many levels, and it’s particularly true in Dublin where many of the renowned Irish authors spent hours conversing and working. In fact, there is a Literary Pub Crawl tour which starts at The Duke, my favorite Dublin pub (Picture to the right). If you stop in, tell the owner, Tom Gilligan, that you’re friends of Jane and Alan Meagher from Virginia! (A personal note on our old Irish surname — it’s pronounced “Marr”- and it’s only when we are in Ireland that we hear it pronounced correctly!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Best of the Rest that I love about Dublin: Delicious soups that are always served with brown bread; a cup of tea that’s served with a biscuit; flower stands dotting Grafton Street;

 

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stunning and creative floral arrangements in the hotel lobby; street artists, particularly mimes; the warmth of the Irish people and their affection for Americans. Most have American relatives and might easily ask you “Would you know my cousin, Kevin O’Neill, in Baltimore?” That’s for real — and they’d be very pleased if you said that you had met him once or twice!! It’s the Irish way! On your visit to Dublin, even if you’re not Irish by birth, you’ll leave with an Irish heart!

We Love Paris!

Can you name the most romantic place in the world for a marriage proposal? Did you say Paris? If so, you are in agreement with 99% of those in my unscientific poll! Paris is known as the city of love, and romance is definitely in the air! Just think of all those couples who have placed a padlock on the Pont des Arts bridge and thrown away the key. Even when the locks are taken down, love will always find a way!
Although Paris is a very large city, there are many picturesque spots for this once-in-a-lifetime event. Most of us think of the Eiffel Tower as the ultimate symbol of the city. Once thought of as a monstrosity, it is now the iconic landmark of Paris. It’s located on the expansive Champs de Mars which is lined with trees and flowers. The park is picturesque in every season and in every weather – sun, rain, snow and even fog!  BCIMG6050a

 

Naturally, you will want some photos to mark your special day, and you and your photographer (even if that’s you taking selfies!) will have your choice of beautiful spots. DSCN0342a
Here’s another hint – if you are visiting the Eiffel Tower with the longtime love of your life, be sure to take a picture of the two of you! It will be a wonderful souvenir and may be your favorite picture of the year! Here I am with the love of my life, my husband Alan! And, yes, this was our Christmas card photo! DSCN0348a
There are other meaningful locations for your romantic moments. You might choose the backdrop of the magnificent Notre Dame cathedral. Before you leave the area, be sure to step on the small brass marker in front of the church known as Point Zero. It’s actually the geographical center of Paris, but tradition has it that if you step on the Point Zero star, you will return to Paris!   DSC_0446a

 

To celebrate your engagement or wedding, have a memorable lunch or dinner at Restaurant Le Jules Verne, the Michelin-starred destination on level 2 of the Eiffel Tower. Take the private elevator to the intimate restaurant which overlooks all of Paris! You will have a truly unique and innovative dining experience with a choice of five or six course tasting menus. Afterward, you will leave with a special parting gift and souvenir. IMG_5083a IMG_5078a

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The dinner photos were shared by Michelle Beary, blogger in Paris (fabulousfindsinparis.wordpress.com) Merci, Michelle!

Starting at nine o’clock in the evening, you will be inside the captivating “sparkle” which lasts for five minutes on the hour. The magical twinkling lights will reflect the precious sparkle on your left hand!).   DSCN1920 You will remember the experience as happily as you remember the occasion that you are celebrating!

Do you want the ultimate destination wedding? With some planning, you can actually get married in Paris! You do want to make sure that you take care of the legal details as well as the ceremony and party arrangements. Our Travel Mechanic wedding specialist, Lauren, can smooth the way for you. Just give her a call for creative ideas! One word of caution, if you choose one of the beautiful Paris churches, remember that churches are public places which are open to tourists during the day. You might find that you have some unexpected “guests” at the ceremony! Somehow, that just adds to the charm! Last year I “happened upon” a wedding at the newly renovated Église de la Madeleine, so naturally I got an aisle seat to witness the happy event (and take some pictures!). Imagine my surprise to find out that the bride and groom were from Pennsylvania and had been students at the Sorbonne! IMG_0850a
Whether you fly off to Paris for the most romantic event of your life, or if you’re there for your annual visit to the City of Lights, its landmarks will captivate you. And you will almost certainly leave a piece of your heart there!

Jane’s Corner: A Royal Day Out

 

Blogger

Welcome to my corner……of the world! It’s a great pleasure to join The Travel Mechanic team as a monthly guest blogger!  I invite you to travel along with me through my blog articles and many pictures. My love for travel started at a very early age through the wonderful opportunity to live, grow up and go to school in England. The experience was life-changing, and it was the catalyst for my long-time passion of exploring the beautiful and interesting places that other people call home.

 

“All the Queen’s Horses” – All the Queen’s Houses 

With the wild enthusiasm for Netflix Season One of “The Crown” and the start of the PBS series “Victoria”, there is no better time to visit one or more of the British royal residences!  Yes, you can actually tour the Queen’s palaces, walk in the steps of royalty and even have a cup of tea and a scone! You might not strictly be having tea with the Queen, but you can have a “cuppa” in the palace tea room!

Enjoy a cup of tea and a scone with clotted cream and strawberries worthy of a Queen!

Enjoy a cup of tea and a scone with clotted cream and strawberries worthy of a Queen!

If you are fortunate enough to be in London in August or September, you can visit Buckingham Palace during the summer opening. While the Queen is in Scotland for her summer holiday, the palace opens its State Rooms to visitors. It is definitely worth planning your trip around it if you can!   Not only will you experience history and get an inside glimpse into the royal household; you will also see the largest private collection in the world of art, sculpture, china and furniture. Think Vermeer, Michelangelo, Canaletto paintings, Sèvres porcelain, a Marie Antoinette desk!

Dine like royalty on one of the many sets of exquisite china.

Dine like royalty on one of the many sets of exquisite china.

A gold épergne to enhance the dining table.  Buckingham Palace is a place where all that glitters actually IS gold!

A gold épergne to enhance the dining table. Buckingham Palace is a place where all that glitters actually IS gold!

In addition to seeing the state rooms themselves, there is a special exhibit during the summer opening which is generally related to a particular royal event or milestone. I have been fortunate enough to see the Queen’s 60th wedding anniversary exhibit featuring her bridal gown and some of the magnificent wedding gifts from throughout the Commonwealth – think diamond necklaces and brooches!   (You can even buy a reproduction of some of the jewelry in the excellent palace shops. I have the famous bow-shaped brooch and the Queen’s bridal earrings!)   I have also seen the Coronation exhibit and the royal babies and children exhibit. For Anglophiles such as myself, these are dream opportunities.

At any time of year, you can see the Changing of the Guard. (11:30AM daily during the summer months and generally every other day during the winter.) Be sure to check the schedule before you go. The ceremony is the embodiment of pomp and circumstance and you can even hum a few bars of the Elgar song to yourself!   The ceremony lasts about a half hour, and you will want to get there early to stake out your viewing spot!

The Coldstream Guards march from the barracks to the palace for the daily Changing of the Guard ceremony.

The Coldstream Guards march from the barracks to the palace for the daily Changing of the Guard ceremony.

Throughout the year, you can also visit the Royal Mews where the carriages and cars are housed. You will also find the stables and “all the Queen’s horses”!   It’s a unique and up close look at the very special transportation of the royal family for events such as the Coronation and weddings. Mind you, the carriages might not be the most comfortable mode of transport; but nothing is more majestic than that gilded and painted Gold State Coach.

The Glass Coach is used for royal weddings.  The Queen and Prince Philip rode in it after their wedding ceremony.

The Glass Coach is used for royal weddings. The Queen and Prince Philip rode in it after their wedding ceremony.

The Gold State Coach is used for Coronations and was used for the Queen's Silver and Gold Jubilee celebration

The Gold State Coach is used for Coronations and was used for the Queen’s Silver and Gold Jubilee celebration

The Queen’s Gallery which is adjacent to the palace on Buckingham Palace Road houses a rotating collection of art owned by the Crown. It is an outstanding exhibit of paintings, furnishings and jewelry. Since what is on display changes throughout the year, you can visit more than once.

Magnificent inlaid antique clock in the Queen's Gallery.  Note paintings in the background.

Magnificent inlaid antique clock in the Queen’s Gallery. Note paintings in the background.

Another reason to visit – will find the largest of the palace gift shops there and it’s definitely worth a visit. All the gift shops are open to the public so you can stop by at any time during your visit to London.

Here are some tips for your visit. You can purchase your ticket near the Queen’s Gallery during the summer opening although there might be long lines at the busiest time of year. You can also purchase your ticket online in advance even from the States. I have actually done that twice, and you can select your date and entrance time which saves a lot of time. In addition, if you elect to make your ticket purchase a contribution to the Royal Trust, the ticket is valid for one year from the date of your first visit. In that way, if you can’t visit all the exhibits in one day, you can return and just show your ticket for free entry. One caution, be sure to have the ticket stamped before your leave the palace. You might think that you won’t return, but I can tell you that I visited twice in one week just so that I could spend more time studying the art collection. You can choose to purchase a ticket for one or more of the exhibits. However, I recommend that you select the Royal Day Out so that you can visit everything!   Be sure that you get an included audio guide – it will immensely enhance your visit and you will get to hear various members of the royal family pointing out the important things to see. You will feel as if they are giving you a private tour!   My final word of advice – there is a lot of walking! After visiting the state rooms and having a snack in the tearoom on the terrace, there is a ½ mile walk to the back gate. (I am not exaggerating!)   On my second visit in one week with my husband Alan, I asked one of the very kind gentleman at the palace if there was an easier way to exit.   He arranged for us to be taken in a small golf cart out the front gate. I must admit that I did give a “royal wave” to anyone who was looking!

In addition to Buckingham Palace, there are several other royal residences in and near London which are also fascinating to visit. To immerse yourself in Queen Victoria, visit Kensington Palace which is a detailed look into her whole life – from childhood through her long life.

It’s particularly interesting to compare Victoria’s history to the present Queen’s life and reign.

If you want to see a real royal castle, visit Windsor Castle outside of London. Although built in the 11th century, it is a working palace and is in pristine condition. The Queen spends many weekends at Windsor and attends church services there. If you visit on a Sunday, you might even see members of the family walking to St. George’s Chapel!   Queen Mary’s dollhouse is a charming exhibit for the young and the young at heart. You can spend time visiting the quintessential English town of Windsor itself and take the children to Legoland Windsor.

A boat ride down the Thames will take you to Hampton Court Palace. It has a long and fascinating history and is primarily associated with Henry VIII. If you are brave enough, you can even try to find your way out of the famous maze!   Hampton Court, along with the other royal residences, has a special program for children including workbooks, royal “dress-up” corners and audio guides. Visitors of all ages can have a memorable experience.

We think of palaces existing in fairy tales – you can find your fairy tale palace in London!

 

 

Jane’s Corner: How to Travel like a Local!

BloggerWelcome to my corner……of the world! It’s a great pleasure to join The Travel Mechanic team as a monthly guest blogger!  I invite you to travel along with me through my blog articles and many pictures. My love for travel started at a very early age through the wonderful opportunity to live, grow up and go to school in England. The experience was life-changing, and it was the catalyst for my long-time passion of exploring the beautiful and interesting places that other people call home.

The Markets of Europe

Do you want to look and feel like a native when traveling to France or Italy?   Here’s one way to do it – shop every day in the local markets! The following are my hints for shopping like a native on your next vacation.

Hint #1– use a rolling shopper cart! If you are fortunate enough to be staying in a holiday apartment, just look in the closet and you’re sure to find one.   Take it and walk purposefully toward your destination – you will feel as if you belong there.   Markets in Europe vary from once or twice a week to daily and you will want to plan your daily forays to maximize your experiences.

Hint #2 – go early in the day. Most markets start about 7 am and close by 2pm. If you are shopping after noon, the best goods will be gone and some stands may already have closed.

Hint #3 – be sure to greet the market stall owner!   A courteous “Bonjour, Madame” or “Buon Giorno, Signore” goes a long way. The merchant will appreciate the fact that you have excellent manners!

Hint #4 – DO NOT touch the merchandise!   Allow “Monsieur” or “Madame” to select the fruit or vegetables and they will choose their finest for you. It is permissible to point to your selection especially if you are not sure of the name.

Hint #5 – Say thank-you and wish the owner a good day. If you know those phrases in the host country language, so much the better.

Where are the best markets? In general, if there is a market in the city or town that you are visiting, it’s good!   I’ll share some of the favorites from my experiences in Europe. I can assure you that there are many that I have not yet visited; however, they are on my list for the future!

 

France

Paris has many markets and you can go to a different one every day of the week including Sunday!   Many are located in the 7th arrondissement not far from the Eiffel Tower. That means that while you are shopping, you can look at the city’s premier landmark. My favorite is the Saxe-Breteuil market for its high quality fruits and vegetables, flowers, specialty salts, patés and wine. That’s your Thursday and Saturday market.

On Sunday, go to the largest market in the 15th arrondissement called Motte Piquet/Grenelle market. It has a huge selection of fresh goods, breads and pastries, clothing and other household goods. A word of caution about produce and meats. They are often found in their more “natural” form – so you may see a cooking chicken with its head feathers!   In any market, you will find a food stand with a large rotisserie roasting traditional chicken – poulet rôti. It’s so delicious and not to be missed!   Be sure to get some roasted potatoes too.

In the south of France, the Cours Saleya market in Nice is a destination in itself. It’s a daily market, although on Monday it’s an antiques market. The food and flowers market starts on Tuesday. What makes this market unique is the magnificent variety of stunning flowers and bouquets and the assortment of delicious traditional candies and glazed fruits.   My beautiful birthday bouquet from the market was a highlight of my visit to Nice!

 

Italy

Florence – there are several permanent markets. They are very large and, in addition to produce and sweets, they feature the specialty of the city – leather. There are many choices from wallets and belts to purses and jackets and coats. Be sure to know what you want and how much you are willing to pay for expensive items.   Be an educated consumer!

Mercato Nuovo – fondly called the Porcellino market for the bronze piglet sculpture at the entrance. Be sure to rub the pig’s nose to assure you’ll return to Florence!   The market is in a large covered arcade which is a great advantage for getting out of the sun or the rain.

Porcellino Market, Florence - Don't forget to rub the piglet's nose when you leave with your leather treasures!

Porcellino Market, Florence – Don’t forget to rub the piglet’s nose when you leave with your leather treasures!

Mercato Centrale – this is now an enclosed multi-level market with stalls featuring many different foods, soaps, flowers on the lower level. The upper level is dedicated to prepared foods from pizza and pasta to sandwiches and seafood entrées.   There are dining tables, so you can relax after a morning of sightseeing and shopping; and everyone can choose what they’d like to eat.   Afterward, go to the street beside the market and stroll the many stalls with leather goods galore. You’ll also find very nice souvenirs such as Venetian glass wine stoppers and silk ties – all at reasonable prices.

Rome – the city has many permanent markets. Two centrally located markets that I visited are the daily markets at Campo di Fiori and Piazza Navona. Campo di Fiori bustles early in the day with wall-to-wall stalls offering produce, flowers and household goods. You might also find an antiques and book stall too.   After the market closes, each afternoon, the piazza goes back to being a gathering place with restaurants and patio dining. The daily transformation is fascinating.

The market at Piazza Navona is an arts market and it’s open from afternoon through the evening. You’ll find hundreds of paintings by local artists and you may find a beautiful souvenir for your home. Be sure that you figure out in advance how you’re going to get it on the plane!

Art in Piazza Navona, Rome. The painting of Venice went home with my travel companion.

Art in Piazza Navona, Rome. The painting of Venice went home with my travel companion.

While you’re in Piazza Navona, be sure to visit the magnificent Fountain of the Four Rivers – one of Bernini’s most well-known sculptures. Once again, you can see Rome’s landmarks while you are shopping!

Admiring Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers with my lovely travel friends!

Admiring Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers with my lovely travel friends!

 

Markets in Europe are a way of life and I’ve visited them in London, Prague, Salzburg, Vienna, Munich, Bruges as well. The most special markets, I think, are the Christmas markets throughout Europe. So far, I’ve visited the Alsatian market set up along the Champs Elysées in Paris. I’d love to visit the ones in Alsace-Lorraine.    What’s in my “market” future?

Next year it’s a river cruise to visit the Christmas markets in Germany!   Be sure to watch for that 2017 blog!   Happy travels to you!

10 Unique Caribbean Activities

Across the Caribbean, every island has something special to offer visitors.  There is certainly plenty to do beyond relaxing at the beach! We’ve lined up 10 of our favorite unique experiences for you to enjoy during your Caribbean getaways.

 topten

See flamingos and salt pans, Bonaire

One of only four places in the world where flamingos breed, Bonaire provides a colorful spectacle of Caribbean flamingos at the salt pans south of Kralendijk. The Pekelmeer Flamingo Sanctuary is known for its pink, white and turquoise colors as the salt flats change when newly flooded, filled with brine shrimp or dried and reflecting the sun.

Climb Dunn’s River Falls, Jamaica

Near Ocho Rios have fun climbing the picturesque waterfall that cascades down a series of terraces set in lush greenery. It’s one of the most beautiful spots on the island as well as a cooling thing to do on a hot day. There are stairs around the falls if the climb is too challenging.

Visit an undersea observatory, St. Thomas

At Coral World Ocean Park discover the amazing underwater world at the unique observatory. It gets particularly busy around the observatory at feeding time! There’s an Ocean Conservancy coral nursery, a helmet dive, fish feedings and exhibits to take in. You never know what might swim by at this spectacular spot.

Wander the oldest city in the Americas, Dominican Republic

The capital city of Santa Domingo is the oldest city in the Americas, founded in 1498. The Zona Colonial presents a wealth of Spanish Colonial architecture, the first cathedral in the New World, plazas, monuments and restaurants. It’s a delight to wander the cobblestone streets of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Dive and snorkel one of the world’s top reefs, Cozumel

Part of the second largest barrier reef system in the world, the reefs of Cozumel provide an incredible display of colorful sea life. At least 230 fish species reside around these reefs. Snorkeling is also great around this island of natural underwater beauty thanks to very clear waters.

Hike/walk a tropical rainforest, Dominica

The pristine tropical rainforests of Dominica are very special with their hidden waterfalls and lakes. A haven for hikers and nature lovers you’ll also find gorges, valleys, streams, rivers, natural springs and bubbling mud baths on this beautiful island: Amazing and inspiring sights for both the casual walker and serious hiker.

Discover Cuban music, Havana

The infectious rhythms of Cuban music make it popular with locals and visitors alike. Whether you frequent the plazas of Habana Vieja (Old Havana) where music can be heard most of the day, or plan to visit one of the many bars and clubs where live music is played, you are in for a treat when visiting the intriguing Cuban capital.

Taste liqueurs, Curacao

The island of Curacao in the southern Caribbean is not only a desert island with remarkable caves, diving centers and authentic Dutch architecture, it is also home to Curacao liqueur. This colorful, sweet beverage is flavored by the local laraha fruit, developed from Valencia oranges. Take a distillery tour and tasting at the beautiful Landhuis Chobolobo.

Select fragrant spices, Grenada

The “island of spice” is famous for its nutmeg and mace, which it exports, as well as saffron, cinnamon, allspice, bay leaf and ginger. It’s a great place to buy spices at the craft and spice market, grocery stores and Spiceland Mall in the St. George’s district of Grand Anse – also home to one of the best beaches in the Caribbean.

Encounter Green Sea Turtles, Grand Cayman

Get up close to the endangered Green Sea Turtle at the Cayman Turtle Centre, a conservation and research facility as well as a tourist attraction. Swim with turtles, tour the facilities, enjoy the waterslide and see a variety of other marine species and birds. A turtle release takes place every November with over 31,000 yearlings released so far.

The South of France

 Following the Artists’ Sun to Find the Heart of Provence

By Jane Meagher

 

Have you ever wondered what inspired the French impressionist painters? You’ll get your answer in Provence — it’s the light and the sun!   My trip to France in May took me to the picturesque towns in the south of France that were home and muse to many 19th century artists.   After an exciting visit to Paris and to Giverny (which will be the subject of another blog — or three!), our small group of eight guests on the amazing Story Land and Sea Treasures of France tour – www.storylandandsea.com/tours/france-treasures.asp — boarded the TGV high speed train from Paris Gare de Lyon to Avignon. The very comfortable two-and-a-half-hour trip through the countryside departed after breakfast and arrived by noon. The dining car provided coffee and pastry — and even a glass of wine! After all, we were in France!

Lavender on cheeses and on soaps - Whimsical hens - and, of course, Cicadas

Lavender on cheeses and on soaps – Whimsical hens – and, of course, Cicadas

After a chilly and occasionally drizzly few days in Paris, we got off the train to see the beautiful sun!   With our spirits lifted, we were ready to explore Avignon, one of the most interesting and lovely cities on the Rhône river. Our hotel in the city center was the historic Hotel d’Europe. The accommodations were luxurious with floor to ceiling window shutters that actually worked!   Don’t worry — there was air-conditioning. The very best part of the hotel was the huge plate of multicolored macarons at the reception desk!   The dining room where we had breakfast was elegant but with whimsical ceramic cicadas (they’re called cigales) decorating the walls. They’re the symbol of Provence and are ubiquitous — on fabrics, on soaps and every type of souvenir you can imagine. Yes, I have my own little cicada — you wouldn’t want to leave Provence without one!   Fortunately, the real ones come out in June so we missed hearing them.

Avignon is best known for the notable landmarks which have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site . The Pont d’Avignon, made famous by the children’s song which we all learned in French class, spans the Rhône river. Of course, we sang the song and then couldn’t get it out of our heads for days!   The Palais des Papes, the Palace of the Popes, was the seat of the 70-year Avignon papacy in the 14th century. The very imposing building in the center of the town seems to rule over the city to this day. You can tour the palace to see what remains of this medieval center of power, and the magnificent frescoes are a monument to its former glory. We were very happy to have a city guide which made our visit much more meaningful — there are audio-guides available as well.

Palais des Papes, Avignon

Palais des Papes, Avignon

Using Avignon as our base, we took day trips to the surrounding cities, hill towns and into the vineyards and winery chateaux of the Rhône valley. All are within a very comfortable driving distance. We were amazed at the well-preserved Roman remains which are among the premier sights of the region. One of the most well-known is the Pont du Gard, an impressive Roman aqueduct which was also used as a bridge for almost 2000 years. Although not the longest, it’s definitely the best preserved Roman aqueduct. In fact, vehicle traffic was just discontinued in the year 2000 – how’s that for astounding?   You can still walk across it which is quite exciting.

The Pont du Gard - Roman aqueduct

The Pont du Gard – Roman aqueduct

 

Traveling on to Arles, the original provincial Roman capital, you will find the Amphitheater (think, Roman coliseum) which is still used for shows and the controversial bullfights.

Roman Amphitheater, Arles

Roman Amphitheater, Arles

Artists were drawn to this interesting and colorful town and Van Gogh painted his Café Terrace at Night there. The bright yellow restaurant, now called Café Van Gogh, is still in use, and having a coffee on the patio feels like living in a painting!

Café Van Gogh, Arles - featured in the painting Café Terrace at Night

Café Van Gogh, Arles – featured in the painting Café Terrace at Night

Here’s my photo – now you can look up the painting and compare the two. I assure you, Van Gogh was the artist! Our city guide told us that he also painted the Sunflower series there as well as his Bedroom in Arles. I have seen several of the sunflower paintings in galleries in different countries, and I am thrilled to think that I was in the town where such renowned pieces of art were created!

A short distance from Arles is the picturesque town of Saint-Rémy-en-Provence. More than 2500 years old (isn’t that mind-boggling?!), it is one of the oldest towns in France. It is an interesting and delightful combination of ancient ruins, charming restaurants and shops. You can see several examples in my “shopping” collage. I found it interesting that it is the birthplace of Nostradamus. The town is perhaps most notable for being where Van Gogh spent his final year at the St. Paul asylum. He painted many of his very famous works at the hospital including “The Starry Night” (which everybody, including myself, calls “Starry, Starry Night”– go ahead and hum a few bars – after all, the song was about Vincent Van Gogh.) I was very struck by the fact that Van Gogh said that he painted what he saw from the window of his room — minus the bars. There is a walking tour of the town with reproductions of many of his paintings, and brass markers with the signature “Vincent” dotting the walkways make you feel that you are truly following in the footsteps of the tormented artist.

No trip to France would be complete without wonderful wining and dining, and we had some extraordinary and unique experiences.   A highlight was a visit to one of the oldest winery estates, Chateau La Nerthe, in Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Winery chateau and restaurant, Chateauneuf du Pape - photo taken from Chateau La Nerthe

Winery chateau and restaurant, Chateauneuf du Pape – photo taken from Chateau La Nerthe

We were amazed to find that they produce exclusive vintages for some of the most renowned hotels and restaurants in France. After a tour of the cellars, we had a magnificent four-course lunch featuring pâté that looked like petits fours, steak with velvety wine sauce (of course!), cheese course and the pièce de resistance creamy mango and raspberry pastry!   Be sure to see my dessert photo!

Just when we thought dining couldn’t possibly get any better, we had the equally amazing experience of dining in Avignon at La Mirande in the kitchen with our own private chef! After a wine tasting in their cellar (see a short video on the “Story” link above), we watched and sampled more wine as our talented and delightful chef, Séverine, created a truly memorable dinner followed by an equally memorable after dinner surprise. I won’t spoil it just in case you’re lucky enough to visit in the future, but let’s just say that candelabra were involved!

Traditional French desserts - Madeleines, Sacristains,a Provençal specialty, Cream Puffs with emphasis on the cream!

Traditional French desserts – Madeleines, Sacristains,a Provençal specialty, Cream Puffs with emphasis on the cream!

As we said “au revoir” to Provence and traveled to the Côte d’Azur, we visited the medieval town, St. Paul de Vence. This is a walled town on a hilltop (think walking up fairly steep inclines on cobblestones, so wear comfortable shoes!) with stunning views of the surrounding area, lovely churches with towers, beautiful windows with flower boxes and excellent shopping in tiny shops where the shopkeeper just closes the door if you want to try on some clothes! All of the ladies in our group found a “wearable souvenir”!   There are charming cafés, and we had delicious calamari for lunch. It’s an artists’ colony that has drawn painters for centuries and, whether you paint or not, it’s a delightful way to spend the day.

St. Paul de Vence - Provençal hilltop town - artist colony

St. Paul de Vence – Provençal hilltop town – artist colony

 

Visiting the beautiful south of France is a wonderful travel experience and I can guarantee that you will be very happy that you chose it for your vacation!   Au Revoir for now and Bon Voyage!

Jane’s Corner: Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia

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Jane, Featured Monthly Travel Blogger

Welcome to my corner……of the world! It’s a great pleasure to join The Travel Mechanic team as a monthly guest blogger!  I invite you to travel along with me through my blog articles and many pictures. My love for travel started at a very early age through the wonderful opportunity to live, grow up and go to school in England. The experience was life-changing, and it was the catalyst for my long-time passion of exploring the beautiful and interesting places that other people call home.

 

Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia

We just returned from two weeks in the Pacific Northwest. August is a perfect time to visit that area with sunny skies and comfortable temperatures in the high 60’s to mid 70’s. Since it was 100 degrees when we left home, the change was a real treat. In addition, the strong American dollar makes this an ideal time to visit Canada. I’ve never admitted to myself that I have a bucket list, but if I did, it would include the highlights of this trip!

 

We flew in and out of Seattle and traveled between the cities by train and boat. We took the Amtrak Cascades between Seattle and Vancouver and it’s a picturesque ride up the coast of Washington state into Canada. Don’t forget that you’re going to another country so you need a passport! After a very comfortable four-hour trip, we cleared customs and settled into the Marriott Pinnacle hotel in the Coal Harbour section of the city. We loved the views of the mountains and the bay from our room, and the waterfront was just two blocks away. We spent hours walking along the expansive sea wall. Cruise ships dock at nearby Canada Place, and each day we saw two or three huge ships in port preparing to embark on Alaska and Inland Passage cruises. We watched the final preparations for departure and waved to the passengers from the dock. This is a great port of call since it is so close to downtown.   There are restaurants of all types – seafood, Italian, English, Dutch – and they all have outdoor patios. You can have everything from fish and chips to apple pancakes – and, of course, gelato!   Remember that calories don’t count on vacation!

Massive cruise ship docked at Canada Place, Vancouver

Massive cruise ship docked at Canada Place, Vancouver

 

 

 

The waterfront - note the seaplane

The waterfront – note the seaplane

 

Vancouver is a city which comprises several neighborhoods each with its own features – Gastown, Chinatown, Yaletown, Coal Harbour, Downtown, Granville Island. A highlight of the city is Stanley Park – a beautiful urban park at the edge of downtown. Named for Lord Stanley – yes, the same one of NHL Stanley Cup fame! – it is designated a national historic site of Canada. We hopped off the bus in Chinatown to visit the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden – one of the few outside of China. It is a haven of serenity with its ornamental bridges, pagoda, lily pond and weeping willows which are in stark contrast but still in harmony with the glass skyscrapers surrounding it.

 

 

 

 

Alan and Jane enjoying the serenity!

Alan and Jane enjoying the serenity!

 

The whole city, in fact, seems to be in harmony with itself and its people. There is a sense of well-being and tranquility. Is it the majesty of the mountains, the calming effect of the water or the feeling that the air is crystal? It could be all of them – and it creates an intangible yet palpable ease.

 

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Chinese garden with skyscrapers in the background

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Chinese garden with skyscrapers in the background

 

On to Victoria – a step back in time.

We traveled to Vancouver Island on the BC Ferries Connector which is a very efficient combination of bus ride from downtown Vancouver to the ferry terminal, the ferry across the Strait of Georgia and the bus again for a 30 minute ride to Victoria. The entire trip takes about three and a half hours and is all included in one price. The bus actually drives right onto the mammoth ferry. Passengers then go upstairs to comfortable indoor or outdoor seating. It is a very smooth crossing although I was prepared with my Sea Bands and ginger!   The scenery is spectacular and that alone is worth the trip. It’s like a mini-cruise.

 

Victoria, although fairly remote, is the capital of British Columbia. Its inner harbour (spelled with a “U” in Canada!) features the impressive Provincial Legislature building which is illuminated at night and has an almost magic kingdom quality. The inner harbour is also anchored by the city’s grande dame, The Fairmont Empress, one of the most famous hotels in Canada. It presents a luxury English tea daily – both in its delicacies and its price!   It’s $75 Canadian dollars, and even with the good exchange, it’s a splurge!   We did not “do tea at The Empress” and my intention was to go to one of the several English tearooms for a more modest price. However, as much as I am embarrassed to admit it, we never had time. That means I still have something special to do on the next trip.

An enchanting evening in Victoria

An enchanting evening in Victoria

The Fairmont Empress illuminating the inner harbor

The Fairmont Empress illuminating the inner harbor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We stayed at the Victoria Marriott Inner Harbour which has elegant rooms, impeccable service, splendid views and $4 CAD wine at happy hour! You’ll notice that I’ve commented on the beautiful views at each hotel, and I realize this trip was all about the views.

The pride of Vancouver Island is the Butchart Gardens and it’s justifiably one of the most famous gardens in the world.   It should be on the “must see” list for anyone who loves flowers. At each turn, you are overwhelmed with the beauty and creativity of the designs. Add to that the excellent growing climate and you have the makings of an unforgettable experience. It’s actually quite compact which means you don’t walk through acres of grass to access each garden and I think that adds to the impact. Enjoy the pictures but I promise you the experience of a lifetime if you visit in person!   It’s breathtaking!

 

Sunken garden - a former stone quarry - Butchart Gardens

Sunken garden – a former stone quarry – Butchart Gardens

 

 

The Italian garden lily pond

The Italian garden lily pond

 

We returned to Seattle via the Victoria Clipper, a high-speed passenger ferry which conveniently departed from the inner harbour. It was a comfortable crossing and we even had a whale sighting on the way. The journey was one which opened our eyes to the majesty of North America, exposed us to the impact of the indigenous tribes, the First Nations, of British Columbia, and started the planning for our next adventure!   Good travels to you too!

Why an Adventure Cruise is a must-do!

The Un-Cruise Adventure in the San Juan Islands

 

Seattle a great jumping off point for our adventure cruise!

Seattle a great jumping off point for our adventure cruise!

Cruising thru the San Juan Islands in Washington State has been on my travel radar for a while so when the opportunity came up to take an expedition cruises with Un-cruise Adventures, I packed my bags!

Our adventure started in Seattle. Who says it always rains in Seattle? Blue skies and warm temps makes a glass of local wine and a fresh seafood meal at Pikes Market that much more enjoyable. There are a lot of great hotels located in the city center but I love the water vibe so we booked a room at the Marriott waterfront.

 

 

Glass Garden in Seattle-WOW!

Glass Garden in Seattle-WOW!

The staff there was very helpful in directing us toward great seafood restaurants , shopping options and of course Seattle’s iconic Space Needle. No crowds in April! But the absolute highlight of the day was wandering through the Chihuly glass and garden museum. This spectacular display of art and landscape design is not to be missed! It’s my personal top attraction and an hour well spent. Seattle like most cities offers a wide variety of dining options. If you love Asian cuisine like me, head to the international district for an authentic experience. The Dim Sum choices at Jade Garden are excellent. Now its’s time to get to bed early as our cruise starts tomorrow!

As the name implies, Un-Cruise Adventures is a far cry from your traditional cruise. Its small expedition style lends itself toward off the beaten path itineraries with lots of experiences centered on nature. If you love hiking, kayaking and naturalist skiff tours, this is the cruise for you!

The captain and crew are extremely attentive and set the tone for the casual comradelier. By the end of your cruise, you’ll find yourself exchanging e-mails and even planning your next cruise with newly made friends. Single travelers will feel very comfortable on this cruise.


Orca M14710b

Be prepared for basic accommodations. The cabins are small (94sq.ft) and the bathrooms are marine style but once you get pass that, the experience makes up for the lack of size and amenities found on traditional cruise ships. The food was high quality with lots of choices for even the pickiest eaters. People with dietary restrictions will be happy to know that the chef can accommodate their needs. The fresh oysters, smoked salmon, and Alaskan crab were served at cocktail hour and were some of the best I’ve had.

Picture of our ship from a kayak

Picture of our ship from a kayak

The shoulder season offers the best value for your dollar with less crowded pots of call but there are drawbacks. Weather and wildlife spotting can be iffy but as the luck of the draw would have it, I experienced sunny warm weather everyday and saw the first few Orcas beginning to make their way through the San Juan straits up to Alaska.

Hiking is a must do!

Hiking is a must do!

 

One of my favorite hikes was in the Olympic National Park. This mossy old growth forest is flanked by giant cedar and pines, which are truly majestic. The Commish river which winds it’s way thru the park is the highway for local salmon swimming upstream to their way to spawning grounds.

 

Kayaking is done everyday and we even had the option of getting out in our kayaks at night. Kayaking under the full moon with sea lions was a pinch me moment and a first for me!

 

All in all it was a great trip filled with natural inspirations, newly made friends and a renew understanding of how important it is to protect our environment and it’s wildlife.

 

 

This blog was written by Jennie Mechanic, Owner of The Travel Mechanic. Nancy Robb, a travel consultant for The Travel Mechanic also attended the trip. Both can be reached to plan your next big adventure! www.thetravelmechanic.com

Spa and Wellness Vacations

Top 10 Rejuvenating Experiences in HawaiiMODERN_Honolulu_14


By Susan Milne

Vacations for your body, mind and spirit will do you the world of good. Allow the Spirit of Aloha to dissolve your stress and worry as you experience these activities amidst the beauty that is Hawaii. This is a great place to travel to for complete relaxation.

Yoga Retreats
Practice yoga in a calming, remote setting. Participate in workshops and classes while enjoying the amenities and activities of a restful retreat.

Tai Chi by the Beach
Join a morning Tai Chi class available in peaceful, natural settings. Tai chi offers simple movements that enhance your physical and spiritual wellbeing.

Meditation Meetings
Gain the psychological, emotional and physical benefits of meditation by attending a local as part of a complete wellness program.

Hawaiian Spa Treatments
Encourage complete relaxation with treatments using Hawaiian herbs, flowers and volcanic sand. Hawaiian lomilomi massage, mamaki & volcanic foot wrap and warm coconut scalp massage are just three that lift away your cares.spa-1

Sunrise Hikes
Welcome the dawn atop a mountain, lighthouse or along the beach. Many dream spots are reached by an invigorating hike for an experience that will soothe your soul. Cameras mandatory!

Outrigger Canoe Rides
Combine culture and serenity by paddling a traditional Hawaiian Wa’a. At Waikiki Beach, ride back to shore on the waves for a surfing adventure. There’s a special feeling about these cultural icons that will give you the true spirit of Aloha.

Healing Retreats

Detox and cleansing regimens along with rejuvenating activities for total wellness are the aim of Hawaii’s healing retreats found across the islands. Gain vitality and cleanse out toxicities to glow and energize like never before!

Fitness Activities
There’s no shortage of things to do in Hawaii to get your body in shape. Many bring added benefits thanks to the spectacular location. One of the best: Snorkel and dive at Molokini Crater off Maui for spectacular and inspiring under water sights.

Experience Nature

Couple relaxing at a waterfall

Couple relaxing at a waterfall

The wonder of Hawaii’s sacred lands bring you in harmony with nature. Enjoy walking in beautiful gardens, valleys, mountains and forests, along coastlines, and through lava tubes to get directly in touch with the nature of this special place.

Relaxation in Paradise
Simply book into a peaceful resort then spend time observing the breathtaking views from your balcony to reduce stress and even lower your blood pressure. Don’t underestimate the benefits that a relaxing stay in Hawaii can bring!

We have Hawaiian specialists on our team of agents. Please contact us today so we can start planning your relaxing spa getaway!