The Coach Tour – Friend or Foe?

My apologies for the lack of regularity with the posts lately.  Life seems to be so busy, what with Michael, work, and yoga teacher training.  I have to teach a yoga warm-up to my fellow trainees on Saturday, and let’s just say I am NERVOUS!  So lately I’ve been feeling like it was more important to make than food, than to blog about the food (which, by the way, there will be food again on here someday soon), and better to live the life than blog about it.

But I’m back and today let’s talk about coach tours!

I’ve been on two coach tours, both with Trafalgar.  The first one was their Best of Italy tour last fall, and the second one was their Best of France tour this fall.  Both Michael and I have been quite happy with the service we received, and the company in general.

We picked a coach tour because it seemed like it would make the whole experience a lot easier.  The first time around, I’d never been to Europe before, and definitely felt a little nervous about it.  Knowing that we were part of a group helped relieve some of my worries.

Some of the reasons why we went with Trafalgar over other tour companies were that we liked their itinerary, and we weren’t really into the whole Contiki thing.  Contiki definitely has a younger age demographic, but we’re not into the late night partying thing anymore.  I’ve talked to people who have done Contiki, and they seemed to really enjoy it.  You just have to pick a tour that’s right for you.

There I am on the bus!

Now let’s get into the pros and cons.

The Good:

  1. They plan EVERYTHING for you.  This makes the whole experience super easy.  They take care of planning where to go and how to get there and where to stay, meaning you don’t have to worry about any of the logistics.  The travel director and bus driver figure out the timings so they know exactly when to leave to get you where you need to be on time.  They know the short cuts, and they know the routes with the same travel time that offer better views.  The travel director even tells you where the all the public bathrooms are!
  2. You get to see places you wouldn’t necessarily think to visit on your own.  With both the Italy and France itineraries, I ended up in some towns or villages I never would have thought about visiting if I’d been on my own.  Assisi in Italy?  Who’s St. Francis?  San Gimiagno?  Lourdes?  Lourdes wasn’t even in my Frommer’s travel book!  But we got to go to a holy pilgrimage site!  Eze?  Monet’s garden?  Would I have bothered if I was by myself?  Maybe not.  But seeing these places added to the experience.
  3. You get to jump the line.  Waiting in line to go up the Eiffel Tower?  Waiting in line for the Colosseum?  The Vatican? Nope!  As part of a group, you get an appointment time so you just show up and walk in.  No waiting!
  4. You have a travel director who can take care of any issues or problems that may arise.  I liked knowing that if I got sick, there was someone who knew the health care system in that country who could navigate it for me so that I could get the help that I needed.  Never had to use it, but on our Italy tour, someone did need a doctor, and our tour guide arranged one to see him right at the hotel.  When we were delayed twenty-three hours in Montreal and missed meeting up with the tour, we were put in touch with our tour director, Cindy and she told us what to do so that we’d meet up with the rest of the group.  There was a leak or something to do with condensation from the air conditioner in one of our hotel rooms in France and the floor was all wet, Cindy, traded rooms with us.  Problem solved and we didn’t need to deal with the front desk.  The tour directors are just amazing!
  5. The travel director also speaks the language.  Comforting to know there’s a translator if you need it.
  6. The travel director is a wealth of knowledge!  Both tour directors we’ve had were absolutely fantastic!  They give you mini history lessons during the long drives in the coach.  They recommend restaurants or take aways depending on what you’re looking for.  Cindy was so awesome!  Wherever we were, she’d tell us about the local specialties for food in that region, and what souvenirs to buy there as well.
  7. Local tour guides are often included at sights.  They point out things I wouldn’t notice on my own, like pieces from the Colosseum that the people of Arles took and used to build the buildings in the city.  And they’re extremely helpful in museums, where I’m so overwhelmed by all the art on my own that I don’t even know where to begin.
  8. Pretty good value for your money.  Not that I’ve actually done a price comparison, but Michael and I would look at the prices on the hotels we stayed in, and I’m pretty sure we couldn’t stay in the same places and do all the stuff we did for the price of the tour package.  Trafalgar also gives discounts to returning travelers.
  9. You get to see a lot in a short amount of time.  This is great for me, because I only have so much vacation time, and as much as I would love to take a month off and really take my time seeing a country, that’s just not realistic.  As part of a group tour, I felt I was able to hit the highlights, as well as some lesser known places in a country, all in a reasonable amount of time.

The Bad:

  1. They plan EVERYTHING for you.  While this makes it easy, it takes away your flexibility.  Michael would have liked to have gone to Cognac in France.  I would have liked to have seen Cinque Terre in Italy.  You have to go where the tour takes you.  And you have to leave when the tour leaves.  On the tours we did, this meant a lot of early morning departures so we could get on the road and beat the traffic.  Not necessarily a bad thing, and I will say that I find it so much easier to get up 6:00 am when I’m on vacation than I do when I have to get up at 7:00 am to go to work.
  2. You don’t always get as much time somewhere as you’d like.  I would have loved to have spent more time in Rome, the Amalfi Coast of Italy, the French Riviera, or the gardens at Versailles, to name a few.  But because you’re seeing so much in a short amount of time, things have to keep moving.  I understand that.  That’s why I feel like a group tour is a good starting point.  It gives you a good orientation to the country and gives you a feel for it, so you really know where to focus your attention the next time you visit.
  3. You don’t always get to eat where and what you want.  There were a lot of included dinners on the itineraries we did.  Now this is both good and bad.  Good because it’s good value for your money as you get a three course meal with wine included in the tour.  Bad because it’s Europe and I would have loved to be eating outside on the terraces of a lot of these restaurants, but because you’re part of a big group, they keep the “good” tables for “real” customers.  This also means a lot of fixed menus.  Sometimes there was choice between a couple of options.  Sometimes there wasn’t.  I learned in Italy to let the tour guide know that I don’t eat fish.  I learned in France to be more specific about what meat I eat.  For most people, this wouldn’t be an issue I’m sure.  But I’m a little choosey, so sometimes predetermined menus and I don’t agree.  That said, most of the food was really, really good!
  4. You spend a lot of time on the bus.  Necessary to get where you’re going and more flexible than public transit, but not the fastest mode of transportation.  And time on the bus is time not spent sight-seeing!  After needing to use a train to get from Paris to Lyon, I realized how easy it is to use the train system.  It made me feel more confident about navigating the system on my own in the future.
  5. You risk having a crazy person on tour with you.  Fortunately, Michael and I have been lucky and we’ve had really good groups.  But in France we ran into a lady on a different tour a couple of times, and I felt bad for her tour mates!  She complained about everything!  In Mont St. Michel she was trying to get the poor sales clerk to ring in half of her purchase on her debit and half in Euros, and the poor guy clearly didn’t understand.  Then he wanted to charge her for a bag.  Well, she was not happy with any of this, and that’s not the way things would go down in the USA and just wait til he comes to America.  Then I ran into her in the bathroom line (the ladies room line, another down side), and she proceeded to cut in front of me.  A few days later we saw her coming out of Versailles, complaining it was “too high” and she wanted her money back because her travel director knew she didn’t like heights.  I did feel bad for the lady because she obviously has some issues, but, I mean, she’s in France!  Of course things are going to be different than they are at home!  And if you’re on vacation in France, you shouldn’t be complaining.  I don’t know how you’d deal with someone like this if you were on their tour, but since she was on someone else’s, we got a kick out of her.
  6. It’s not so much “vacation” as a sight-seeing tour.  If you want to sit and veg and do nothing all day, I suggest you go to an all-inclusive.  There’s a lot of early mornings and a tightly packed schedule with not a lot of down time.

So there are my thoughts on traveling with a coach tour.  To sum up, I feel that the coach tour definitely has its place among vacation styles that I will travel in.  It’s a great way to get oriented to a country and it couldn’t be simpler!  All you have to do is book it and show up, and the rest is taken care of.  The downside is you lose some of that flexibility that you’d have if you were traveling on your own.

For our next trip, Michael and I have decided on something a little more relaxing.  Last week we booked a week at an all-inclusive in Antigua!  I’m very much looking forward to that… even if it is almost six months away.

Have you ever been on a coach tour?  What did you think about it?  How about back-packing?  What was that like?  Share your thoughts on how you like to travel!

Washington, DC

My apologies for being MIA for so long.  As you will soon see, I spent a long weekend in Washington, DC, and since returning home, I’ve been trying to organize my life.  Being sick the week before we went away meant I didn’t get any of my chores done, so things like laundry and cleaning the bathroom have been piling up.  Then I also thought it would be a good idea to go back to the city the day after getting home for an education event.  Not my smartest idea.  But slowly and surely, I’m returning to outer order (and hoping it will produce some inner calm).

Even though I am proud to be Canadian (we’ve got a great reputation for being friendly, our hockey players are awesome, and we’ve got great beer), there’s a small part of me that has always wanted to live in America, at least briefly.

When I told people where we were going to Washington, DC, I got a few strange looks and some questions as to why go to Washington?  Are you going to a conference?

Nope, going to Washington just for fun.  I wanted to see the White House and all the other iconic American landmarks that Washington has.  Plus, I could play into my “living in America” fantasy… not that a four day weekend is at all like living somewhere, but it gives you a taste.

Also, Wedding Crashers and Transformers may have had something to do with me wanting to go to Washington.

I wanted to see the Washington Monument across the reflecting pool from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, just like Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson.  I wanted to see where the Decepticon sat in the Lincoln Memorial. 

Unfortunately, they were doing construction and there was no water in the reflecting pool, and there were construction vehicles around.  So that didn’t really turn out the way it did in my head.

I’ve never seen so many tour buses in one place!  Not even in Italy.  There were lots of tourists, and a lot of the groups all wore brightly colored matching t-shirts.  I guess Michael and I missed that memo, because we didn’t wear matching neon shirts.

We went to a couple of the Smithsonian museums.  We went to the Space and Aviation Museum and the Natural History Museum.  Both were pretty cool.  You could spend forever at these museums!  We by no means saw them in their entirety.  Another reason why it would be cool to live in Washington.  You could go to a different museum every weekend!  There’d always be something to do.

We also went to the National Zoo.  I love zoos!  I remember the first time I went to one on a field trip when I was in grade five and I came home and told my dad about every single animal I saw while he raked the lawn.  But this trip to the zoo was the best zoo experience I’ve ever had (except for the argument Michael and I got in about where we should eat lunch).  I don’t know if it’s because we were there in the morning and it was a little cooler at that time or what, but the animals seemed a lot more active than they’ve been when I’ve been to zoos in the past.  And they have pandas!

We stayed at The W Washington Hotel.  It’s right across the  street from the National Treasury, so it was in a pretty good location.  It was fairly close to all the museums, monuments, and the White House, although we still did a lot of walking!

We had awesome pizza at Π (you know, pi, like the math symbol… 3.14).  It was probably the best pizza I’ve ever eaten!  And also the first time I’ve ever had a deep dish pizza.  We also ate at Gordon Biersch.  They have a bunch of different beers which Michael was excited about.  I was most impressed by their homemade root beer.  It was the best root beer I’ve ever had!

Washington, DC was pretty cool.  I don’t know if I’ll ever go back, but I’m glad I can say I saw it once.  My overall impression of it is that it’s a very clean, safe city, with lots of pretty buildings.  There also seemed to be a lot of put together women with nice hair, tailored dresses, great bags, and nice shoes.  I wish I could be more like that.  Perhaps this will inspire me to try to be a more put together lady myself.

Now I must go shoe shopping.

How Do I Love Thee Hawaii? Let Me Count The Ways

Are you sick of hearing about Hawaii yet?  I hope not.  I’m not sick of talking about it.

This is the last installment in my two week mini-series about my Hawaiian vacation. This is a list of my favorite things about Hawaii.  They are the things that make me want to go back there.  They are the things that make me smile.

 

1.  Everything is coconut flavored!  Coconut drinks, coconut soap, dried coconut to snack on… it’s all amazing!  Did you know Hawaiian Starbucks have coconut flavored drinks?  Mocha coconut frappuccinos and coconut cream frappuccinos!  Both are SO good, but I loved the coconut cream one more!  I also really loved the coconut pineapple flavored ice cream I had in Maui.

2.  Fresh pineapple and papaya are everywhere!  The pineapple in Hawaii is A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!  Hands down, the best pineapple I’ve ever had!  Michael’s been trying to get me to eat papaya for a few years now (it has unique digestive enzymes in it, you know), and I was never really a fan of it until I had some in Hawaii.  Now I love it!  Just slice one of those mini ones in half, scoop out the seeds, and dig in with a spoon.  The ones here at home aren’t as good, but I still like to pick one up at the grocery store.  Eating papayas will always make me happy now because it reminds me of Hawaii!

3.  Sun, sand, and surf.  I am such a beach bum and the beaches there are beautiful!  I could watch the waves in Kona forever!  I want to decorate my house (when I eventually have one) in the color scheme I shall call ‘Ka’anapali beach’.

4.  The friendly people and their Aloha spirit.  Everyone we met in Hawaii was so nice!  We had many an great shuttle or cab driver.  The hotel staff were awesome.  The airport security guard even made a phone call for us when our shuttle wasn’t there to pick us up.

5.  The beautiful scenery and flowers.  The views are stunning everywhere!  Oceans, palm trees, volcanoes, waterfalls, lava rock.  It’s all beautiful!  And flowers everywhere!  Plumeria are now my favorite flower.

6.  Palm trees.  I think I need more palm trees in my life.  That’s definitely what the beaches around here are missing.  Do you think one could grow in the Maritimes if I planted it?

7.  Sunsets.  I fell in love with sunsets in Hawaii, and that love affair continued on to Maui.  I’m looking forward to trying to capture some sunsets around here this summer.

8.  I felt safe.  I loved that I was on a tropical vacation and could venture off on my own without worrying about getting caught up in some drug war shoot-out by accident.  I also loved that I didn’t need to brush my teeth with bottled water and I could eat all the fresh produce I wanted without worrying it would give me Montezuma’s Revenge.

9.  Flip flops and shorts.  I’ve decided I don’t like wearing pants or shoes.  I much prefer to feel the sand in my toes and the breeze on my legs.

10.  Outdoor dining.  I LOVE eating outside!  I love being able to feel the sun on my face.  And throwing in a pretty view or a sunset doesn’t hurt.  Bring on patio season!

 

As one of our shuttle drivers said, “Go home. Work hard. Pay the bills so you can come back here.” That’s what I hope to do.

 

This vacation made me realize that although vacations are a great source of happiness for me, I need to do a better job of finding happiness in everyday life, because as much as I want to, I can’t be on vacation everyday.  I feel inspired to look for the beauty that’s all around me.  I may not live in Hawaii, but there are still some beautiful places close to home.  I also want to try to incorporate some of the things I loved about being on vacation into everyday life, like eating papayas, not being a slave to Facebook/internet, and trying to eat at more outdoor patios this summer.  And if all that fails, I have souvenirs.  They’re a great way to take a bit of wherever you’ve been with you to where you’re going

 

What’s your favorite vacation that you’ve taken?

Hawaii, A Dream Come True

I’ve always thought about different places that would be nice to visit, but I didn’t always think actually traveling to them would become a reality for me.  They felt unattainable for some reason.

Hawaii was one of those exotic places.  Ever since I saw the Tanner family go to Hawaii on Full House, I’ve wanted to go there.

About three years ago, after returning from a trip down south, I made a “travel dream list” of all the places I wanted to go ‘someday.’  Hawaii was on that list.

I didn’t make much progress on the list besides crossing off Caribbean destinations until after the lymphoma.  I won’t say that the lymphoma changed me in any profound way.  Unfortunately, it hasn’t made me want to seize the day or turned me into a wonderfully positive person who sees the bright side of everything.  Instead, it’s given me some bizarre and annoying anxieties.  But it did give me a nudge to get seeing the world.  Tulum and Vegas were my rewards for finishing treatment.  And then came Italy.

Italy was another much dreamed of, but far off destination, and making it happen has shown me that those places on my list that I thought were unattainable are achievable!

Ever since I went to Cozumel on my grad trip, I’ve been going south in the spring.  When it came time to decide where Michael and I would go this year, the usual suspects were mentioned: Mexico, Cuba, Jamaica.  But those places didn’t make me feel excited this year.  They didn’t make me feel like I would be accomplishing any of my travel goals.

Since we wouldn’t be traveling with friends this year, I realized we could get a little more creative.  Then we started thinking of Antigua or Belize.  And then Hawaii was brought up.  Then I got really excited!

So our spring trip went from being a one week all-inclusive, to a two week Hawaii island-hopping adventure.  I wasn’t sure if I was going to miss being at an all-inclusive and I must say I am quite happy with how our vacation turned out!

Usually we just sit on the beach for a week at an all-inclusive, drinking pina coladas and Miami Vices with a one day excursion thrown in to get some culture.

I discovered I liked how we planned this trip much better!  We did some sort of activity or tour most mornings or evenings, but we also had at least half a day for pool or beach relaxing and reading (my fave!)  And I found I didn’t miss the buffets or limitless drinks at all.

I was foolish to think that two weeks and four islands would be enough so say I had seen it all and would never need to go back to Hawaii.  We’ve already decided that we will be going back to Hawaii someday.  It’s too beautiful and there’s still so much to see and do!

Welcome to my two week mini-series on Hawaii!  I wasn’t sure how I wanted to share my trip with you, but I’ve decided there’s too much I want to tell you to do it all at once.  This is the background on why I went to Hawaii.  Later this week I’ll tell you about Oahu and Kauai.  Then next week I’ll be telling you about the Big Island and Maui (both my faves!), and a wrap up of my favorite things about Hawaii.

The One With All The Flight Delays

Aloha!

I have made it across the country and back… barely.

I had a FABULOUS time and fell completely in LOVE with Hawaii!  I would even consider moving there, except for the fact it is probably unbearably hot in the summer, and there is the potential for many natural disasters (earthquakes, volcano eruption, hurricane, tsunami…)

The unfortunate part is that the already long journey was made even longer by flight delays… going both ways!  How does someone have rotten luck and end up getting delayed going and coming back?

On the way there, I was delayed twenty-three hours in San Francisco due to maintenance issues and ended up missing my first day in Waikiki and didn’t get to hike Diamond Head.  Boo.  I was not impressed with United Airlines and their customer service department.  Don’t lie and tell a whole plane that you have the part needed to fix the plane and it will be ready by 6:00 am if you don’t have the part until 7:00 am and it takes five hours to fix once you have the part.  Just sayin’.  Also, how is it possible for the airport catering services not to know about the flight and have the food onboard before the passengers get on the plane, when the flight’s been delayed for twenty hours already?

I always keep a travel journal, and these were some of my observations from those lost hours in the San Franco airport:

  • Always pack your carry-on properly!  You need more than just a change of underwear and a bathing suit.  Deodorant, toothbrush and paste, mouthwash, and face wash are important to feeling like a human being.
  • Business class (aka rich) people and those that make a fuss get better service, unfortunately.
  • It’s quite possible I turned into a zombie, as I couldn’t sleep once I finally got on the plane after being awake for almost forty hours.
  • I watched Breaking Dawn twice in two days and it gave me the will to carry on.
  • Sighting people reading The Hunger Games also kept me going.
  • How do people on The Amazing Race do it?  How could you fly half-way around the world and then go run a leg of the race?

On the way back, I was re-routed through Toronto with a ten hour delay, due to the lovely non-striking pilots of Air Canada who were “sick.”  Thanks a lot.

The good news is, all my planes landed safely, and that is the most important thing.

Then I went to see Brian Adams Sunday night.  Then I had to get up early Monday morning so I could make it back for work in time.  Maybe not the brightest idea I’ve ever had, but it was worth it to see the show!  I can now add Summer of ’69 to the list of my favorite bar songs I’ve seen performed by the original artist.

When I am less zombie-like, I will post more pics and tell you lovely things about my trip, I promise!

This is Happy Pineapple.  He is enjoying views from each of my hotel rooms.  Clockwise from top left: Outrigger Reef on the Beach, Waikiki, Oahu; Aston Islander on the Beach, Coconut Coast, Kauai; Royal Kona, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii; Royal Lahaina, Ka’anapali, Maui.