Monday, March 20, 2017

Serena Lake Manyara Hotel

During our five night safari in Tanzania, we were booked in three different Serene hotels.  We couldn't have had a better choice of hotels.  All offered different charming locations and we wold be hard pressed to choose a favorite.

Our first was Lake Manyara Serena.  When we pulled in  our check in was FAST - they were waiting for us and issued keys very quickly plus provided lunch in the restaurant for our group even though we arrived after the lunch period was over.

We stayed in a room in a rondoval building (see picture above) that had four rooms, two up and two down.  In the room was a king sized bed with mosquito netting, an outside terrace with views of Lake Manyara, a beautiful credenza made of native wood housing drawers, hangers and safe, a good sized bathroom with shower plus desk.  The rooms aren't air conditioned but this hotel had floor fans that gave great circulation of air in the room.  Being high, the air conditioning wasn't missed.

The grounds were very nice.  The grounds overlooked Lake Manyara and the infinity pool had a breathaking view.

The restaurant had excellent food - you could order from a menu for lunch and dinner and there was a buffet with made to order eggs and pancakes.  (Three meals a day are included - if you will be out on safari, you'll get a lunch box to take that had so much food we couldn't finish it all and pooled together our leftovers to give to the men who washed the safari van every night)

Staff were extremely helpful, especially showing us to our rooms and collecting luggage the next day.

In early evening, all Serena hotels offer some type of native entertainment. We had some native music and locals performing a great acrobatic show around the pool.  All Serena hotels had gift shops were we were able to buy some native arts and crafts to bring home.

We loved the serene grounds and watched some interesting birds at night in the trees. Each Serena hotel had a different charm to it. We'll review all three on our blog,

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Why You Need a Good Travel Agent to Book A Safari

For many people, a safari is a bucket list trip.  It was one of our dreams and our recent safari wasn't just an spectacular opportunity to see wild animals in their natural habitat, but it was also a huge educational opportunity on planning a safari.  A cookie cutter itinerary may not be what you are exactly looking for and your travel agent is your best friend in ensuring that your safari is what you want and not an exhausting tag-  a - long trip.

The first thing to take into consideration is what animals you want to see and where you want to travel to.  South Africa is one of the most mentioned itineraries but there are amazing parks in Tanzania and Kenya that you can see the big five (elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and buffalo). They also may not be located within one park - you may have to go to multiple parks to see all five.

For instance, our first park in Tanzania was Lake Manyara.  In this park, we saw lions, elephants and buffalo. No rhino or leopards.  Our second park, Serengeti National Park, gave us the opportunity to see a leopard drag it's lunch into a tree to eat.  But it wasn't until we went tn Ngorongoro Park that we finally found the elusive rhino.  Your travel agent can ensure that you are going to the right parks to see the animals you want to see.

Storks in a tree

Are you a dedicated bird watcher? Then you need to do to parks in northern Kenya that have higher populations of birds that you won't see in other parks.

Next thing to consider - resorts or glam camping?  We opted for  Serena Hotels - four and five star hotels in spectacular settings.  Some have pools (but cold water - no heated pools!) and are fully equipped with blow dryers. Most are not air conditioned, but have fans.  Excellent restaurants and exceptional service.  You won't have TVs in any of them but you will be so tired when you come back from viewing you won't care.
Our room at Serena Lake Manyara Hotel

But how about tented camps?  These are usually small properties with up to 20 or 25 luxury tents that cater to couples and some to families. We visited one that had room for up to a family of five.  The one we visited had magnificent views of the Serengeti, a main building with the lobby and restaurants and pool.  The tents had gorgeous outdoor showers, a bedroom facing the beautiful park in the distance,  a balcony to sit and enjoy the views.

But there are some draw backs.  The camp we visited had solar electricity but ran generators in the morning and at night so women could blow dry their hair or use heavier appliances.  Some other camps only have electricity in the morning and a few hours at night.  Some don't have hot running water - at one camp, employees had to be advised the time you wanted to shower because they had to bring barrels of hot water to place in the shower so you could have a hot shower.

It's also quiet at night. There is some entertainment early in the evening but otherwise it's quiet and all you might hear is the sound of animals in the distance. Or someone in the next tent snoring.  Or people arguing (or not - maybe you have honeymooners next to you- you can hear that as well).  These tents also may not have heat and can be humid,  leaving you with a suitcase full of damp clothing.
Hotel entertainment

You'll probably want to do a combination of both just so you can experience both options and say you stayed in a camp. This is where your travel agent working with a good safari company can make sure you have the best of both.

How many people so you want to share a car or truck with?  We had seven people plus a driver and guide.  Too many people. There was always someone in the middle back seat.  As you go from camp to camp, you'll want to make sure that you have a truck or van that the roof can be raised so you can stand up to view and photograph animals.  Some of the large tour companies did not offer that. In fact, one had a truck the size of a bus that was way too big to maneuver around the many trucks that other vendors used. The roof didn't raise so passengers were forced to look out windows.

Our truck

You can choose a private safari with just you and your family or one with others.  Most trucks held up to six people.  If you have a private safari, you'll have plenty of space to move in the truck for best viewing opportunities.  Your travel agent can help you either way.

The most important piece of the experience is how long you want to be in your truck.  We were in our truck from 8 AM until 6 PM,  Our hotel gave us a boxed lunch each day. We saw things we might not have otherwise seen if we didn't go this way.  We had lunch around 2 PM each day which ended up being the time of day the animals were least active.   In the mornings we saw lions mating (which is very rare - one of our fellow travelers had been on five safaris and that was the first time she had every seen that), in the afternoons, a leopard make a kill and drag it into a tree to eat, maneuvering it several times so it wouldn't fall out. After lunch on the long drive back to the hotel, we saw hyenas circle and chase zebra, female lions positioning themselves for a kill, impalas grouping around a lake, and most impressive - wildebeest migrating north.

But - by the time we got back to the hotel at night, we only had time to clean up for dinner and some entertainment.  We were exhausted and had no time to enjoy the beautiful hotel or just sit on our balcony to watch the sunsets. You can also opt for a half day safari so you have time to come back and relax at the hotel, or a morning safari and afternoon safari's, coming back to the hotel for lunch and a few hours relaxation. Your travel agent can help you make a decision on this, you don't have to be forced into a planned itinerary and find out you can't relax and catch your breath and just enjoy the beauty at your hotel.

If you have physical limitations or a bad back or neck - a safari may not be for you.  The roads in the parks are all dirt and extremely bumpy. You will be banged around your truck - they drive very fast on those roads and it can be painful. We saw more flat tires on trucks than you could shake a stick at. (Every vehicle carries at least two spare tires on their trucks), While we didn't have mosquitoes due to the time of year we traveled, there were lots of flies and you'll need to make sure you bring bug spray.

Our boxed lunch!

Depending on where you travel, you might need inoculations. We needed yellow fever, hepatitis A and malaria pills, just in case. We were also warned not to drink anything not bottled and not to eat fruit that couldn't be peeled or lettuce.  There was nothing to worry about, only bottled water was served (and brought on the truck by the safari company) and the food in the hotels was just fine.  They make quite a good spaghetti in Africa and they serve a LOT of Indian food.  If you wanted ice, you have to ask for it. Coffee was strong and there was fresh squeezed juice everywhere we stayed.

What time of year to travel?  Many people talk about seeing the migration from Masai Mara south in August.  Well, I can tell you that we ended up seeing more in February and March than we might have in August.  It is mating season and we saw many animals mating, from baboons to lions, zebras and impala.  It is also the birthing season and wildebeest, giraffe, zebra and lions were all giving birth. The most spectacular thing we witnessed - migration!  What goes south must go north when the rainy season starts and we were there to see wildebeest and zebra begin the long trek north to the Masai Mara, where they will return in August.
Sunrise from our last hotel

Safari's may be one of the most expensive vacations you will ever take. Why? The parks charge a per person fee to get in. Most were between $60 and $100 per person.  If you visit three parks during your safari, multiply the entrance fees by that much. Plus there is a charge in each park for the truck you will be touring in (usually in the $200 range) plus the park fees and hotels for the driver and guides have to be included.  The more people in your truck, the lower the per person cost. Add in the hotels (some include three meals a day so you have no other expenses) and you'll see why they are expensive.

You will do yourself a disservice by not asking your travel agent to personalize a safari for you.  Call us to book yours - 516-608-0568.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Royalton Luxury Resorts - The best brand you might never have heard of

Located in Mexico, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, Royalton Luxury Resorts  may be one of the best all inclusive resorts that you've never heard of.  With four star accommodations, Royalton is growing, adding resorts in St. Lucia and Antigua in addition to two more in Jamaica.  There are resorts for families and resorts within some of their resorts that cater to adults only.

Also owned by the same company is Memories Resorts, a family friendly brand and Chic, an adult only brand.

What can you expect at a Royalton resort? All inclusive perks such as unlimited dining (no reservations required) complimentary wi-fi, free long distance phone calls, supervised teen and childrens activities at select locations. They also offer a "Sports Event Guarantee"-Watch all of the top games on  flat screen televisions in the comfort of the “SCORE” sports bar with  premium refreshments and delicious pub fare.

For kids, most resorts offer a large water park or splash pad on site, a kids club for 4 - 12 year olds, and a "Hangout" teens club for the 13 - 17 year olds featuring games, Playstation rooms, Wi-Fi area, billiards, ping pong and more. 

Room accommodations include their Dream Bed with great features such as hypoallergenic sealant, 30% more pocketed coils, a solo split system to prevent motion from the other side of the bed for comfort and support. Rooms range from 1 bedroom to 2 - 3 bedrooms and suites.  One of the best features of Royalton Resorts is that you are able to book guaranteed connecting rooms, which many resorts don't offer - you would book two rooms and hope they were next to each other.  If there are more than two children in your family - you don't have to worry anymore!

Royalton Punta Cana is located next to their Memories resort.  Guests at Royalton can use the facilities at Memories, but Memories guests cannot use all the facilities at Royalton. Memories has a fantastic water park that our clients with kids have loved

Royalton Blue Waters in Jamaica is a brand new resort with 228 rooms and suites, 11 restaurants and an on site Jerk Hut.  This resort also offers a new special C/X Culinary Chef's Table Experience (costs extra) that is a hit at it's CHIC Resorts. The cost is $80 per person and is not only filled with delicious food but artful presentations as well. Your meal is prepared in an open kitchen and served in a wonderful style with seven courses.  Included in your meal is  a choice of Yellowfin Tuna, Foie Gras, King Crab served Acapulco style or Duck Magret in a Tamarind Glaze. Following Pumpkin Blossoms and Sorbet to cleanse the palate, the cuisine adventure continues with Sea Bass a la talla, Sea Scallops on Truffle Oil Risotto or Black Angus tenderloin. A Chocolate Course signals the grand finale.  

At the one of the six adult only Hideaway or Chic Resorts, you'll enjoy all inclusive luxury.  Unwind in your preferential accommodations where suites feature aromatherapy and a  Jacuzzi tub for two,  Royalton premium DreamBeds™, high thread count sheets, 24-hour room service and a selection of in room premium spirits. Hideaway offers privacy from the other areas of the resort and higher service quality, such as extras which include afternoon hors d’oeuvres, exclusive à la carte restaurants, and personalized beach bags.

You can also upgrade your experience at any Royalton Resort by booking into their Diamond Club. 
With Diamond Club™, you'll receive the following upgrades:
  • Dedicated room locations for Diamond Club™ only
  • Butler service
  • Preferential reservations in à la carte restaurants
  • Exclusive beach area with dedicated bar and waiter service
  • Distinctive wrist bracelet
  • Personalized check-in and check-out
  • Complimentary early check-in and late check-out (subject to availability)
  • Private Diamond Club™ Lounge access
  • Selected premium drinks menu available in Lounge
  • Daily, continental breakfast service in Lounge
  • Evening hors d'oeuvres and afternoon snacks including decadent desserts in Lounge
  • Upgraded room service menu
  • Pillow menu
  • Luxury amenities in room
  • Mini-bar restocked daily
  • Robes and slippers in room
  • 10% discount on spa treatments and hair dresser

Royalton Luxury Resorts Butler Service Menu
  • Tour of the facilities
  • General hotel information and assistance
  • Packing and unpacking of luggage
  • Ironing (1 set of clothing)
  • Laundry pick-up (service charge applies)
  • Polishing and shoe cleaning
  • Newspaper delivery

Are you ready to experience Royalton? 
Call us - 516- 608-0568. 
  • Ice delivery
  • Preparation of Jacuzzi (upgraded room categories)
  • Pillow menu
  • Organizing of special occasions (birthdays, anniversaries etc.)
  • Assistance with restaurant reservations

Saturday, January 14, 2017

How Much Should Your Cruise Line Know About You?

Carnival Cruises is unveiling a game changer in the cruise industry that comes with some questions. See if you agree with our concerns.

Ocean Medallion is being introduced at an electronics  event this week by Carnival Corp.  This little blue tooth enabled disc will change the way you interact with your cruise line from the minute you step on the ship until you depart for home. Carnival has spent two years designing this unique step into the future. The first cruise line that will be using this technology in the Carnival Family will be  the Regal Princess on November 12,  2017 from Ft. Lauderdale.

The Ocean Medallion is scheduled to first take the place of your cabin key and will be used for payment and security use but will eventually know your preferences on your cruise and be able to personalize your experience by offering drinks, shore excursions, activities and even merchandise based on your actions on the ship.

You will be able to download an app. on your phone and you will need to have the medallion on your person on the ship. Carnival will install thousands of sensors on their ships that will use Bluetooth technology to interact with your medallion.

There will also be screens throughout the ship, you will have a smaller portal at the entrance to every cabin and the t.v. in your cabin will have access to the Ocean Compass phone app. Certain crew members will have table devices too.

What's the point? You can be sitting in a lounge chair on the back of the ship, order a drink and your waiter will be able to find you and deliver that drink where ever you are. Walking past a bar? The app can suggest a drink based on the last drink you ordered. Food can be delivered the same way. You'll even be able to order food or a drink at a pre-determined time and have it delivered to you.

Eventually you will be able to fill our your embarkation information online and use the device to be able to use the medallion to go through security and get on the ship. Guests using this will eventually be able to go through a special line at the cruise terminal to expedite access on the ship.

Lot's of exciting pluses but one question remains - do you WANT to be tracked the entire time you are on a ship?  Will this be "Big Brother" watching over you?  Is this an invasion of privacy?

What do YOU think?  Post comments on our blog.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

How Many Things Can Go Wrong On A Trip?

If you think that travel agents always have great vacations, you are wrong.  We suffer through some of the same issues everyone else does on a trip. We recently attended an annual travel conference that we look forward to every year. Hotels have always been excellent as have activities.  This year, the conference was half on land, half at sea with three days in Ft. Lauderdale and three nights on a unnamed ship to Nassau and their private island Coco Cay.

Our adventure began at JFK on JetBlue with the oddest bunch of passengers and flight attendants I have ever seen.   As we were walking to our seats, I could see most of the overhead bins were full. Except one place that someone who thought she was special had put her coat. I said to my husband "Let me move this coat and you can put the carry on in here".  The owner of the coat jumped up screaming "That's a $500 coat!!" My response - "it doesn't belong in the overhead anyway". "I know but it's a $500 coat!"  She suddenly sat down and I later found out my husband had whispered to her to sit down and be quiet. Just not that politely.

Then a woman with a four year old  sat behind us dressed in the most daring dress I had ever seen a traveler wearing. It was held together with straps of fabric at the sides and how the front stayed pinned to her chest was beyond me. Of course she had brought nothing for her four year old to do on the plane so he kicked the back of the seat of the woman seated next to me for much of the flight.

The woman in the window seat in my aisle quickly took off her shoes and put her feet on the wall of the seat in front of her while asking the flight attendant when he'd be serving liquor before the plane even took off. (It was 9 AM). And the flight attendant had absolutely no system whatsoever in distributing drinks.  Some people got their beverages, some didn't, some had to keep reminding him he forgot them - except for booze woman who he happily served several times while people waiting for a bottle of water were ready to pounce on him. He finished serving drinks a half hour before we landed.

One of my friends was traveling with us and listened to a man preaching to his seatmate right behind her the entire flight.

When we landed, Mom and four year old were the talk of the airport. We were amused watching men walk around her back and forth to catch a look. My husband warned me not to take pictures but of course I had to. I did cut her head off so I can't be sued.

Unfortunately, at the same time as our conference, there was a huge boat show in Ft. Lauderdale. Big enough to have nearly every hotel in the area booked solid at top dollar.

In order to make our conference affordable, a hotel outside the immediate downtown area of Ft. Lauderdale was used. To say it was in Ft. Lauderdale was a bit of a stretch, since it was more than a $45 cab ride from the airport.

We arrived at a lovely looking hotel- pretty much in the middle of nowhere directly off I-95.  We checked in but our room wasn't ready yet  (it was 1:45) so we had to find something to do.

We decided to eat at the only restaurant in the hotel  because we didn't see anything nearby. Lunch was a little costly - $19.99 per person for the lunch buffet.  The manager of the restaurant asked if we'd like the buffet or to order off the menu.  We decided to try the buffet since he made it sound so enticing.  As were were looking at the food, our server told us that we had 15 minutes to serve ourselves before the restaurant closed!  As we were rushing trying to figure out how to fill plates and eat in 15 minutes,  the manager came over and told us we could take our time and sit. When I told him what the server said,  he apologized and told us he'd comp our lunch because it was his error not telling us the buffet was closing. That would end up being the best part of the hotel stay.

We decided to take a walk to see if we could find somewhere else nearby for dinner.  After walking almost two miles in 88 degree heat and finding a BBQ restaurant that had cookers outside and a diner that was only open for breakfast and lunch, we ended up having dinner in the restaurant.( We found out the next day that the hotel offered a shuttle that will drive guests to other restaurants within a three mile radius. The only problem is that the first three restaurants on the list we were given were out of business so the shuttle was of little use). On our walk we discovered that when they say "no parking" they mean no parking in this little hamlet.

The next day we decided to have a relaxing morning at the pool. The hotel was under construction and getting to the pool was an ordeal in itself, requiring us to walk through the entire hotel and conference rooms to go out a back door held open by a traffic cone because the main entrance sidewalks were closed. But we got our Fitbit steps in going back and forth!

It's too bad the pool wasn't heated because the water was so cold no one dared go in. We were kept company by Godzilla and his family of  amazing large lizards that live on the property  and thankfully were our entertainment for the morning. We especially enjoyed him when two people we knew stole two boxed lunches that were meant for a different conference that was departing the hotel that day. When this woman and her husband brought the lunches out to the patio, Godzilla knew there was food and kept coming to where she was sitting. We sat with our feet in the water laughing as the woman panicked trying to make him go away. She finally had to bring her lunch inside.

Elevators? What elevators? With two conferences the elevators were slow and at one time broke down, trapping about 15 people in it and requiring the fire department to come and free them. I was happy when my Fitbit buzzed on my arm as I walked six flights of steps for the second time that day, indicating I had met a goal of 13 flights in a day.

The hotel was just too small for a conference of a few hundred people at once and was under construction so we could only suck it up and deal with it. Due to the boat show we could either stay there at an affordable rate or stay elsewhere and pay $400 a night.  We made the best of it and looked forward to getting to the cruise ship the next day.

That didn't go so well either. The bus driver that took our group from the hotel to the cruise port got lost and drove right out of the port as we were waving goodbye to our ship at the dock. Once he found his way back, he stopped at the wrong place and began offloading us, only to be reprimanded by the port agents and sent somewhere else - without us - to drop all the luggage.  We hoped our luggage would find it's way to our cabins.(It did).

When the cabins were opened up, we found an older ship that needed some updating but the cabins were clean. We were supposed to go to Nassau and Coco Cay, the cruise lines private island.  On the second day, as we were nearing Nassau, my husband, who was sitting on the balcony said "something is going on in the port. I don't think we are getting in".  Sure enough, an hour later an announcement was made that it was too windy for the ship to dock in Nassau and we were going to have an extra day at sea.  Unfortunately, the crew didn't come up with alternative arrangements for activities  so there was not much to do on the ship.  Suffice it to say we both read all the books we brought.

This was my fourth cruise that was supposed to go to Coco Cay. I have never made it because every time we sailed, it was too windy to tender to the island.  This ended up being no different. The next morning, another announcement - no Coco Cay.  We were having a three day cruise to nowhere.

Again - not enough activities for the passengers in lieu of going to the beach. There was a bright spot - it was the only time  I've been able to find seats around the pool without going out a 6 AM and putting down a towel because the water was so cold no one was swimming.

Later during the day, the Captain made an announcement that we were going to make a stop in Freeport the next day.  "Woo hoo" we all thought. Until we paid $10 for a round trip cab ride per person to go to the "shopping and casino area". When the cab driver told us that Freeport has been closed since the hurricane three weeks before, we looked at each other, knowing this wasn't going to end well. On arriving at the casino, we found is was closed, as were the beaches behind it and the majority of the stores in the "shopping area".

People were furious that they were told there was a casino but not told it was closed.  We spent 15 minutes walking around the shopping area and got a ride back to the ship. It was nearly a cruise to nowhere.

So what did we do? We rolled with the punches and tried to look at the positive.

-We didn't gain an ounce on the ship because the food wasn't very good. (I had the fattiest lamb in my life for dinner one night).

- We found Floridians have a great sense of humor as far as signs go.

- I did more exercise in six days than I did in the last year.
- We learned lizards are entertaining.

- I designed a shirt for my next cruise that goes to Coco Cay.

Traveling to the Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic is fast becoming one of the most economical vacation spots in the Caribbean.  We have seen the best pricing here for the last year or so and it is an easy three hour flight from JFK. Here is what you need to know:

 - Valid passports are required for all visitors.

 -  There is a $10 per person tourist card that every visitor must purchase at arrival.

-  The most popular resort spot is Punta Cana, followed by Cap Cana, a quieter and more private area,  followed by La Romana.

-  Bavaro Beach is the most popular beach on the island.

- There are plenty of choices for family friendly resorts as well as adults only resorts.

- January is the coldest month with average temperatures between 71 - 71 degrees. Come May, temperatures start to get warmer. June - October are the warmest months with average temperatures going up to about 87 degrees. January - March are the driest months. Hurricane season brings more rain and storms, with September and October the months where beach waves can be stronger than other times of the year.
Water Park at Memories Splash Resort

- Spanish is the main language spoken here and some resort employees do not have the best command of the English language. Larger resorts will have more English speaking employees than smaller resorts.

- The Dominican Peso is the official currency, but dollars and Euro's are accepted throughout the country.

- Electricity is 110 volts.  No converters are needed.

 - If you are a foodie and love excellent food - this isn't the island for you. The DR is well known in the travel community as non - gourmet regardless of what resort you choose.  Drink bottled water, not tap water. Don't eat at restaurants outside of your resort.

- The Dominican Republic is in the hurricane belt. Travel insurance is a must.

- It is not recommended that you go off property on your own here - make sure you travel with a group or a tour company.

 - There are a wide variety of activities to do here from 4 wheel driving to zip lines to dolphin swims. If you are a golfer - plenty of courses!

- During Easter, motorized water sports and horseback riding on beaches are not permitted to operate. The Ministry of Tourism has issued Resolution No. 96/2012 announcing its annual ban on the use of jet ski/wave runners, motorized boats, horses, motorcycles and motorized vehicles on beaches nationwide  during Easter Week.
Majestic Elegance Resort

- Zika has been reported here - make sure you bring bug repellent. The alert level has been downgraded to level 2, take safety precautions. Our clients who have traveled there have reported they did not have issues with mosquitoes but that can change depending on the weather and humidity.  Keep up with the latest Zika information here:

If you are looking for the best value for your vacation dollar, call us and let us find the right resort for you in the Dominican Republic. 516-608-0568

Friday, October 28, 2016

Rolling on the River (Cruise)

Sitting in our cabin looking out the lowered window as our ship moved swiftly up the Rhine River, we relaxed as we watched the castles on the passing mountains, one after another. Some were ruins, some were intact but I thought to myself "This is exactly how I pictured a river cruise".

                                                    Panorama Balcony Room - Top of Window comes Down

Yet I was surprised and delighted by other parts of this wonderful Emerald Waterways journey to the Jewels of the Rhine.  After we had spent two nights on our own in Amsterdam, we boarded the Emerald Dawn in Amsterdam close to the central train station. When we arrived at the pier, our bags were whisked away and put in the dining room on the ship to be delivered later on.

We were invited to have a glass of champagne and either explore the ship or relax in the lounge. We did a quick tour of the ship and then went into the lounge and claimed a comfortable sofa which ended up being our "home base" for the remainder of the cruise.

Emerald is (almost) all inclusive and a great value.  Included in your cruise price are all your meals, excursions, gratuities, beer and wine at lunch and dinner. Other river cruise lines charge you for all beer and wine, excursions and gratuities so they truly are not the all inclusive value that Emerald (and it's sister line, Scenic Waterways) is. The "almost" part - in most of the cabins, the mini bar is not included, you pay for anything you eat or drink other than the bottles of water in your cabin.

On the Emerald Dawn, which carries 182 passengers, there are four categories of staterooms on three decks. The lowest deck, the Riviera, offers Emerald Staterooms. These cabins are below the water line with a short window on top of the cabin. You have light coming in but no true view. The cabin is 162 square feet but the rest of the cabin amenities are the same as other cabins. (There are also smaller single staterooms measuring 117 or 105 square feet). Our cabin was an Emerald Panoramic Balcony Suite. These suites offer a revolutionary indoor balcony design, complete with decking area, table and chairs – generating an entirely new space for you to enjoy the landscapes you pass. With the touch of a button, the upper part of the cabin’s floor-to-ceiling window drops down to unveil full views of the beautiful  scenery.

                                                    Emerald State Room on Riviera Deck

The Grand Balcony Suite offers a Nespresso Coffee Machine and the ability to order a continental breakfast from room service. These offer a true outdoor balcony along with the floor to ceiling window that opens by pushing a button. And finally there is a one bedroom Owners Suite that has a separate bedroom and a lounge area. For all but the one bedroom suite, you receive free bottled water that is replenished daily but the mini bar is at additional cost. (Mimi bar is included in the Owners Suite)

The food was very good. At breakfast and lunch, the Reflections dining room is open for a buffet meal and upstairs in the lounge a light menu is served. For breakfast that included scrambled eggs, smoothies, juice, coffee, cheeses and pastries.  At dinner in Reflections, a four course a la carte meal is served. You will order your full meal including dessert and the presentation and serving is well orchestrated.  There is also tea time in the afternoon and later at night a staff member came out with small desserts for everyone.

The most popular spot on the ship are the two coffee makers in the lounge, one in the front on on the bar. The other was bigger when you first enter the lounge next to the "library".  There was always someone making a cafe latte, espresso, macchiato or tea.

I can't say enough about the staff.  Because of the size of the ship and the small amount of passengers, you have an opportunity to interact much more with staff than on ocean cruises. The waiters in the dining room were efficient and most of them quite charming and "loose" with the passengers. The bar staff upstairs were a lot of fun.

We did not see the Captain except for the first two days. The water levels on the Rhine were dangerously low and he opted to stay in the wheel house and command the ship instead of allowing the second or third captains. We passed several ships that could not make it through the low river levels and were pulled over on the side. Those passengers might have had a bus tour instead of a river cruise.

The hotel director, Florin Spatanu, seemed to be a leader with a great sense of humor. We spoke quite a bit with him.  The Hotel Director is really the heart of the ship. He is responsible for everything but sailing the ship. Every staff member except the Captain and engineers report to him.  I believe his positive and relaxed attitude rubs off on the staff as they were playful and funny but did their jobs very well.

The Cruise Director, Ray Bauer, was the best CD I've encountered in 20 years of sailing. He interacted with all the passengers, was efficient and full of knowledge.  He was every where and when the guests were leaving the ship after the cruise, he said good bye to every single person.  We also had a mishap with a person in our group who had to be sent home from the cruise immediately. Ray took over, took her to her cabin, helped her pack, arranged emergency flights and transfers to get her home, and kept in touch with the woman's daughter until she arrived home. Rest assured, if you have an emergency while sailing you will be in good hands with Emerald.

We boarded the ship in Amsterdam and were in port the first night. The next morning there was a tour by bus and boat of Amsterdam. You could also get off the ship that first night and walk into Amsterdam to visit.

We left at noon the second day and had a 24 hour trip to Cologne (Koln) out first stop on this trip. The ship has a small pool that is at the ship's stern on deck 3.  It can be fully open to the air as it has a retractable roof but because it was cold, the roof was closed and the pool nicely heated.  At night, the floor of the pool is raised and chairs put into the room and the room is used as a theater! (There is also a small gym with a few machines right next door). Later on in the cruise, the pool had to be emptied to lighten the ship so that we could make it through the low river levels. (The other cruise ships we encountered all had to do the same).

There is beautiful scenery on both side of the ship as you sail on the rivers, very different than an ocean cruise where all you see is a vast ocean. One day going through the Rhine Gorge, it was castle after castle after castle.  The entire top deck is open and has seats and loungers you can sit on and enjoy the sights, but it was a bit too cold for many to be taking advantage of this deck.  On the 3rd floor, in front of the lounge there are some outdoor tables to sit at plus some lounge chairs. It was a little warmer sitting there since there is a glass partition at the front that acts as a wind breaker while sailing.

The typical day has passengers getting off the ship between 8:30 and 9:30 a.m. depending on the port for transportation to the city and your daily excursion.  In Koln, it was a ride into the city to see the Cologne Cathedral which houses what they claim are the remains of the Three Wise Men or Three  Kings. The construction of the cathedral began in 1241 and was completed in 1880.  The Cathedral was the only standing building in Koln after WWII. The rest of the city was destroyed.

Every day passengers were back on the ship by 1:30 for lunch. There are also bicycles that can be used if you'd like. Afternoons are spent relaxing and getting ready for dinner. There was a piano player in the lounge each afternoon for light music. Some nights there were things going on - one night was trivia, one night was a Crew Talent Show, one night opera singers were brought on board for an impromptu concert.  If you are looking for excitement and shows similar to an ocean cruise, you won't see it on river cruises.

One thing to be aware of is that in many ports, ships tie up next to each other at the pier and you have to walk over other ships to get on and off your ship.  So keep you blinds closed, as you could unknowingly be the entertainment for the ship next door to yours.

The cities we visited on the Rhine were charming. We went to a winery for a wine tasting, the Black Forest to an outdoor museum with homes from the 1600's for a glimpse into what life was like on the farms (and to see exactly how a Black Forest Cake is made!) and to a Museum of Mechanical Instruments (think music from carousels and player piano's) that ended up being fascinating.

The average travelers age on a river cruise is 65, but there were quite a few younger "kids" (one couple was in their 20's) as well.  The 20 somethings ended up rating the cruise very high. Children are not permitted, with the exception of Disney Adventures river cruises on another cruise line.

Be aware that there are many different companies offering river cruises that don't advertise. Viking has brought river cruising to the attention of American's but there are many more companies at different price points to choose from. There is a river cruise line for almost every budget.  Some include more than others which can make a huge difference. Emerald Waterways is a mid-priced option that includes quite a bit.

Emerald Waterways has been named Best River Cruise Value in 2016 by Cruise Critic for the second year in a row. And as a company in existence only three years, their repeat booking rate is 25% - an amazing number for a cruise line so young.

We have a chart of various river cruise lines and their inclusions. Contact us for more information on Emerald or to see the value for your dollar you will receive with various line. Call us at 516-608-0568 or email us at