Light up your Castle.

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What do you do to bring visitors to your castle? You light it up… or set it on fire. However, if a real fire seems too cumbersome, but you still want something nevertheless spectacular, use Bengal lights and fireworks.

The technique was developed and proved very successful in the picturesque German town of Heidelberg to commemorate the Heidelberg Castle’s very eventful history. The fascinating spectacle of flames and light is called Schlossbeleuchtung – castle illumination – and is done in memory of the three times in history when the castle went up in flames. The first two times were due to wars with the French in 1689 and 1693, and the last time when the castle was hit by lightning in 1764. In case you’ve missed the original three events of Castle Illumination, don’t worry: they are recreated with fireworks every Summer – the first Saturdays in June and September, and the second Saturday in July.

The magnificent ruins of Heidelberg Castle are no less impressive during the day. Built as a fortress with towers and moats in around 1300, this castle is perched high above the town as a symbol of the feudal power. To get them through the turbulent times, it’s likely that the lords of the castle made regular use of the royal wine cellar, which is home to the biggest wine barrel in the world. Made from 130 oak trees, it is seven meters wide and over eight meters in length. The Elector Karl Theodor once employed a dwarf to guard the barrel – as if something that big really needs to be guarded.

As breathtaking as the castle is from the city, so is the view of the city from the castle. While I was standing on the top of the hill admiring an amazing view of Heidelberg, the Neckar River, and the Neckar Valley far into the Rhine plain, I knew it would be hard for me to describe it. But when it comes to Heidelberg, I have the professional support of a famous writer. As Mark Twain put it, “I have never enjoyed a view which had such a serene and satisfying charm about it as this one gives.” It looks like the celebrated author shared my fascination with this charming town: it must have been the reason why, after having come to Heidelberg to spend a day, he instead stayed for three months.

Out of the many things Mark Twain loved about Heidelberg and found worthy to write about, one is still relevant today: it’s a university town atmosphere. Not just any university, but the oldest in Germany established in 1386. Contrary to popular belief, not everybody enrolled in university exclusively for the dueling, drinking, playing jokes on authorities and freeing local pigs. However, for those who did actually prefer the aforementioned scientific activities, there was the Student Prison. Imprisonment would last from three days to four weeks. Students were allowed to attend lectures, but were required to return to jail at the end of the day. In absence of TV and Internet, they spent time decorating the walls with drawings. Those art works were preserved for future generations, and, judging by wall inscriptions, many prisoners found their stay in Studentkarzer very entertaining.
One thing you will not miss in Heidelberg is the Old Bridge. Though not particularly old – built in the 18th century – it has inspired numerous poets and artists. And what you’ll not miss on the bridge is the bronze sculpture of the Bridge Monkey holding a mirror. Legend says that if you touch the mirror you’ll be provided with a good fortune, and, if you’ll touch the fingers of the Bridge Monkey it would ensure your return to Heidelberg. Well, the mirror looked pretty polished, so it must be working. I’ve gently tapped the bronze creature’s hand in hope of returning: one day in this lovely place was not merely enough.

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“Mai Te Pora” – created by Gods

In the ancient times this island was called “Mai Te Pora” – created by Gods. Its modern name is Bora Bora and it’s one of the South Pacific most famous gems. Whoever created it though should be held accountable for the crime against humanity: once you’ve seen Bora Bora you are unable to admire anything else as nothing can be compared to its stunning beauty.

A large coral reef with motu – small islands – surrounds Bora Bora as a strand of pearls. Between the main land and coral reef lies the shallow lagoon of indescribable shades of blue with water so clear you feel like you are swimming in the mid-air. Mount Otumanu towers majestically over the main island as a medieval castle. It is the long loved capital of honeymooners, celebrities and celebrities on honeymoon. If you want something out of the ordinary for your wedding day or something romantic for your anniversary or just want to impress somebody special – Nature here is on your side as a set artist and stage manager and it will not disappoint you.

If you never stayed in over-water bungalow before, Bora Bora is the perfect place to try. You can jump into the turquoise sunlit water right out of your private deck and join the sea turtles race and manta ray’s ballet. Or you can lay in bed and watch the tropical fish schooling around the coral beneath you through a glass floor (my husband enthusiastically prefers the later).

If the word of mouth is the best advertisement, for the French Restaurant it might work even better if this mouth is full of Beef Bourguignon. The French cuisine wizard Jean-Georges Vongerichten recently opened on Bora Bora the Lagoon – his newest endeavor. What the star chief creates there is much closer to an art than to meal and has to be enjoyed as such.

With out of this world sense of tranquility and scent of Tiare flowers to rival the designers perfume this place is as close to haven as you can get to it without doing anything extreme.
Ia Orana and Welcome to the place created by Gods.

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Internet vacation booking: tips for do-it-yourself travelers.

   OK, I will not get into rather trivial situations, such as when you end up in Toledo, Ohio instead of Toledo, Spain, or accidentally switch departure and arrival destinations or overlook the fact that the connecting flight arrives and departs from different airports. I will treat you with the respect you deserve as an educated adult and experienced traveler. And I certainly will not dare to dispute the fact that, for people who prefer to handle their own travel arrangements, the Internet is the greatest invention of our time. As with any great tool, however, the Internet is meant to be used with care, because too many things in the process can go wrong. And according to the Murphy’s known law, if they can, they do – believe me I have such a collection of desperate calls for help and horror stories of booked-it-on-line spoiled vacations, that I’ll be able soon to write my own book. So here is the excerpt from my future “Manual for Using the Internet to Book Your Own Travel.”

  Check all passenger names twice Before you press the “Purchase” or “Complete” button on your screen please check all passenger names one more time. Then check them all again. No, I do not doubt that you remember your name. It’s just that some on-line sites assume for some reason I never understood that all passengers traveling with you have the same last name and pre-fill it for you. Though it does save a few seconds of your time, for which I’m sure you are eternally grateful, it often creates more trouble than good. And if a ticket has been printed with the wrong name, it is not an easy task to convince the airline reservation agent that it’s not your fault. To fix the problem, the airline will gladly charge you a $150 change fee or even force you to buy a new ticket. In an industry where every dollar counts, the exact-name rule is the government’s gift to cash-starved air carriers.

  Reconfirm your hotel booking If you are frequently on the traveler forums, you’ve seen it under the ‘I hate Travelocity” or ‘I hate Expedia’ subject line in slight variations: one finally arrives at the hotel lobby after a long and exhaustive flight only to find out that the hotel does not have the reservation. To add insult to injury, it’s 11 pm and hotel is completely sold out for two weeks to come. The reason for the ordeal is that an online booking engine and a hotel’s computer do not talk to each other, so the Internet travel company has to fax your information to the hotel where somebody supposedly enters it manually into a chain’s reservation system. Human intervention creates plenty of opportunities for all kinds of errors, if they don’t forget to enter it altogether. So after you’re done with the online booking process, call the hotel to verify, and then call again two days before your arrival to confirm that your reservation is still in the system.

  Review hotel cancellation policy Last year, you were able to cancel your hotel reservation two days before arrival without any problem, so you assume that you have a freedom of doing it again should your plans change. Well, please read the hotel cancellation policy carefully, as not only do the different chains have different policies, but each hotel can basically establish their own and change it depending on…anything, from time of the year to the stars’ position in the sky. And if they have it written on the hotel’s website somewhere, no matter how inhumanely small font they’ve used, you may be charged for the entire reserved stay if you don’t cancel within the requirements of the individual hotel’s cancellation policy.

  Watch for double booking It’s important when you are making an arrangement online to be fully aware of what you are seeing and purchasing, especially when navigating the unfamiliar site. Sometimes you think you are comparing the price quote when in fact you are clicking the purchase button. Then, not realizing that the first purchase went through, you buy the same package all over again: there is no online feature that would prevent you from doing that. And if you done it and extra reservation need to be cancelled… see the paragraph above about the hotel cancellation policy. So when uncertain, wait for an e-mail confirmation before attempting the transaction for the second time.

   Insufficient connection time is money…sometimes a lot Airline connection times can occasionally challenge common sense. Forty five minutes – perfectly valid connection time on every travel site – isn’t nearly long enough to get to another terminal and board a second flight even under normal circumstances. If your original flight is delayed – which happens too often than we can all bear – you might want to start your training for running the race now. Should you miss the connecting flight, you are at the second airline’s mercy. If they treat you as a no-show, they can charge you a change fee for the next available flight ticket or even force you to by a brand new ticket for the full price. When you see cheap air fare on the internet, consider the connection time carefully. I would strongly recommend at least two hours for the domestic flight and three hours for the international or more than one stop trip.     

   Scrutinize a cheap deal offered by an unknown company What can be sweeter for the enthusiastic traveler than finding on the internet “the deal” or, putting it in civil language, a “long dreamed about” package at a stunning price? Well, forgive me for raining on your parade, but we all know too well that every service or product is cost justified – there is a reason that a particular program is “cheaper” – and that reason is often not the one you are prepared to experience. Now, what if the hotel in the photo looks nice, the tour sounds exciting and the price still so tempting? Check the agency or the tour operator behind the offer thoroughly. It must be a financially stable, reputable company. Any great deal will be spoiled if you call the office a week after the final payment to be informed that this phone number is disconnected. Be especially aware of the foreign service providers. They usually require upfront payment and if they will not deliver what they promised, there is no court you can take them to. More, sometimes they are honest people with good intentions, but the local equipment and service standards might be quite different from what we got used to in USA. That can jeopardize not just your vacation money, but your health and even life. So please compare the risk and price benefits wisely: all things considered it might be less expensive to go with a well-known and reliable company.

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Wisdom of the Crowd or the Crowd Against Wisdom.

  Ok, that’s it. I’m going to speak out and if it’s going to be too emotional for somebody than readers’ discretion is advised. I can no longer stand hearing, “I know because I’ve checked this hotel out on Trip Advisor…”

  Well, you’ve probably used it yourself, this hotel review Web site that annoyingly pops up every time you are trying to Google something remotely related (and sometimes even not related) to travel. The site has become popular lately and I can see why. The travelling public had learned the hard way that the hotels and resorts sites are biased – you’ll see what the owner wants you to see: flattering or even altered pictures and sometimes too-good-to-be-true descriptions. And here they are billing themselves as the most trusted and claiming to have 25 million independent reviews. You just type the hotel in the search box and all the wisdoms of the crowds are readily appearing at your fingertips.  

       Another possible reason for its popularity is that it’s free for both the reviewers and the information seekers. So, what could be better than free and unbiased opinion of a fellow traveler? For this, all travel enthusiasts rejoice. Except maybe we should first read the warning posted by the site’s administration: “Trip Advisor has reasonable cause to believe that either this property or individuals associated with the property may have attempted to manipulate our popularity index by interfering with the unbiased nature of our reviews. Please take this into consideration when researching your travel plans.”

   In plain English that means the acknowledgement of the known fact that some hotel mangers encourage the staff to post good reviews about their property and write bad posts about their competitors. Some properties have been known to offer a discount for good reviews. Not all of the posts are fake, of course. Out of 25 million, at least some must be independent and objective. But are they really helpful?

  I’ve decided to do a more or less scientific experiment: take the property I personally know well and look it up. I chose the lovely family-oriented resort in Mexico. The hotel is beautiful, the grounds are fantastic and very well kept. It is located in a gated community, so it feels extremely safe. I’ve typed the name in the search box and started to read.

  Well, it seems like most are in agreement with my opinion. Oops, wait a second, not everybody. There are plenty of negative comments. Negative comment number one (I’m keeping the author’s vocabulary and grammar) : ” any hotel nigthlife is unheard of, tiny little bar with 10 ppl if you are lucky on any night and they all retire by 11 and hotel turns into a deadzone and you find yourself looking down the ocean wondering hwta is happening in all of the fun places”.

  Here is another mildly flattering review : “The service was horrible and some workers were just out right rude.” And some more : “Limited to no availability and access to sail boats,scuba and activities, which are all booked by 9:00 a.m. Only one Hobie Cat and One wind surfer in use at a time.”

  Other complains: inadequate spa equipment, small beach, bad food and … bad weather. Bottom line: 25 million of voices might sound loud, but could also create a cacophony and, as a result, confusion. Have you ever tried to ask the opinion of the Turkish Grand Bazaar?

  Ok, maybe it’ll work better if we’ll read just the first 5 pages? Relying on the wisdom of just a few reviews or the most recent posts can be risky. It’s not just that beauty lives in the eye of the beholder, everything else lives in that eye also. And when we ask about somebody’s opinion we are usually very specific about who to ask. Like we wouldn’t ask the Grandma about the best bar in town. And we wouldn’t seek the neighbor’s teenager opinion regarding the latest Metropolitan Opera performance.

   Yet some of us trust the post on Trip Advisor without knowing an author’s background, previous travel experience and his or her real intention. So, making the decision after consulting with Trip Advisor is actually as much a lottery as making a decision without consulting it.

  In my humble opinion, if you still feel the need to use the Trip Advisor, at least do it with a grain of salt and tons of common sense. Do not take into account any complaints about food or staff rudeness. Food is subject to taste and habits, and some unbearable individuals can force an angel to be rude.

  Pay attention to the author’s language and activity. If he speaks the specific industry terminology or comments only on the specific property in terms of “best hotel ever” or “incomparable service”, the review might not be the “real” one .

  Try to determine the poster’s background. How many resorts has he or she seen before reviewing the one you are interested in? What was his/her opinion regarding the property you know? How close is it to your own? Or maybe save yourself some trouble, find the professional whose judgments you trust, and rely on that.

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Cruising European Rivers – 5 reasons to try it.

 Our safety drill – pretty standard procedure that is required by law to be conducted by cruise ship crew before every sailing – had begun somewhat unconventionally. “You know what,” our captain cheerfully said, “we don’t have any safety equipment on this ship. We actually have one boat, but it shouldn’t be counted on as there is only room for me and the cook there”. He enjoyed the uncertain expression of our faces for a moment and continued: “Should something happened to the ship though, you can just walk to the shore.”
  It took us a couple days into our Holland and Belgium Rivers cruise to understand it fully and to find our captain’s jokes funny, but he was right. When you are sailing along the European rivers and canals, the shores are so close, at times it seems like you can touch them. So, if you ever felt a bit nervous on the big cruise ship because all you see around is the ocean (or because you watched “Titanic” too many times), the river cruising is for you. Let me reassure any edgy soul: if the river cruise ship hit the ground, you would not even get your feet wet.

  This feeling of safety is the first in my list of reasons why river cruising is the best way to explore Europe. The list is pretty impressive: modern ships, personal service made possible by having only 200 or so guests aboard, fresh food (there isn’t much space on the ship, so the chef has to shop in the local market almost every day), but, among the multitude, these are a few of my personal favorites. Here they are – in no particular order.
  Let me start with comfort and I mean the level of comfort you would expect from a 5 star hotel, where all rooms and suites are equipped with a flat screen TV, luxury bedding, generously sized modern bathrooms and where you are always a few steps away from the piano bar, fitness center and beauty salon. Prefer a cabin with a river view? Almost all of them have French Door balconies. Looking for the best state room location – pick any. Even though the breathtaking scenery that slowly goes by your window is changing every minute, your hotel room – and level of comfort – never does.

 The second one I defined as convenience, but you might have your own name for it. If you have ever traveled in coach with a tour company you remember how eager you were to start packing late in the evening after the long day on foot. But with the couch tour you have no choice – you have to be in the bus at 6:00 am for the next day of sightseeing. Here, on the river cruise ship you need to only unpack once and your luxury hotel will go with you every day. And if you would like to sleep a few more hours in the morning – you’re entitled to it, it’s your vacation, you can. When you are refreshed, re-energized and finally ready for the next day of adventure, you can just have breakfast and step out of the ship – no rush, no tenderizing, no waiting. Everything is on your own terms – whenever you feel like it. You might even come back to the ship for a lunch and a short nap.

  The next reason is accessibility of small cities and ports and opportunities to reach deep into the heart of the Continent, exploring some of its more remote regions. The wealth of European history and culture almost literally floats its rivers. Rivers, and later canals, were for a long time the best mode of transportation, so for centuries people built the castles and villages along the waterways. Certainly there are some glorious cities you can explore while on the ocean cruise. But if you wish to see beyond the coast line and really get up close and personal to those most charming villages that do not have big docking facilities then a river boat is your best friend: small ships can pull up, almost literally tie to the tree, and let you walk into the main town square.  

  And the last, but nevertheless very important, one: I like how the river cruise lines interpret the “all-inclusive” concept. Once you’ve stepped on board, you can relax and enjoy so many things that are included free of charge: all shore excursions, all meals, wines from Europe’s most famous wine regions with every dinner, bicycles on board to rent, even Internet access in every cabin. So, now I have my favorite way to travel in Europe. Try it – unless the packing and unpacking your luggage or sitting in the rush hour traffic jams on the autobahns is your idea of a good time, it’ll become your favorite too. Or, if you’ve done it already (I know some of you did), play the video. It might bring back very fond memories.

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