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Ginger and I have both recently returned from European river cruises with Ama Waterways – me on the Garonne River in Bordeaux for a wine-themed cruise and Ginger on the enchanting Rhine. What a way to go! Here are our top 10 things we love about river cruising.

1. Easy on easy off. River cruising is a hassle free way to get right into the heart of amazing cities and towns along the way. Whether your preference is exploring on your own via Ama-supplied bikes, on foot, or by public transportation, guided walks or bike rides, you’ll find yourself in the center of historic towns. I had the pleasure of spending 3 days in Bordeaux, a historic trading center which lost its lustre in the 19th century but which has been beautifully restored. We took a brisk (VERY brisk) walk with a local resident tour guide to get a fantastic overview, then later explored on our own, seeking (and finding) the famous Dune cake from Patisserie David

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55 intrepid sailors, many of them members of the Half Moon Bay Yacht Club, traveled with Bay World Travel on board the Royal Clipper, the world’s largest sailing ship, in September.

Our itinerary took us from Venice, then across the Adriatic, to the beautiful Dalmatian coast, where we anchored off the picturesque landscapes of Montenegro, Croatia, and Slovenia.  The perfectly preserved or restored medieval towns of Kotor, Dubrovnik (thanks to UNESCO and humanitarian aid its immaculate walled city is completely restored since the devastating 1990’s Serbo-Croatian wars), Hvar, Rovinj, and Piran charmed us all.

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Life is Too Short – Travel with Friends!

For the past 20 years, I have traveled with my dear friends Chris and Kate every 5 years for our milestones (we share the same birth year).  Over that span of time, I’ve taken the time away from children, responsibilities, and husband Bill to enjoy quality time with friends for a week to 10 days per trip.   We’ve been to Napa, Lake Tahoe, Ireland, Spain, Alaska, and have even done a couple “staycations” together.  We are perfect travel companions!

My children are now grown, Bill is still working but headed for retirement, and I’m getting close to 65.  While Chris, Kate, and I were on our last official milestone trip when we turned 60 – to Barcelona and the Costa Brava of Spain – we agreed we had to accelerate our schedule if we want to see everything we want to in our lives.

Yes, it’s challenging to balance obligations and responsibilities, but the rewards of traveling with close friends and family are priceless.  Let me share a couple client stories with you.

Christine and her husband have been all over the world.  But when she was ready to celebrate a milestone birthday at 50, she decided she wanted to share the experience with a group of friends who share her love of Italian food and cooking.  This group of six included sophisticated world travelers like Christine and first-time to Europe travelers, but they share a bond of friendship and common interests together.  After almost a year of planning, the group headed to Florence, the Tuscan countryside for 3 days of cooking classes, and Rome in November.  They enjoyed each other’s company, great food and conversation, and new recipes to showcase at home.  They toured the Uffizi in Florence, had a wonderful private tour at the Vatican, and cooked, laughed and drank wine together.  When I met with them after their return, what they most valued about this amazing trip was the time they got to hang out together.   Because they shared typical small European hotel rooms, they appreciated the intimate public areas of the Hotel Cellai in Florence and especially loved the small Villa Fattoria Valle in Panzano where they were the only guests.

Flo and Vivian are friends but their relationship is really more like that of sisters (it’s equally awesome to travel with sisters as I can attest to!).  They love to travel together and have discovered the joys of river cruising.  They are inveterate shoppers and their first river cruise experience was an Ama Waterways cruise on the Danube from Budapest to Prague for the Christmas market season.  I was so impressed with these two women – they went to each of the markets and each stand at each market.  In Salzburg alone, they visited 120 stalls and came away with fabulous and unique treasures for friends and family.  They had such a great time they signed up for another Ama Waterways cruise – this one along the Rhine and waterways of Germany and the Netherlands to experience tulip time.  They were delighted with the 125th anniversary commemoration of the death of Van Gogh with a spectacular “Van Gogh” tulip display at Keukenhof fields.  They exuberantly shared photos, their treasures, and even recipes from Ama Waterways which focuses on the regional cuisine of its destinations.

When you have friends who share that kind of enthusiasm and interests, why not channel it into a trip together?  Life is too short not to go.  Here’s my short list of tips to make traveling with friends the perfect experience:

  • Plan ahead to minimize surprises.  The planning process helps crystallize what is important for all the friends traveling together.  A travel professional – such as any one of our team members at Bay World Travel – is an objective and collaborative partner in making sure it’s an experience you’ll all find amazing.
  • Allow for downtime on your trip to make time for what friends value most – conversation and companionship.
  • Consider cruising.  Whether a small vessel like AmaWaterways or a large ship, there’s opportunity for friends to do things together or separately.  When I went on the Alaska cruise with friends and family, we always gathered for a pre-dinner cocktail and dinner – sometimes sharing stories of what we did together and sometimes what we did on our own.
  • Do a trial run.  Haven’t traveled with this friend or group of friends before?  Try a weekend getaway to see just how compatible you are as travel companions.
  • Get extra amenities.  If you want to invite friends along on a cruise, tour or resort stay, there are often extra benefits we can negotiate to help sweeten the deal.

Call Bay World Travel today to start planning your next adventure with friends and family!

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Europe by Rail – Barcelona to London

This Spring, my husband and I took a long, leisurely trip that started with a cruise to Barcelona and proceeded by train, staying in small towns on our way to Paris, and then via the Chunnel to London.

We went with First Class; unlike plane tickets, the price difference between first- and second-class on the trains is minimal, but the comfort level difference is huge! Who wouldn’t want large, reclining seats with lots of leg room, tables, and huge windows on a long trip?

The trains were really comfortable, there was plenty of food in most stations, and there was food available on all trains except the short local ones. The restrooms on the long-distance trains were plentiful and comfortable, although I did not notice any on the local trains.

There is a new, high-speed train between Barcelona and Paris that takes only a few hours, but we were meandering through France, so we needed a number of train trips. We had a wonderful adventure and thoroughly enjoyed the train journeys, but it did take some careful planning ahead to make it all work.

First of all, we each bought a First Class, flexible, two-country Europass, which allowed us ten days of unlimited travel in Spain and France. This particular pass is about $700 per adult, but it more than paid for itself by the end of our trip, and the convenience of not having to queue up to buy tickets in each station was invaluable.

The pass does not give you seats on the high-speed trains, you still have to reserve and pay for those seats, but it saved us a bundle; local trains do not offer reserved seats, but those were free with the pass. One leg of our trip, from Barcelona to Toulouse, for example, would have been about $160 each without the pass, and was about $17 with it, so that day alone paid for $143 of each pass…you can see how the savings add up!

You do need to be diligent about reading the instructions on the pass and following them! Each night before we traveled, I sat and filled out the next day’s date on the pass, and the cities, date and times of each train on the pass folder. It takes only a few minutes, but if you do not do that, you could be double charged for the ticket.

Some people have asked if they really need advanced reserved seats… no, no more than you need to reserve a seat on an airplane. You can always take your chance on showing up at the station and buying a last-minute ticket, but many trains (and all high-speed trains) require reservations, and they do sell out.

Here are a few tips I gleaned from our travels:

Download Eurail’s free RailPlanner app to use for local, non-reserved trains; it’s easy and gives you departure and arrival times, as well as letting you know if you have a change of train required. With wifi, it will give you live schedule updates, but offline you can see routes you have saved in advance.

Here’s one time where it really saved us: the posted schedules at Chenonceaux “station” (some tiny local stations are more like bus stops), were entirely wrong due to construction that caused the trains to be rescheduled. Checking ahead on RailPlanner meant we knew to catch the posted ‘4:45 train’ at 4pm, instead of missing it and having to wait for the 6pm train!

When you travel, do pay attention to the train number and not just your destination. Our train to Toulouse, for instance, actually continued on, so there was no train on the board that said “Toulouse”… just the departure time, Carcassonne, and the train number.

It’s wise to know the name of your arrival station [there are sometimes multiple stations in a town] and what is 1-2 stops before it, so you aren’t scrambling to get to the doors!

Like the Europeans, pack as light as you are able. The trains are not easy with heavy bags! Elevators are few and often far off in the wrong end of the station, so you’ll have to double back a long way, or haul your bags down 2 flights, around a corner, up a flight, and down a hallway [or worse], and your seats may be on the upper level of the car…great for views, but more stairs to climb.

Keep your passport with your train pass and tickets, as often all three are checked before you are allowed to board, especially on trains crossing a border.

If you can get to the station early, scope out where the train boards and gates are. Some stations are huge and it’s comforting to know where you’ll need to be when your train is announced, as you usually will have 15- 20 minutes to find your car from the time the gate is announced.

Buy your “Chunnel” tickets well in advance, as there are only a couple of Eurostars each day between Paris and London, and they sell out. A lovely meal is served at your seat, so you can really sit back and enjoy the beautiful countryside.

People were almost universally really nice and happy to answer questions, and the views from the trains were really wonderful; even at high speeds you see more than you would from the highways and there is no stress of driving on unknown roads!

That’s the summary…you can ask me if you want more details or help planning your own rail journey. And yes, we’d do it again… in fact, rail is absolutely the only way the two of us would choose to get around inside Europe.

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After our amazing Azamara Monaco Grand Prix cruise, Bill and I decided to spend 5 nights in Italy. Northern Italy is just a short drive from Nice, our cruise disembarkation point. We spent 3 nights in Liguria in an agriturismo (farmhouse that offers inn-style accommodations) so that we could visit the Cinque Terre and 2 nights in the Piemonte region to enjoy Italy’s best wines. Accommodations and car rental were the only advance reservations we made (highly recommended!) – the rest we lived in the moment.

I love Italy! The food, wine, people, and scenery can’t be beat. I’ve traveled there several times but this was a first for Bill. In addition to the food, wine, people, and scenery, he also loved driving in Italy. Granted our Fiat diesel was not his fantasy car but it was sturdy and remained largely unscathed during our whirlwind tour.

Sostio a Levante was our chosen agriturismo. The big attraction there is the views over the Cinque Terre and innkeeper and owner Laura’s cooking. Every night featured a fantastic 3-course meal with wines served from their own vineyards. Breakfast in the morning included freshly baked pastries along with local cheeses, meats, eggs, and bread. I spied Laura picking herbs early in the morning which showed up in the evening meal. On the first night, we had gnocchi with fresh pesto (Ligurian specialty) as a first course – it was fantastic!

We spent a day traveling by train to the 5 legendary towns of the Cinque Terre. It was a quick trip out of Framura to the towns. Since some of the trails connecting the towns are still in disrepair after the 2011 floods, we opted to do our walking in Riomaggiore, the last town of the 5. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it! The views are spectacular as we enjoyed a lazy late lunch on the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean.

We had considered going to Florence, about two hours from our inn, but decided instead to go to Lucca – just a little over an hour. What a great choice – we avoided the hordes of tourists in Florence but still got to see amazing cathedrals, Renaissance art, and saints’ relics. The basilica of San Frediano houses the mummified remains of St. Zita, a 13th century saint who is the patron of domestic servants and I was happy to learn she can also be called upon to help locate lost keys. We strolled on top of the medieval walls which have been transformed into a city park and enjoyed a wonderful lunch in the plaza which rings an ancient Roman amphitheater. Speaking of which, it was searching for the amphitheater which finally led us to break down and buy a map of Lucca. However, we thoroughly enjoyed being lost in Lucca – finding St. Zita and the boyhood home of Giacomo Puccini along the way. Serendipitous discovery is the hallmark of traveling with Bill and one I haven’t tired of after 30 years of traveling together.

On our last morning in Liguria, I broke down and enjoyed one of Laura’s fresh apple muffins. I’m not usually attracted to sweets but these were amazing! Then we were off to La Morra, a hillside medieval town in the middle of the Langhe region of the Piemonte – overlooking the famous Barolo vineyards. Our inn was just outside La Morra and we learned that the presentation of the 2013 Barolo wines was happening on that weekend. The inn was quickly filled to capacity with well-heeled oenophiles from Switzerland. I counted about 12 cases of wine that were moved from the trunk of a fancy Ferrari to one of the guest’s rooms. Another example of why booking ahead is important!

We spent one day enjoying the views from La Morra and another day in Alba, the famous wine and culinary center of this region (famous not just for wines but also for white truffles). This time, we went with maps in hand, provided by our innkeeper. We toured more churches and I finally had the opportunity to climb a bell tower to look out over this beautiful city. We had a memorable lunch at La Bottega del Vicoletta, a humble looking restaurant with a takeout counter in the front but with incredible Alban gourmet cuisine. We talked to the chef to ask her secret on the best broccoli I’ve ever eaten (turned out it was just vinegar but it was cooked perfectly and perched atop a veal carpaccio that legends are made of.) The tajarin tartufo nero – another Piemonte specialty featuring porcini mushrooms and feather-light egg noodles – was incredible with the lovely bottle of local Barbera we split.

Do you like finding your own way through Europe? Bay World Travel’s recommendation is to make sure you have all your big dots connected – flights in and out of Europe, transportation within Europe, and accommodations. Then fill in the little dots if you’re adventurous or let us organize a full itinerary for you. Call us or email when you’re ready to start planning! 650-726-7345 or go@bayworldtravel.com

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