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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.

Barcelona, London, Paris

Lost in Lucca: Traveling Itinerary-Free in Northern Italy

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

Italy

Off to the Races! Monaco Grand Prix on Board the Azamara Quest

If you’re a Formula 1 auto race fan, you know the annual race in Monte Carlo is the grande dame of speed and glamour. My husband Bill loves fast cars and is especially enamored of the Ferraris, though this year they are thoroughly outmatched by the Mercedes. When we learned of the Azamara Quest’s 4 night cruise which culminated in attending the race, we had to do it!

I’ve got to say this was the experience of a lifetime. Unpack once on board, spend lazy days on the French and Italian Riviera, and then enjoy the adrenalin pumping race among the rich and famous in Monte Carlo – hassle free! We anchored out, overlooking Monte Carlo and the steep cliffs of Monaco, then took a tender in to the pier. Walk up the hill, say howdy to the royals in the palace on top of the cliff, and find your seat. Bill opted for seats that overlooked the action in the pits, right in front of the S-turn. The cars, drivers, and pit crew were so close you could almost touch them.

After the race, you have the option to stay and party with the population (ranging from die-hard race fans sporting Indianapolis 500 t-shirts or Ferrari caps to glamorous women in form-fitting outfits) or return to the ship to enjoy a relaxed evening.

We opted to return to the ship after the race and enjoy the final evening of the cruise with dinner served on our cabin’s veranda. We looked out over Monte Carlo and could hear the faint sounds of partying on shore and on the Azamara Journey which was anchored nearby

Other highlights of this Riviera experience:

Strolling along the Promenade des Anglais overlooking the Cote D’Azur in Nice. Ok, we had to duck for cover during a brief hailstorm but after that, the skies cleared and it was beautiful. We enjoyed a traditional nicoise salad paired with a lovely Provence Rosé at a sidewalk café, enduring the stares of locals since we chowed down much earlier than is proper in France.

Enjoying a regatta off the harbor of Portofino. Bill loved the little wooden dinghies. We found a great viewing area up the steep hill of Portofino.

Yachts, helicopters and cigarette boats. I’m a small town girl and I was wowed by the huge yachts with a minimum of one helicopter and fast expensive boats streaking across the water. It was fun to discover an app to learn the ownership of the yachts we saw along the way. I can dream ….

Finding the traditional tarte Tropezienne in St. Tropez. Apparently, La Tarte Tropezienne does not want out of towners to find the bakery so there will be more for the locals of this delicious cake (think brioche dough with a creamy filling and sprinkled with a bit of salt on top – yummy!) Fortunately we ran into a lovely French family who led us through the narrow winding streets right to the door of the bakery which bears this cake’s name.

Dinner at the Aqualina restaurant overlooking St. Tropez on board the Azamara Quest. Azamara cruises are inclusive – wine, beer, and standard brand liquors, gratuities – specialty restaurants (Prime and Aqualina) have just a $25/passenger up charge – but be prepared to enjoy a 4-star meal with incredible views and service. All the meals were great with 24/7 room service available if you want to laze in your cabin. The ship itself carries about 700 passengers, and though this cruise was fully booked with race enthusiasts, it never felt crowded.

I’m anxious to try some of Azamara’s other itineraries – they’re port-intensive and focus on destinations the larger ships can’t get to. I know I’ll be pampered and relaxed – since Bill picked his passion of racing, maybe I can select the next one – wine-themed cruise in Australia and New Zealand perhaps? Or Greece and Turkey? Here at Bay World Travel, we’re here to book your dream vacation. I can honestly say dreams can come true!

French Riviera, Italian Riviera, Monte Carlo

Destination Iguazu Falls – Rainbow’s End in South America

How do you end a fabulous 12-day cruise that plies the Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina coastline? Paul and I decided to take a trip to Iguazu Falls which spans the Argentina and Brazil border, one of the world’s largest and arguably the most spectacular chasms. This is our second experience with taking a post-cruise trip, which we have found is a stress-free way to see an exotic destination. We were refreshed and relaxed after 12 days of being pampered on Oceania, one of our favorite cruise lines. Cruising is a great way to see several destinations without packing and re-packing. More on that later …

After a two-hour flight from Buenos Aires and private transfer to the Sheraton Hotel at the Iguazu National Park, we enjoyed the spectacular views and relaxed. It was a good thing we rested because we had a full day of touring – starting with the Brazil side for its vistas of the entire falls and then back to the national park in Argentina to commence our hikes along the falls. One of the hikes took us to the entrance of Devils Throat – a narrow chasm where half of the river flows. It’s wet, misty, and absolutely spectacular. Happily we were afforded ponchos which were even more of a necessity on our boat ride under the falls the following day. Our speedboat took us inside the Garganta del Diablo (Devils Throat) Canyon – awesome! We also took a nature hike where we got up close and personal with monkeys and the ubiquitous coatis. Coatis are the South American cousins of raccoons, and tourists feed them so I had to shoo more than one of them away. Staying 2 nights and spreading our tours over two days was almost perfect, but I’d recommend lightening up one of the days’ schedules to allow more time to enjoy the spa services at the lovely Sheraton. Paul and I had a great time enjoying a hydrotherapy regime.

Speaking of relaxation, our Oceania cruise was fantastic – 12 nights aboard the lovely Oceania M/S Regatta. We embarked at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and ended our cruise in Bueno Aires, Argentina. A highlight for me was Uruguay. We took the opportunity to tour Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital and a beautiful, affluent Latin American city as well as Punta del Este, Uruguay’s top beach resort destination.

On board, we enjoyed wonderful service and meals. Oceania’s food, under the executive culinary direction of none other than Jacques Pepin, is world-renowned and award-winning. We were able to enjoy specialty dining at Toscana (Italian) and the Polo Grill (steak and seafood) as well as the grand dining room where a beautiful array of dishes, from Jacques Pepin French signature plates to Canyon Ranch healthy, flavorful cuisine were available. This was my third Oceania cruise and it won’t be my last, and I know why so many of my clients who enjoy luxury cruising swear by this cruise line.

South America and/or luxury cruising on your list? Give me or any one of Bay World’s travel advisors a call. We’d love to collaborate with you to make your travel dream a reality.

Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay

New York, New York – Ultimate Urban Vacation!

It takes me a day to get my New York City “sea legs” – but then, it’s a total adrenaline rush! Times Square has become brighter than ever, people are crowding the streets 24/7, horns are honking, and vendors sell a dizzying array of food and merchandise on the sidewalks and streets.

I just returned from an exhilarating 5 days and 4 nights in New York. My reason for going was to sing with a group of over 200 choristers in a Lincoln Center performance of Carmina Burana. My itinerary included hours of grueling rehearsals followed by performing this powerful music to a packed house at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center. I’m sure the people who bought tickets were more attracted by the Grammy-winning conductor Vance George and Metropolitan Opera baritone Keith Harris than by the chorus which was recruited from around the world but it was an incredible experience nonetheless.

But I was in New York and decided to renew my acquaintance with a former hometown of mine and one of my favorite cities. Highlights included:

A trip to the fast-paced Chelsea/West Village neighborhood. With New York Google headquarters on 8th Avenue and 15th, this area has become even more hip. While my March visit was still cool, I had to take the opportunity to see the High Line – a one mile greenway built on the site of the old elevated New York Central Railroad. The High Line affords beautiful views of the Hudson and volunteers were out in force readying the space for spring planting. My son Michael and our friend Jennie, an actor in New York, enjoyed a wonderful lunch at the Standard Grill just under the High Line. Speaking of hip, there’s a nightclub and private lounge at the top of the Standard Hotel. My friend Joanne and I went up for a cocktail at the nightclub (which is open to the public), and were blown away by the awesome night skyline across the Hudson.

Of course, I had to revisit some of my favorite areas in New York – 5th Avenue for shopping, Times Square and the theater district for the Broadway lights and shows. Since I had a packed rehearsal schedule, I was able to see just one show – the pre-opening matineee performance of Mothers and Sons starring Tony award-winning Tyne Daly in a tight ensemble play about a mother finally coming to terms with the death of her gay son from AIDs in the 1990’s. It was a riveting performance and is already gaining critical praise. The array of performances available for New Yorkers and visitors is head-spinning – you can see theater, dance and music any day of the week. When I lived in New York in the 70’s, I worked with a woman who went to a ballet performance every day of the year. Today the options are even more overwhelming. My recommendation is to plan in advance of your visit what you’d like to see and do. I really wanted to get to the Gauguin exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art but I would have enjoyed a full day and time was not on my side this visit!

And I adore Central Park and the Lincoln Center area. I stayed at the New York Sheraton to be close to our rehearsal space. It is a fantastic location – less than a block from the closest Broadway theater and just a few blocks from Central Park and Lincoln Center. The weather was a little brisk but honestly I enjoy this time of year – it’s not high season so while it’s always crowded in New York, the plentiful supply of hotel space provides some fantastic deals this time of year, and it’s easier to get into the hot restaurants and shows.

I’m a foodie too, so a highlight for me is always about the food! My friend Jane and I enjoyed a wonderful meal just a block from the hotel at the Redeye Grill, and Joanne and I went to Malaparte, a tiny West Village restaurant that features simple and beautifully prepared food from the Emilia Romagna region on the Italian Adriatic coast. I know it sounds odd, but we split a pounded breaded pork chop topped with arugula which tasted like heaven on a (large) plate! By the way, you don’t have to spend big bucks to enjoy great cuisine in New York. Our dinner bill at Malaparte was under $40/person, and one of my favorite meals was takeout from the Halal Guys on the street corner across from the hotel. $6 bought a huge portion of a mixed grill of chicken and gyro over a bed of rice, lettuce, with pita and a wonderful sauce. The guys rightfully advised me to use the spicy sauce sparingly. This fed both my son Michael and me for dinner with leftovers!

Interested in a New York getaway? I’d be happy to put together a great itinerary for whatever your style of travel is – from luxury/culture to budget/highlights of Manhattan. There is so much to see and do in this city don’t do it all in one trip. For example, you might want to do one trip focused on Ellis Island, lower Manhattan, the World Trade Center memorial, another in midtown/Broadway, and another on either the East side (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Central Park, shopping!) or West side (Lincoln Center, Central Park). Nonstop inexpensive flights are plentiful from the West Coast to the East Coast too! You can reach me or any one of our travel advisors at go@bayworldtravel.com or 650-726-7345.

New York