When we were deciding on our activities in the Azores we came across canyoning as an option and decided to try it. We had never done it before and the idea of being close to nature and trekking through canyons really appealed to us.
When we reached Ribeira dos Caldeirões where our activity was going to begin we met Hugo and Gonçalo who were going to be our guides. I instantly liked them. They were young, warm and friendly and it was very easy to feel comfortable around them. They gave us our wetsuits, helmets and boots and fitted us with rappelling belts. I wasn’t nervous about the activity because I had no idea what was to come.
We started out walking and pretty much immediately entered dark, muddy, narrow paths that were also quite steep. I was huffing and puffing and thought ok this is for real! After walking for a bit, we approached an opening which to our delight was a natural pool and beyond that was a beautiful waterfall. I instinctively wanted to swim toward the waterfall. The water was cold but refreshing after the sweat I had built up from trekking up the steep terrain.
We received our safety briefing there and then set off to continue our climb before we would begin coming back down the canyon. The descent was the really fun part for me. We experienced so many new and exhilarating things and all around us was lush greenery and foliage that grew thick in the wet environment of this protected canyon. We slid down muddy slopes on our backs. We jumped off waterfalls. We rappelled down cliffs. Finally, as we neared the end of our adventure we came to the biggest challenge of all - jumping off a 30-ft. waterfall! Our guides were very good at offering the right kind of encouragement but not forcing us to do anything beyond our limits.
They coached us about how to jump and where to jump. At each point, they instructed us as to whether we should jump out and in which direction to avoid any possible rocks beneath the surface of the water. At this final point, they told us to simply take one step off the cliff when we were ready to jump. It was pretty wild looking down because it was such a high jump.
When the time came, I was very, very nervous and when I took that step, it felt like I was in the air for a very long time before I hit the water. I went in a little sideways on one leg and felt the impact. I was okay but knew I would have a bruise there. Nevertheless, it was amazing! They offered us the chance to jump again and I took it. The second jump was easier. I was less nervous and kept my body straight because I looked down into the water as I jumped which allowed me to keep my bearings. At this point, a crowd had gathered around the walls of the canyon and they were watching as our group took these final jumps off the cliff. It was quite amusing to look out at them as we completed our jumps and got out of the water and climbed the winding stone staircase out of the canyon. We were all excited and flush with adrenaline as we recounted our experience. It was so exhilarating and simply put, FUN!!
We arrived in Ponta Delgada on Delta which operates a daily flight from JFK. Our flight arrived in the morning so after reaching our accommodation we decided to take a short nap before our scheduled tour which was in the afternoon. Our tour guide, Leandro picked us up around 2:00pm and we set off. Our first stop was the pineapple plantation which was pretty cool. They showed us the various stages of growing pineapple and we got to sample pineapple liqueur which is pretty strong!
Next, we drove to see the massive volcanic crater of Sete Cidades. We were in awe of the sweeping landscapes surrounding the blue and green Empadadas and Canario lakes. These lakes are the result of volcanic eruptions occurring long ago. The last eruption occurred at approx. 500 years A.D. Besides the two lakes, there is a village in the crater, as well as forested areas and grasslands.
The views were simply amazing! You will notice hydrangeas in the pictures. They are everywhere! We learned that they are not native to the island, however. They were brought here and just took to the soil and grew like crazy.
That evening we walked into town to explore the town of Ponta Delgada. It is quaint and charming. A travel tip is that you must have reservations for the restaurants so plan ahead. Also, they do not always answer the phone so email in advance if possible. The restaurants are excellent though. The specialties I most enjoyed are octopus and fresh caught fish.
When in Venice, Do as the Venetians Do…Get Away from St. Mark’s Square!
Look, St. Mark’s Square is iconic. You know you’re going to do some serious sightseeing here on your trip to Venice. The Basilica San Marco, the Doge’s Palace, the Campanile (Bell Tower). Fabulous! What’s not to like? Well, quite a bit actually, particularly the crowds, the high prices, the endless souvenir shops, and the plagues of cruise ship day trippers. So don’t miss San Marco to be sure, but do yourself a favor and also visit the areas of Venice where the locals live, work, eat and hang out. Here are three for you to explore to earn the admiration and envy of your friends back home and prove your credentials as a traveler not just another tourist.
Dorsoduro: Situated across from San Marco on the south side of the Grand Canal, Dorsoduro has the best arts scene in the city and is home to the Academia Gallery and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Better yet are the wine bars that line the back street canals here where you can sip a glass of wine or a Campari or Aperol spritz while sampling cicchetti (venetian tapas) and watching workmen refurbishing gondolas in the tiny boatyard on the other bank.
Castello: Including the area comprising the Arsenale, the former naval fortress of Venice, Castello is one of the oldest sestiere (neighborhoods) in Venice and one of the most authentic. Home to many locals, this is an area for people watching and pretending you’re a local. As an added bonus try to find the wine bar and gin palace, highly prized by locals, where TripAdvisor reviews are banned.
Cannaregio: Located in the north of the city, Cannaregio is old school Venice away from the bustling crowds of tourists in St. Mark’s Square. This was the local neighborhood of our water taxi captain and you don’t get more Venetian than that. Of particular note is the Jewish Ghetto, the oldest in the world and the origin of the word ghetto. Today Cannaregio is a residential neighborhood filled with local restaurants, bars and cafes.
We only had a short time in Dublin and our priority was seeing Trinity College Library at the University of Dublin. This is the largest library in Ireland and houses the famous Book of Kells. We bought tickets to tour the Old Library and I rented the audio guide. The story of the ancient texts is fascinating and the intense work that the scribes performed is amazing to think about. After finishing the tour of the Old Library, we climbed the stairs to reach The Long Room. What an impressive sight it is! The library was built between 1712 and 1732 and has a lower and upper gallery. It holds 200,000 of the library’s oldest books.
A cool piece of trivia is that it was believed that The Long Room was used as the basis for the Jedi archives in the movie Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.
After the library, we went to Kehoe’s Pub. It was such a beautiful, sunny day that while the street outside the pub was packed, inside we found seats and ordered Guinness, of course. This pub is very popular and we can see why. It has a great atmosphere and lots of “snugs”, alcoves and partitions so you are sure to find a cozy spot to sit and enjoy your pint of the “black stuff”.
Dinner was at the Cliff Restaurant which we walked to from Kehoe’s Pub. The restaurant is in an elegant townhouse which it turns out is also a hotel. The restaurant is a long rectangular room, with white walls, white table cloths and mirrors hanging on the walls giving it a very glamourous atmosphere. Continuing our quest for seafood, we ordered the seafood platter. This was an impressive display and included Oyster Rockefeller, brown shrimp, Dublin Bay prawns, crab claws, smoked salmon, scallops, lobster and mussels. What a feast!
We continued on and about an hour later we arrived at our destination, Ashford Castle. Wow! We drove up to a gated entrance where a uniformed porter offered a warm welcome. As we drove through the gates and up the winding driveway we were transported to a different world. There were green lawns and lush trees surrounding us as we approached the bridge taking us to the castle where we would be spending the remainder of the afternoon and the evening. We were greeted warmly by all the staff as they welcomed us and escorted us to our room. We had a surprise upgrade to a two-level suite.
When we entered our room for the night, we were simply amazed. We had a living room with a gas fire and dining table set with chocolates for us to enjoy. The view from our room was of the gardens and lake. We had two bathrooms on this floor with heated floors. Upstairs was our bedroom which was in the turret of the castle. The bedroom walls were green velvet and matched our bedspread. We had a walk-in closet with fully stocked minibar and another bathroom ensuite. Simply unbelievable!!
While it was tempting to sit and enjoy our luxury accommodations we wanted to explore the castle. We set out to walk the grounds and take in the beauty of the lush surroundings. There were tall, beautiful trees set in woods, then there was an opening to a green field dotted with sheep and then there were beautiful gardens. It was one delightful discovery after another. We were so enthralled that we took photos of everything we could.
We had dinner reservations in the George V dining room and knew it would be special. The waiters wore tuxedos and knew our names, greeting us personally one after the other as we were taken to our table. While it was formal, the staff were so warm and kind, making us feel at ease. Dinner included toasting with champagne then cured mackerel and langoustine tartare, followed by sautéed cod and slow roasted pork belly. We had cheese and grapefruit soufflé for dessert.
After dinner, we went to the lounge and enjoyed listening to the lady singer with a beautiful voice singing melancholy songs like “Danny Boy” with accompaniment by a pianist. After she finished her last song we moved on to the bar and enjoyed after dinner drinks for a while longer. I just didn’t want the evening to end. It was that good.
Day 2 in Ireland started with breakfast in the guesthouse. We had made our selections the night before on a form left in our room along with the time we wanted breakfast. When we entered the small dining room, they had pastries, granola and yogurt set up and offered us tea or coffee and shortly afterwards brought out our cooked breakfast.
We had such a short time in Ireland that we had to set off right after breakfast and we headed southwest to fit in a visit to the Cliffs of Moher. The drive was not long but you have to be alert. For the most part, the roads are single lanes going in opposite directions and you are sharing the road with cyclists and large tour buses. The views are beautiful with green fields along gently winding roads and of course, charming towns that you drive through along the way.
Once we reached our destination we parked our car in the large parking lot and walked across to the visitor center. Since we were short on time we didn’t spend much time there but headed out to see the cliffs. The impact of the cliffs creeps up on you. You have to stand there for a few moments and just soak it in and then it strikes you just how amazing the view is. We saw people walking along the cliffs in several different directions and weren’t sure which way would offer the best views. After a short walk to the right, we decided to turn around and go the other way. That was the right decision. As we walked we seemed to be getting higher and higher and had ever more breathtaking views. There are no words to describe the experience!
After we completed our visit of the Cliffs of Moher we got back in our car and headed to our next stop where we would be spending our second night. We drove back along the same roads we had taken earlier in the day as we were heading north. Along the way, we spotted a sign for a restaurant that was recommended to us and we decided to stop and give it a try. Moran’s is famous for seafood and its reputation is well earned! We sampled smoked salmon and crab but the highlight for me was the oysters.
I arrived in Dublin on Friday morning and met my husband in the arrivals hall. He had already picked up the rental car so we would be ready to go as soon as I arrived. As a side note, if you have rental car insurance through your credit card company, ask them for a letter outlining that coverage. The Avis representative asked for such a letter when my husband declined the extra insurance they wanted to sell us.
We hit the road heading for Galway. It took us approx. 2.5 hours and was a fairly easy drive with little traffic.
Once there we had lunch at a restaurant overlooking the bay and afterwards walked along Salthill Promenade taking in the ocean views. We were very lucky with the weather and had clear skies and enjoyed our stroll along the Galway Bay.
Afterwards, we drove into the city center to check into our accommodations for the evening. We stayed at a quaint guesthouse where the rooms had names, not numbers. The location was excellent, opposite a cathedral, with beautiful views of the river and swans floating by. Each room was decorated differently with comfortable furnishings including a sitting area, desk, wardrobe, and a tray for tea and coffee laid out which was a lovely touch.
We set out right away to walk to the city center and discovered what a charming city Galway is. We walked around Eyre Square where a man was blowing giant bubbles with a rope and children were jumping with joy around him. People were picnicking and enjoying the beautiful day. We proceeded to walk down Shop Street to the Spanish Arch and along the river before heading back to a pub we had spotted on Shop Street to enjoy some Guinness and lager.
After relaxing in the pub, we headed to Oscar’s for dinner. What a pretty restaurant it was! We ordered potted crab and sautéed shrimp for appetizers and for main course we had pan fried hake with steamed mussels in a white wine sauce and plaice and dover sole. We wanted to try a local dish for dessert which was a salted caramel & Baileys Carrageen pudding with vanilla ice cream. Carrageen Moss is a seaweed which is found in the south and west coasts of Ireland, which when boiled yields a gelatin like substance, so Carrageen pudding turns out to be like an Irish Panna Cotta. It was delicious! The restaurant staff were beyond nice and warm and we couldn’t say enough good things about our meal and entire experience at Oscars!
As an added bonus, the restaurant manager gave us a tip about a local pub to go to which was within walking distance where we could listen to traditional Irish music. We went straight there and were so grateful for his suggestion! The place was a real find! The band was playing upstairs in this old, dark pub and we had to stand in the doorway because the room was packed! The music was indeed traditional Irish music and we loved it! Eventually we found seats in the room as people left and enjoyed the atmosphere, the musicians and a few drinks into the wee hours.
What a full and fabulous first day in Ireland!
The final day of The Romance Travel Forum started with a tour of Hotel Xcaret which is a new resort and can I just say, it is totally innovative! From the design of the resort to the views from every corner, to the tandem bridges connecting one building to the next to the cave restaurant, it is an experience! The hotel is full of handcrafted pieces and original art work which you can enjoy even in your guest room. The attention to detail is present everywhere.
The brunch buffet was fabulous and complete with everything you can imagine. I loved the street tacos and shrimp burritos and of course, my veggie omelet!
After leaving Xcaret we went to Secrets Akumal which is an adults-only resort and was equally as beautiful as its sister resort with serene settings and relaxing pool areas throughout.
Our final evening was at the The El Dorado Royale and wow, did they put on a show for us!! With live acrobats, music, an over-the-top dinner and wine spread unlike any I have had before, they pulled out all the stops.
They have a partnership with Jackson Family Wines and the wine choices were excellent, not to mention that they grow their own vegetables and spices in their own 76,000 sq. ft. greenhouse at El Dorado Royale. This resort is a foodie’s dream!
The evening at El Dorado was an amazing finale to an amazing week filled with learning, touring and meeting supportive colleagues in this dynamic industry! It was one I will never forget!
At the Romance Travel Forum, I met with 50+ providers on a global level representing a diverse range from boutique luxury resorts such as Hermitage Bay, Hotel Chocolat and Reef Resorts to Tourism Authorities of Hawaii, Thailand, Aruba, Dominca, Puerto Vallarta, Guatemala and more. There were also top wholesalers in the mix who provide tremendous value in terms of the packaged vacations they offer with the best hotels around the world.
The Forum provided many opportunities for networking with other agents, the best in the business! These agents know how to plan destination weddings and honeymoons! We shared best practices and there were so many take-aways which I intend to put into practice immediately in my business.
The evening event at Secrets Maroma was spectacular! The theme was Havana Nights and the party was on the beach. The photos below show how beautiful the property is and party was a blast!
I spent last week at the Romance Travel Forum in Cancun, Mexico. What an amazing experience it was!
There was a rigorous selection process to be admitted into the forum, and I was delighted to be offered a spot in this group of high-achieving travel agents.
We stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya during the week. This resort has so much to do and there is definitely something for everyone in your party! The pools are a blast with DJ’s, snack bars, and even foam parties. They also have an awesome nightclub, Club Heaven, with a live DJ and pool, and the newest addition is Woodward, which is home to all sorts of fun indoor lifestyle sports like foam pits, indoor snowboarding and skiing, and a Ninja obstacle course, just to name a few!
While this resort is all about fun and music, let’s not forget their beautiful spots for destination weddings - just take look at the photos below!
Our evening was spent at the new UNICO resort which was simply stunning. The adults-only resort has a more modern feel and suites have plunge pools for added luxury. They take pride in their restaurants and culinary offerings and their wedding and event spots are truly special. The photos below give you an idea of what I am referring to.
The week kept getting better, so keep reading!