London Best Bets

London Best Bets

When’s the best time of year to visit London? Anytime! Summer is warm and there are plenty of parks and markets worth exploring. Autumn is mild — as the mercury goes down, the holiday decorations go up. Although Winter has the coolest temps, it’s not uncomfortably cold and the post-holiday weeks are a great time to shop sales. Spring can be a mix of sun and rain, but there’s plenty of indoor and outdoor pursuits to pick from.

My past articles included London’s Top Ten, Twenty-two Top Shops, and 18 Favorite Places to Eat.  After a recent trip with my son, I am inclined to add to my never-ending London to-do list. Planning a trip over the pond? Put a few of these items on your itinerary:

VISIT

Exhibition Road: Home to numerous cultural institutions, this South Kensington “Museum Mile” includes Royal Albert Hall, Natural History Museum, and the Victoria & Albert Museum. Our favorite? The Science Museum – on display are 5,000 years of innovation; it’s STEM on steroids!  Check out tech treasures like the Apollo 10 Command Module and the Enigma Machine. Visit the IMAX Theatre, hands-on Wonderlab, and a well-stocked book/gift shop.

Borough Market, London

Seafood abounds at Borough Market

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre:  Although a reconstruction of the Elizabethan era theatre, it’s very true to the original. Located Bankside (near the Tate), tours include access to the underground Exhibition Space.  Plan ahead and book tickets for outdoor performances in the Globe and inside the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

Borough Market: This 1000-year old food market features endless stalls of fresh produce, fish & seafood, confectionery, cured meats, oils & vinegars, spices & preserves, and a multitude of bars and restaurants. After filling your shopping bag (and your stomach), take a leisurely walk over the London Bridge.

Greenwich:  This borough of London, located on the southside of the Thames, is well known for its maritime history. Visit the Cutty Sark (the restored 10th-century ship), the National Maritime Museum, and the Old Royal Naval College (home to one of the greatest baroque ceilings in Britain). The Royal Observatory overlooks Greenwich Park, and is the site of the famed Prime Meridian Line, which marks Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) and divides the Eastern and Western Hemispheres.

Greenwich Obervatory

Straddle east and west at the Prime Meridian

The Royal Institution (Ri): Founded in 1799 with the aim of introducing new technologies and connecting people to the world of science, Ri houses the Faraday Museum (in honor of the British scientist and his discoveries in the fields of electromagnetism). This petite, lower level exhibition celebrating the achievements of Ri members (many of them Nobel Prize winners), packs a powerful punch, especially for science lovers like my kids.

Small Car, Big City: If you love classic cars, the iconic ’60’s movie “The Italian Job,” or just want to see the city from a unique perspective, book one of these bespoke Mini Cooper tours. Two-hour to full day themed tours include Hidden Gems, Street Art, Beatles, Harry Potter, or Landmarks of London. Your adorable vehicle (and driver!) will meet you right at your hotel’s doorstep.

Small Car, Big City, London

Zoom around the streets of London in a classic Mini Cooper

SHOP

Twining’s: The oldest tea shop in London, this 300-year old flagship features premium teas from ‘round the world. It’s also one of the city’s narrowest shops – only twelve feet wide! Sample the flavors at the Loose Tea Bar or sign up for a Masterclass. There’s also freshly ground coffee for java addicts.

Maille Boutique, London

Maille Boutique

Maille Boutique London: At the entrance to Piccadilly Arcade, inside this corner store, lies rows and rows of France’s finest condiments. Pick from mustards, vinegars, chutneys, cornichons (those cute, miniature flavor-packed pickles) and more. Did I mention there are free samples?

Sainsbury Supermarket: No matter where we travel, we always wind up in a supermarket. It’s a great place to pick up affordably priced souvenirs and stock up on favorite local delicacies.  The condiment aisle is my favorite of course: we grab bottles of Belazu vinegar (it has a distinct thickness and texture) and delicious mango and plum chutneys and can’t leave without Cadbury Milk Chocolates (they’re sooo much creamier than the U.S. version!)  Just remember, put all liquids in checked luggage, not your carry on!

EAT

Afternoon Tea at the Dorchester: Served in The Promenade, the hotel’s lobby restaurant, this proverbial English tradition is worth the splurge. Sink into plush couches surrounded by gilded marble columns and lush potted plants, and indulge in a delightful meal of tea, champagne, and the savoriest finger sandwiches — smoked salmon, egg, chicken, prawn and cucumber. Next comes warm scones with glistening strawberry jam and Devonshire clotted cream and finish off with a tiered platter of cakes and tartlets. (And, unlike the Ritz’s Tea, no jackets required.)

Afternoon Tea at the Dorchester

There’s always time for Tea

Momo: Entering this West End restaurant is like stepping into a Moroccan Souk with its lush fabrics and decor. The menu is a North African/Mediterranean mashup: couscous, lamb tagine with pears and plums, and fresh mint tea.

Sakagura: Located in Mayfair, this Japanese Restaurant has an amazing Sake Bar. Try one of their Sake cocktails — my favorite, their Mojito with fresh mint and pomegranate. The restaurant is just steps off Regent Street on pedestrian-friendly Heddon Street, also home to the Ice Bar.

Yautcha: A member of the Hakkasan Restaurant Group, this contemporary dim sum house in Soho features a modern interpretation of a traditional Chinese Tea House with the busy vibe of a Hong Kong eatery. Dishes are designed to share.

Padella: This affordably priced, pocket sized Italian cafe with an even smaller menu has THE best homemade pasta. It’s situated just on the perimeter of Borough Market. Try to get a seat at the bar to see the chefs in action as they whip up your order, pronto! No reservations but arrive before they open to keep the wait at a minimum.

Da Corradi: This long-standing, old-school Italian bistro tucked into Mayfair’s Shephard Market, has generous portions, friendly and efficient service, and cozy seating — it hit the spot, especially on a cool and rainy afternoon.

Need help putting together your bucket-list trip or dream vacation?
Email me: mollie@herrickstravel.com, and find out about upgrades, special amenities, and VIP service for Herricks Travel American Express/Altour customers.

SMART PHONE SUBSCRIBERS: to view this complete article online and read my previous articles, use this link: uniquefamilytraveler.com.

To become a SUBSCRIBER and receive all of my latest articles right to your inbox, look for the “subscribe to this blog by email” box and then respond to the follow-up email.

For more information on my trip planning services, please click here.

Herricks Travel American Express/Altour

Planning Perfect Multi-Generational Trips

Planning Perfect Multi-Generational Trips

A multi-generational trip is an amazing way to create authentic, long lasting memories with your friends and family. But coordinating a multitude of individual needs and desires can overwhelm even the most intrepid traveler. Here are some tips to help make your vacation planning stress-free:

plan ahead:
The larger the group, the farther ahead the planning. Start at least a year in advance to give everyone ample time to arrange for vacation time away from work or school.

choose a leader:
Assign a point person who can represent the group, coordinate its needs and wants, and present vacation options based on an agreed upon set of parameters including price per person and length of trip.

call your travel agent:
Sure, there’s lots of travel advice online, but it’s so easy to experience information overload and wind up down the “internet rabbit hole.”  A travel agent (that’s me!) is a valuable resource and can suggest destinations, negotiate group rates, arrange complimentary amenities or upgrades, and organize your entire itinerary door to door. Need more convincing? Read my recent article “Top Twelve Reasons to use a Travel Agent.”

Grand Cayman

Resorts offer plenty of water-sports and beach activities to keep groups of all sizes happy

narrow the choices:
Discuss the needs of each traveler, including the kids and the teens, who usually have some genuine input and ideas. Do they favor city tours or country pursuits? Are they “Harry Potter” fans or “Beatlemaniacs”? Beach bums or adventure junkies? Foodies or fitness freaks? Remember, their opinions matter.

Maui, Hawaii

Woodcarving in Bali, Indonesia

Hands-on activities like wood-carving in Bali, will keep curious kids engaged

Guided group tours geared towards families (like Tauck’s Bridges Program) are a great option.  Or, consider a cruise or all-inclusive resort. Many offer children complimentary accommodations or at a reduced rate, and both offer plenty of activities that appeal to a wide range of age groups.  Private guided excursions in a van or minibus will bring everyone together and allow you to tailor sightseeing to everyone’s wishes, especially if individuals have physical limitations that need to be accommodated. Look for unique activities that will keep everyone engaged: a cooking class – think, pastries in Paris or pizza in Pisa; a Segway session in Seville; or London MINI-Cooper tour.

include some downtime:
Alone time is important – don’t expect family members to spend every waking moment together. Everyone can use a good afternoon nap no matter his or her age.

purchase trip insurance:
Comprehensive cancellation and medical coverage is crucial in the event of an emergency or unforeseen situation while away or back home, either prior to or during travel.

London, England

Book a MINI Cooper Tour and visit hidden gems of London in these classic cars

keep it fun!
Remember, the goal is being together with friends and family and taking time off from the busy lives we all live to enjoy some real (and electronic-free!) time together. Make it an unforgettable experience, and everyone will sign up for another trip, even before the first one has ended!

For more travel advice, check out my recent article: “Smart Traveler Tips” 

Need help putting together your bucket-list trip or dream vacation?
Email me: mollie@herrickstravel.com, and find out about upgrades, special amenities, and VIP service for Herricks Travel American Express/Altour customers.

SMART PHONE SUBSCRIBERS: to view this complete article online and read my previous articles, use this link: uniquefamilytraveler.com.

To become a SUBSCRIBER and receive all of my latest articles right to your inbox, look for the “subscribe to this blog by email” box and then respond to the follow-up email.

For more information on my trip planning services, please click here.

Herricks Travel American Express/Altour

What to Pack for an Alaska Cruise

What to Pack for an Alaska Cruise

Packing for a trip to Alaska can be a challenge: its northern reaches and varied geography means traveling through several microclimates. From mild to extreme, the temperatures will fluctuate.  Summer is the best time to visit though, which is why most cruises are scheduled June through September: the odds of spotting wildlife are high, salmon are swimming upstream, hiking trails are free from snow, and the weather is as good at it gets.  For some cruising basics, check out my previous articles: Journey through Alaska’s inside Passage and Fish & Feast in Ketchikan.

Alaska Cruise
Alaskan cruises sail through the inside passage – the coastal route that weaves through the thousands of islands, coves, and bays that dot the Pacific Coast of this northernmost state. Cruises will either travel southbound (Anchorage to Vancouver, Canada) or northbound (Vancouver to Anchorage) or roundtrip from Seattle, Washington (this itinerary may include more days at sea and less ports depending on the length of the trip).
Alaska Cruise. Vancouver
Alaska CruiseMost cruise ship excursions bring you up close to the great outdoors, so you can soak up all that majestic scenery and catch a glimpse of all the wildlife that draws travelers to the 49th state. How you choose to interact with nature is up to you: walking tours; hiking; canoe and kayak trips; helicopter and float plane excursions; fishing or boating are all options. But, don’t be afraid to try something outside your normal comfort zone, since the point of this vacation is to get out there and experience the wide-open spaces.  Check the excursions for details on activity level. Many outfitters provide you with additional garments or waterproof outerwear to protect you from the elements so don’t think you need to buy hardcore adventure gear to enjoy the “high activity level” choices. Dressing properly for excursions is key to comfort: wear layers that can be peeled off as the mercury goes up or added on as temps drop off.
Alaska Cruise
Layers:
Start with a short sleeve shirt or tank top, a long sleeve wicking layer, add a hoodie or fleece (on colder days a padded or PrimaLoft-type vest will come in handy), with a thin waterproof hooded shell on top.Alaska Cruise

Footwear:
Besides standard sneakers, waterproof hiking shoes (with Gortex) will keep the moisture at bay. Hiking boots are not necessary unless you plan on scaling great heights. Skip the UGG’s which will get soggy, or rain boats which don’t offer much support. Throw in a pair of flip flops for the hot tub or spa, and a pair of dressier shoes for the dinners onboard.

Pants:
Jeans, leggings, and comfortable, water wicking hiking pants (Prana is my go-to brand), are all versatile and low maintenance. Pack a pair of shorts — as you travel south to Vancouver, temps will rise, and you just might be able to lounge on the pool deck. Plus, a post- or pre-cruise stay in warmer locales in Seattle (click here to read my destination article) or Vancouver (click here to read my destination article) might include an overnight at a hotel with an outdoor pool.

Accessories:
For cooler days and for afternoons spent up on deck gazing at the glorious glaciers, pack a wool beanie, glove liners, and scarf — it can get windy up there. Light weight wool or breathable wool blend socks will keep feet warm and dry (Smartwool is my favorite).Alaska Cruise

Gear:
If you can, bring a real camera, not just a cell phone – the vistas are just too large! Bring binoculars – they are great for kids who may not be looking through a camera’s zoom lens. Pack a power strip for your cabin to provide extra places to plug in. A back pack or tote is essential for holding layers, water bottle, snacks, cell phone chargers and backup batteries.

Sundry items:
Sunscreen, bug repellant, and motion sickness pills for small craft excursions are all a must. Sunglasses and brimmed hat will be put into use during summertime since Anchorage can have over 19 hours of daylight!

Evening cruise wear:
Smart casual wear is acceptable at night — what you would wear to go out for a nice dinner at home (no ripped jeans or jean shorts). You will not be as dressed up as you are on a Caribbean cruise, and typical lightweight summer garments are not well-suited to this itinerary (think “shoulder season” or “transitional clothing” instead).  Throw in a bathing suit for the hot tub and spa, and some comfy workout clothing or stylish athleisure, which works well on those days at sea. (Athleta has great choices).

For more travel tips, check out my recent articles: A Few of my Favorite Travel Things, Twelve Packing Tips Every Travel Should Know, and Smart Traveler Tips.

Need help putting together your bucket-list trip or dream vacation?

Email me: mollie@herrickstravel.com, and find out about upgrades, special amenities, and VIP service for Herricks Travel American Express/Altour customers.

SMART PHONE SUBSCRIBERS: to view this complete article online and read my previous articles, use this link: uniquefamilytraveler.com.

To become a SUBSCRIBER and receive all of my latest articles right to your inbox, look for the “subscribe to this blog by email” box and then respond to the follow-up email.

For more information on my trip planning services, please click here.

Herricks Travel American Express/Altour

 

Cruise Around Iceland

Cruise Around Iceland

Most Iceland itineraries include a stay in Reykjavik, the capital city.  A series of day trips from this home base will give you a glimpse of this island nation’s extreme natural beauty: glorious geysers, gleaming glaciers, and volcanic springs. But, experiencing all that the “land of fire and ice” has to offer, requires a days-long drive around the extensive outer loop roadway… or a cruise around the island’s perimeter.

My recent articles on Iceland highlighted the Best of Reykjavik, a Day at the Blue Lagoon, and an Excursion around the Golden Circle. After these amazing adventures, we boarded a Windstar Cruise, docked in downtown Reykjavik, and embarked on a week-long circumnavigation.

Our home for the seven days was the Star Legend. Windstar’s small, boutique-style ships take you into off the beaten path ports — a more personalized approach to cruising that larger ships can’t match. The Star Legend, one of the cruise line’s yacht-style ships, carries 212 passengers in 106 suites. This small ship is big on service. The staff is exceptionally welcoming — by the second day they greeted us by name; by the end of the week we knew all of theirs.

The Star Legend has just enough onboard services to keep you busy on those occasional “days at sea” including a small outdoor pool and Jacuzzi, main dining room, library, coffee shop, salon/spa, casino, several bars, specialty restaurant, and a show lounge. The well-stocked watersports platform, a real benefit in warmer climates, unfortunately did not apply to our itinerary.

On board, it was very easy to meet fellow travelers. The Yacht Club, with its cozy chairs and sofas, was a favorite hangout with floor to ceiling windows offering extensive views of our fjord entrances and exits. It was the perfect place to grab freshy baked cookies and cappuccino, dig into a novel, mingle with shipmates, and play games and work on puzzles (yes, the old-fashioned kind that require no smart phones or laptops). The ship has an “open bridge” policy, which my sons took full advantage of, chatting up the captain and chief engineer about navigation tools and cruising speeds.Windstar Cruise, Iceland

While larger ships can make claim to an abundance of onboard activities, dining outlets, and entertainment options, the star attraction of small ship cruising is the ability to access smaller ports and offer unique, small group excursions. And now, a rundown of the ports we visited on our Iceland cruise:

Heimaey Island:
Located about 10 kilometers off the southern coast of the country, it is most famous for the 1973 five-month long volcano eruption that forced its inhabitants to abandon their home and flee to the main land. Afterwards, over 400 homes and buildings had been completely covered by ash and lava. Visit this island to experience this “Pompeii of the North,” which also happens to be the breeding ground of the largest colony of Atlantic Puffins.

Heimaey Island, Iceland

Seydisfjodur:
Seydisfjordur, IcelandOur favorite port was both a fjord and a charming and creative town of just 700 people. For a glance, rent the 2013 movie Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The town is featured in the scene where Ben Stiller takes his long board and skates for miles through picturesque scenery. The photogenic Blue Church, which gets a quick glimpse in the film, and the quirky Technical Museum of East Iceland, are both worth a visit. A half-day hike Chasing Waterfalls was our most memorable excursion of the whole cruise. Climbing the trails that wind their way through the Vestdalur Valley (a protected nature reserve) offered a true feast for the eyes (and the heart). At every turn, at every new height, the spellbinding display of waterfalls, mountains, valleys, and ocean vistas unfolded.

Seydisfjordur, Iceland

Chasing waterfalls in Seydisfjordur

Seydisfjordur, Iceland

Seydisfjordur, Iceland

Seydisfjordur, Iceland

Seydisfjordur, Iceland

Seydisfjordur, Iceland

Akureyri:
A small city in northern Iceland, it’s the second largest urban area and a center for the fishing industry. Located in the Earth’s sub polar region, its only 60 kilometers from the Arctic Circle. The most popular excursion, Jewels of the North, includes stops at Godafoss Falls, Lake Myvatn, Dimmuborgir (a dramatic landscape with strange lava formulations and caves that have become the source of Icelandic folktakes), Skutustadir (a crater-pocked landscape formed by boiling lava and gaseous explosions), and Namaskard (an other-worldly geothermal field of mud-pots, steam vents, Sulphur deposits, boiling springs, and fumaroles).

Akureyri, the Capital of the North

Godafoss, Iceland

Godafoss, appropriately translates to “Waterfall of the Gods”

Namaskard, Iceland

Namaskard, a sulfuric “Martian landscape,” is a geothermal wonder

Namaskars, Iceland

 

Namaskars, Iceland

Isafjordur:
Located in the northwest of the country, this “ice fjord,” once known as a trading post for foreign merchants in the 16th century, is now a nature and adventure lovers paradise. Gentle fjord kayaking, hiking, and horseback riding are popular excursions. Equestrian fans will be intrigued by old Icelandic laws: to keep the famous “Icelandic Horses” purely bred to withstand the harsh elements, the country forbids the import of horses, and any horse that leaves Iceland is barred from ever returning.

Iceland

In a kayak, you can see the fjord’s beauty up close

Grundarfjordur:
This fjord, perched on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, in the western portion of the country, is well-known for its dramatic landscapes. Weather permitting, partake in a glacier hike to the top of Snæfellsjökull Glacier, which rises 4800 feet above sea level —  its snow-cap covers a volcano. According to Jules Verne’s novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth, the entrance to the planet’s core lies through a caldera (crater) at the top of this glacier. On our excursion, we donned helmets and flashlights and visited a lava cave deep underground and explored a cavern that had been hidden from the outside world for thousands of years.

Grundarfjordur, Iceland

Need help putting together your bucket-list trip or dream vacation?

Email me: mollie@herrickstravel.com, and find out about upgrades, special amenities, and VIP service for Herricks Travel American Express/Altour customers.

 

SMART PHONE SUBSCRIBERS: to view this complete article online and read my previous articles, use this link: uniquefamilytraveler.com.

To become a SUBSCRIBER and receive all of my latest articles right to your inbox, look for the “subscribe to this blog by email” box and then respond to the follow-up email.

For more information on my trip planning services, please click here.

Herricks Travel American Express/Altour

Top Twelve Reasons to use a Travel Agent

Top Twelve Reasons to use a Travel Agent

Travel is an investment of your time, your money, and your dreams.  Don’t leave any of it to chance…

1.  Travel agents are there to help you before, during, and after your journey, and look forward to forging a LIFELONG relationship with you and your family.

2.  Travel agents are REAL people who are accessible in real life.

3.  Travel agents provide you with PEACE OF MIND while you are away, especially during times of emergency or unforeseen travel disruptions. They are able to provide quick turnaround for adjustments to your travel schedules and can efficiently process cancellations if necessary.

4.  Travel agents cut through the clutter and misinformation spread on the internet.

5.  Travel agents read, understand, and alert you to the fine print especially with cancellation and travel disruption policies.

6.  Travel agents are GLOBALLY CONNECTED to people, guides, tours, drivers, hotels, resorts, cruise lines, and airlines around the world. They are on the front lines for access to accurate and complete information from airlines, cruises, and hotels.

7.  Travel agents have access to EXCLUSIVE BENEFITS like upgrades, VIP status, and special amenities.

8.  Travel agents use the HUMAN TOUCH to design personalized experiences for each unique traveler and create itineraries that match your specific needs.

9.  Travel agents study hard to become SPECIALISTS and can connect you to local culture and new experiences creating transformative travel.

10.  Travel agents make your dollars travel further.

11.  Travel agents are travel EXPERTS and are especially qualified in assembling multi-destination and multi-generational travel.

12.  Travel agents are passionate travelers first and foremost, and will apply that passion to your TRAVEL DREAMS!

Need help putting together your bucket-list trip, dream vacation, or winter escape? Email me: mollie@herrickstravel.com, and find out about upgrades, special amenities, and VIP service for Herricks Travel American Express/Altour customers.

 

 

SMART PHONE SUBSCRIBERS: to view this complete article online and read my previous articles, use this link: uniquefamilytraveler.com.

To become a SUBSCRIBER and receive all of my latest articles right to your inbox, look for the “subscribe to this blog by email” box and then respond to the follow-up email.

For more information on my trip planning services, please click here.

Herricks Travel American Express/Altour

New York Times Travel Show 2018

New York Times Travel Show 2018

New York Times Travel ShowMy recent article, Smart Traveler Tips, helped put you on the inside track of stress-free travel. For more travel advice, consider attending the upcoming New York Times Travel Show, January 27-28, 2018, at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center located on Manhattan’s Westside.

Now in its 15th year, this annual event will put you in touch with over 550 exhibitors from more than 170 destinations — no passport required! Attend an educational seminar and you will come away with globe-trotting tips from experts in the travel industry. Bring the kids – there’s plenty for them to explore at the Family Pavilion: food tastings, cultural displays, and musical performances.

New York Times Travel Show

Need help putting together your bucket-list trip, dream vacation, or winter escape? Email me: mollie@herrickstravel.com, and find out about upgrades, special amenities, and VIP service for Herricks Travel American Express/Altour customers.

SMART PHONE SUBSCRIBERS: to view this complete article online and read my previous articles, use this link: uniquefamilytraveler.com.

To become a SUBSCRIBER and receive all of my latest articles right to your inbox, look for the “subscribe to this blog by email” box and then respond to the follow-up email.

For more information on my trip planning services, please click here.

Herricks Travel American Express/Altour

Smart Traveler Tips

Smart Traveler Tips

Some practical advice on how to prevent unnecessary vacation-planning stress:

Inspect your Passport:
As soon as you even consider leaving the country, check your passport’s expiration date. You can be blocked from boarding the plane if the date is inadequate. Some countries require three months prior to expiration, some have a more stringent six month policy, so as a rule of thumb I recommend to clients that they stick to the six month rule. (Example: if you are flying on June 5, the expiration must be after December 5).

U.S. PassportCopy your Docs:
Carry photocopies of your travel documents and passport in a separate place from the original documents. Even better, leave a version at home, or text or email pictures of the documents to a responsible friend or family member.

Stay on Top of Shots:
Many countries have very specific immunization requirements and proof of these may be required for entry. Other vaccinations just make good health sense and can eliminate potential illnesses during your travels. I often refer clients to a Travel Doctor who specializes in the prevention and management of health issues related to international travel. Another great source of info is the Center for Disease Control, which outlines each country’s specifications. Flying to South Africa? If you visited Brazil recently and your passport was stamped upon arrival, you will need proof that you were immunized against Yellow Fever to gain entry to South Africa.

Register as a Smart Traveler:
Check out the U.S. Department of State Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), a free service for U.S. citizens that connects you with the local embassy and consulate while abroad. By enrolling, you receive important information about safety conditions that can assist you in making informed decisions about your travel plans; it will help the embassy contact you in case of natural or other disasters; and can help family and friends get in touch with you in an emergency.

Global EntryBecome a Trusted Traveler:
U.S Customs & Border Protection Trusted Traveler programs provide expedited travel for pre-approved, low risk travelers through dedicated airport lanes and kiosks. The most popular is Global Entry which has been rolling out to U.S. airports. Travelers must undergo a background check and in-person interview in order to secure a Global Entry Card. Upon landing in the U.S., members skip the customs line, proceed to Global Entry kiosks, present their machine-readable passport, place their fingerprints on the scanner for verification, and complete an on-screen customs declaration. The kiosk issues a transaction receipt and the traveler hands it to the designated customs official.

Global EntryGlobal Entry comes with the added benefit of TSA PreCheck, which is the Transportation Security Administration’s program that allows eligible, low-risk travelers to enjoy a dedicated security line and expedited security screening. TSA PreCheck means you can ease through security without removing your shoes, light jackets, liquids, or laptops from your bags, therefore less time on line. If purchased alone (without Global Entry), TSA PreCheck requires an in-person interview, background check, and fingerprinting. (Note: American Express offers many of its cardholders reimbursement for Global Entry and TSA PreCheck fees).

Upgrade to REAL ID:
Is your driver’s license expiring soon? Consider upgrading to a REAL ID. This is part of the U.S. Federal Government 2005 Act which established minimum security standards for state-issued driver’s licenses and identification cards. Eventually, to fly domestically in the U.S., your state license or ID must meet these federal standards of identification, or you might have to bring your passport to comply with the upgraded security requirements.

Get the Facts on Visas:
Most countries have very specific visitor requirements and that includes visas, a conditional authorization granted by a country to a foreigner allowing them to enter. Some visas must be secured in advance through a local embassy and affixed to your passport; some can be purchased at the airport upon arrival. It’s important to know ALL the visa and passport rules prior to your flight or you may be prohibited from boarding the plane. Flying with your children to South Africa? Those under 18 must possess a birth certificate with a raised seal to enter, along with a passport. Check out travel.state.gov for more info arranged by destination.

American Express logoDownload Credit Card Apps:
Even if you prefer not to make credit card payments online, create an online account to keep track of purchases you make while away, and make sure to subscribe to email or text alerts to be notified of potential fraud or credit card theft.

AllianzPurchase Travel Insurance:
As they say, “hope for the best, plan for the worst.” Hands down, travel insurance is the best investment you can make. In the event of illness, death, terrorism, or severe weather, travel insurance helps you recoup your nonrefundable expenditures. To avoid exclusions for pre-existing medical conditions, make sure to purchase the policy within two weeks of the first deposit made on your trip, and check policy details before you file a claim to ensure that your cancellation reason is on the covered list.

It’s not always 911:
Know how to call for an emergency in the country you are visiting. In the U.S. it’s 911, but that does not apply all around the globe. In Europe, the number to know is 112. Check travel.state.gov for all the details.

Micato Safaris, South AfricaTravel Light:
Not everyone can travel with just a carryon, so if you are planning on checking luggage, make sure to read up on airline requirements. More obscure destinations in Asia, Africa, or South America often have smaller airports that are served by smaller aircraft.

Prep the Kids:
Discuss the itinerary in advance of the trip; download an illustrated city guide; watch a travel video on YouTube – kids will feel more invested in the adventure, and more likely to “go with the flow” if any delays or glitches pop up. Upon arrival, I always made sure my boys knew the name of our hotel in case we were separated while traveling off property. Give everyone a map (yup, those free, folded paper things that the concierge hands out). Real map reading skills are an art form that should not be forgotten, and kids often have a better sense of direction than adults. Plus, they will enjoy being part of the solution rather than the problem of being lost, especially if you are in an area with no Wi-Fi or cell service…and no Google Maps!

Book Early:
Have a bucket list trip like African Safari, Australian Outback, or Alaska Cruise? Plan early (one year out!) to get a leg up on the itinerary, excursion, cruise, or lodge of your dreams.

Use a Travel Agent:
(Yes, that’s me!) For access to upgrades, special offers, extra amenities, and VIP treatment, help with multi destination or multigenerational travel, honeymoon or babymoon, nothing beats a professional. A travel agent takes the stress out of vacation planning and that makes you a Smart Traveler!

For more travel tips, check out my recent articles: A Few of My Favorite Travel Things and Twelve Top Travel Apps

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Guide to Iceland’s Golden Circle

Guide to Iceland’s Golden Circle

To truly appreciate Iceland, you must go beyond urban Reykjavik and experience the natural wonders which make this country so unique. After a few days in the capital city (read my recent article “Best of Reykjavik”) with a side trip to the Blue Lagoon (check out my article “Iceland’s Surreal Spa”), we spent a day exploring the Golden Circle — this island nation’s most popular sightseeing route. It’s chock full of historic sites, stunning scenery, and amazing attractions all linked together by a 300 kilometer looped road through the heart of the country. A full day excursion, up to nine hours, is required to absorb it all.

The three main locations included in all Golden Circle Tours are Pingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, Geysir Geothermal Area, and Gullfoss Waterfall. Want to enjoy a more personalized and unique experience? Schedule a private tour and go off the beaten track and seek out the area’s hidden gems.

Thingvellir National Park is where the country’s original Viking chieftains first assembled to forge their national identity and laws. This UNESCO World Heritage site presents a mix of historical weight and serene natural beauty. Geology buffs (like my boys) will recognize that this rift valley is where the two halves of Iceland (the Eurasian and North America tectonic plates) are slowly drifting apart – two centimeters per year – forming the Mid Atlantic Ridge. Time spent in Thingvellir will provide insight into not only how the island was formed millions of years ago, but also how its civil society emerged.

Thingvellir National Park, Iceland

A geological journey along the Mid Atlantic Ridge between tectonic plates

Oxarafoss Falls, Iceland

Our visit to Thingvellir included a stop at Öxarárfoss

Geysir, Iceland

Geysir photo courtesy of “Reykjavik Erupts” tours

The Geysir Geothermal Area, located within Haukadalur Valley, is the site of intense geothermal activity. Dotted with hot pools, clay pots (acidic hot springs), and fumaroles (openings in the planet’s crust), the resulting minerals of the earth create a colorful palette in the surrounding hills.  The Great Geysir, first to be discovered, lends its name to all other geysirs around the world – the word comes from the Norse verb which means “to gush.” Although Geysir now rarely erupts, nearby Strokkur releases its steam approximately every ten minutes and throws water from 66 to 132 feet into the air, so keep those cameras handy.

The iconic Gulfoss, or Golden Falls, is where the Hvita River, fed by Iceland’s second biggest glacier, the Langjokull, thunders down 32 meters into a rugged canyon with walls that reach up to 70 meters in height. The falls come with their own history – early 20th century foreign investors tried to harness its power to produce electricity, which fortunately never came to fruition.

The perseverance and legal wrangling of a local farmer’s daughter (who even threatened to throw herself into the falls) helped bring attention to the importance of preserving natural resources. Since 1919, Gulfoss has been permanently protected by the Icelandic government. There are two viewing areas for the falls: the flat rocky platform that projects out into the river right above the falls, and the top of the canyon where you get a broader view of Gullfoss and the river. When conditions are favorable, you just might spot a rainbow…or two.

Gulfoss, Iceland

The rocky platform overlooking Gulfoss makes for great photo ops

On a private Golden Circle tour you will have the opportunity to experience other amazing sites besides the big three. Visit historic and cultural Skálholt, with its iconic wooden cathedral, home to numerous music festivals; Laugarvatn, a spa town with natural hot springs; and Kerid, an ancient (and stunning) collapsed crater lake surrounded by red volcanic rock – its bright spectrum of colors look positively unearthly.   Join a river rafting expedition through the canyons of the glacial Hvita River, Iceland’s largest. Stop for lunch at Efstidalur, a 17th century “farm-hotel” and restaurant. A delicious meal here comes with a view overlooking the glass enclosed cow barn (source of the milk that goes into their heavenly homemade ice cream). At the end of a long day of touring, stop for a cup of the best hot cocoa at cozy Golden Circle restaurant Mika — famous for their handmade chocolates. (We loved sitting out back at one of their garden picnic tables).

River rafting, Hvita River, Iceland

River rafting in the canyons of the Hvita River

Kerid Crater, Iceland

Kerid Crater’s colorful palette is unearthly

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Blue Lagoon: Iceland’s Surreal Spa

Blue Lagoon: Iceland’s Surreal Spa

A trip to Iceland is not complete without a stop at the Blue Lagoon. A short drive from Reykjavik Airport, it’s the country’s most visited site — the fact it is man-made, does not diminish the charm.  This geothermal spa located in Grindavik’s black lava fields (the southwestern corner of the island), is a fortuitous by-product of the country’s commitment to geothermal energy. The spa features state of the art facilities and is very Scandinavian – it’s immaculately clean and well organized.

The Blue Lagoon’s lava field setting is other-worldly

Thanks to Iceland’s volcanic activity, the country has a never ending supply of geothermal energy from natural hot water bubbling up from the earth’s core. Eighty-five percent of the country’s atmospheric heating is generated from geothermal sources. At power station Svartsengi, superheated water originating 1.2 miles below the earth’s surface, passes through an exchange process to provide fresh water for heating while also generating electricity.  The runoff water forms a lake nearby and functions as a spa. Rich in salt and minerals and possessing an otherworldly milky blue hue, the Blue Lagoon’s warm waters (98-102° F) are praised for their healing qualities.

Blue Lagoon Iceland

HOW TO MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR BLUE LAGOON VISIT:

Make a stop on your way to or from Reykjavik Airport…
Depending on your travel schedule, plan a visit either before you head to Reykjavik or at the tail end of your vacation – it’s 14 miles from the airport and 29 miles from downtown Reykjavik. There’s even a place on site to store your luggage. If possible, arrive early (8am) before the crowds for the most relaxing and authentic experience.

Blue Lagoon IcelandBook tickets in advance…
Purchasing tickets online is required and makes your check in process hassle-free.  Upon arrival, enter the welcome area and receive your wrist band which tracks any purchases you make. There are changing facilities, lockers, and showers to pass through prior to taking your dip in the lagoon. The lagoon area has a swim up bar, a place to receive your silica or algae mask, a sauna, steam room, and lava steam cave.

The sprawling facility also features a lobby gift shop with Blue Lagoon branded facial and body products, a full-service restaurant, and to-go style café where you can grab a quick bite after your spa experience.

Choose a service level…
On the Blue Lagoon website, under the ticket purchase section, are descriptions of the four categories of service each with increasing levels of amenities and services:

Standard: This entry level option provides entrance to the facility and a silica mud mask, applied as you soak in the blue waters, which acts to “deep-cleanse and leave your skin fresh and clear.”

Comfort: Adds on use of a towel, a complimentary drink at the swim up bar, and an algae mask that promises to “nourish your skin and minimize fine lines and wrinkles promising a youthful glow.”

Premium: Adds on the use of bathrobe and slippers, a reservation at full-service Lava Restaurant and a glass of sparkling wine with your meal.

Luxury: The top tier of service, includes all of the above plus entrance to the Exclusive Lounge. You are met by a customer service person at the entry to the spa facility and immediately whisked into your assigned (and lockable) changing room — a lovely private area with a shower stocked with amenities and spa products, with direct access to a common lounge complete with comfy couches, cozy fireplace, and light snacks and beverages.

Blue Lagoon Iceland

Your Luxury Lounge comes fully stocked with amenities

Blue Lagoon Iceland

The cozy Relaxation Lounge completes the spa experience

Come prepared…
If making a stop on your way to or from a flight, make sure to place items in your carry on that you might need during your spa visit: change of clothing, bathing suit, flip flops. A waterproof lanyard pouch for your smartphone comes in very handy.  Prior to entry into the lagoon, put conditioner in your hair to protect it from the silica (it’s definitely not good for color treated or keratin treated hair).

Care to spend the night at the spa?
Consider the adults-only Silica Hotel, a boutique 35-room property just steps from the Blue Lagoon with an expansion slated for next year.

Photo opportunity…
Before you leave, head up to the roof top viewing platform for some great selfies.

For more travel tips on Iceland’s capital city, check out my recent article: Best of Reykjavik

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Best of Reykjavik

Best of Reykjavik

Perched on the edge of the Arctic Circle and positioned on top of the world’s most active volcanic hot spots, Iceland checks all the travel adventure boxes – glacier hiking, fjord kayaking, cave exploring.  But no journey to the 66th parallel is complete without a visit to the country’s captivating capital. Reykjavik, the smallest, northern-most capital in Europe combines the hip with the wholesome – it’s a modern city with small town Scandinavian charm.

Originally under Danish rule, Iceland gained independence in 1944 and slowly emerged from its fishing-focused foundation with a little help from the 2010 volcanic eruption that paralyzed European air travel and put Iceland “on the map.”  Reykjavik, now a tourism magnet, maintains its Viking roots while embracing a cosmopolitan flair.

Reykjavik, IcelandOnly have time for a quick visit to Iceland? Spend a few days in Reykjavik — the old city center welcomes with its metal clad houses, mossy lawns, picket fences, and bustling pedestrian zone. Combine this with an array of appealing day trips – from bubbling hot springs to volcano hikes — Iceland’s famous geological wonders are at your doorstep.  Travel in summer for unending hours of daylight, or in winter to witness the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). To fully appreciate the country requires a longer stay — driving the 830-mile ring road that encircles this island nation can take a week to ten days depending on the number of stops made along the way.

BEST OF REYKJAVIK:

Walking Tour: The best way to explore any city is on foot. Your wanderings will take you into pocket-size shops and quaint restaurants, with plenty of chances to meet the locals along the way. Or, take a Segway or bike tour if you prefer to explore by wheel.

Reykjavik

Lake Tjornin

City Hall: Sitting on the shores of Lake Tjornin, this modern building may lack visual appeal, but it is worth a look: pick up brochures at the tourist center and walk around the super-sized three dimensional map of the country located in the lobby.

Laugavegur: This predominantly pedestrian street lined with cafes, galleries and shops, is truly the heart and soul of the city. Stop at Alafoss for Icelandic wool sweaters and pick up weatherproof gear at 66° North. (By the way, no one carries umbrellas in Iceland so pack a hat or hoodie!)  Hrim Housewares offers functional yet cool Icelandic design pieces all crafted from local materials. Grab a coffee at Reykjavik Roasters or fruit smoothies at Joe & the Juice. Purchase a travel guide at funky Edmundsson Bookstore, and sit down for refreshments at their café, Te & Kaffi.

Restaurants: A Reykjavik tourist brochure I picked up in our hotel’s lobby states: “Reykjavik dining is not cheap so it better be good.” Yup, that’s about right. But, the offerings do not disappoint. Iceland’s waters are some of the coldest and cleanest worldwide and thanks to government programs, one of the most sustainable.  Menus feature unique dishes like shark, Icelandic lobster, and puffin.  Dine at Sjavargrilled, or Fiskmarkadurinn and sister restaurant Grillmarkadurinn for an amazing selection of surf and turf.  Sushi Social is a delicious Japanese and South American mashup. Or for a novelty meal, try the “conveyor belt” service at O Sushi.  Enjoy lunch at Iceland Fish & Chips for the healthiest and freshest version of you guessed it: fish and chips.   Fill your picnic basket at Sandholt:  the tastiest sandwiches and mouth watering pastries to go.  Visit the circa 1937 hot dog stand, Baejarins Beztu Pylsur — it literally means “the best hot dog in town.”  Their menu reads: “hot dog, soda.”  Get one with the works: ketchup, mustard, remoulade, and fresh and fried onions.  Stop in any supermarket and stock up on farm fresh Skyr yogurt, high in protein and virtually fat free (it’s thick and creamy and is Iceland’s secret to healthy living).  At the end of a day of touring, warm up with a giant bowl of Thai-style noodle soup at cozy Noodle Station.

Hallgrimskirkja

Hallgrimskirkja

Hallgrimskirkja:  Where Laugavegur forks, walk up Skolavordustigur Street to reach this Lutheran Cathedral, one of Reykjavik’s most iconic buildings, named for the Icelandic poet and clergyman, and visible from almost anywhere in the city. Its design echoes the basalt lava-flows common in Iceland’s landscape.  Climb to the top of the tower and you will be rewarded with an amazing panoramic view.  Just outside the church, take a selfie with the statue of Norse explorer, Leif Erikson, and pay homage to the man who REALLY discovered America (600 years prior to Columbus).

Museums: My fishing-fixated kids loved the Viking Maritime Museum, devoted to the history of Iceland’s fishing industry and the great “Cod Wars.”  Head outside the city limits to visit Perlan, a science center built on top of the city’s salt water tanks.  (Climb up to the 360-degree outdoor viewing platform or walk through the world’s first indoor ice cave).  Check out the child-friendly Museum of Iceland (on the second floor kids can dress up in Viking attire complete with sword, shield, and chain mail).  Or, take a peek at the more adult-themed Phallological Museum!

Volcano House: This petite but information packed learning center focuses on the volcanic and geothermal history of Iceland, with interactive and hands-on exhibits. Watch the moving, hour-long documentary about the recent eruptions (1973 and 2010) and the effects on the people that lived through these horrific natural disasters. How they managed to restore their communities with little help from the outside world is humbling and awe-inspiring.

Puffins Reykjavik Iceland

Iceland has the largest puffin population in the world

Whales & Puffins: Recently, whale watching has slowly out-paced commercial whaling in Iceland (thanks in part to national/international animal preservation organizations).  For an up close view of these awesome creatures, hop on one of the harbor boats that leave daily year round and catch sight of Orcas, Humpbacks, and dolphins too.  From May to August, take a puffin tour of the surrounding islands and view the breeding grounds of these diminutive birds known for their bright orange beaks and matching webbed feet.

Blue Lagoon, Iceland

This geothermal spa is located in a lava field about 24 miles from the center of Reykjavik

Blue Lagoon: Thanks to Iceland’s volcanic activity, the country has a never ending supply of geothermal energy from natural hot water bubbling up from the earth’s core. It’s piped from mountain to town to warm up everything from homes to swimming pools.  Today, 85 percent of atmospheric heating is derived from geothermal sources. In the southwest, at power station Svartsengi, hot water passes through a heat exchange process to generate electricity. The runoff water forms a lake nearby and functions as a spa, the Blue Lagoon. Rich in salt and minerals and possessing an otherworldly milky blue hue, the naturally hot waters are known to have healing qualities. Depending on your schedule, it is possible to make a stop on your way to or from Reykjavik airport (there is a place on site to store your luggage). Arrive early before the crowds for the most relaxing and authentic experience. (More on the Blue Lagoon in a future post).

Reykjavik, Blue Lagoon

Golden Circle: This 300-kilometer looped route through the heart of the country covers many of Iceland’s most well-known sites both natural and historic.  This region, northeast of Reykjavik, brings you up close to the rift valley where the North American and Eurasian continental plates are slowly separating.  A full-day tour includes stops in Pingvellir (where the country’s original chieftains first assembled to forge their national identity and laws); Geysir (the gushing hot springs after which all such vents worldwide are named), and Gullfoss (the thundering Golden Falls).  Crisscrossing through this area are roads that meander through beautiful countryside, more green than many of Iceland’s rougher outlying landscapes. (Stay tuned for my upcoming article on the Golden Circle and our full day tour with local volcano experts, Reykjavik Erupts).

Check back soon to read about our adventure aboard Windstar Cruises as we circumnavigate Iceland on a seven-day itinerary.

Golden Circle, Iceland

Kerid, an explosion crater on the Golden Circle route

Reykjavik

Laugarines shore, a recreational area in the outskirts of Reykjavik

Herricks Travel American ExpressMOBILE PHONE SUBSCRIBERS: to view this complete article online and read my previous articles, use this link: uniquefamilytraveler.com.

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