Tagged travel

Playa Del Carmen vs. Cancun: An Amazing, Authentic Alternative for a Riviera Maya Vacation

by Andrea Verdin

When planning a vacation, who doesn’t immediately begin to daydream of an all inclusive resort, with beautiful white sandy beaches? Who doesn’t yearn for miles of beautiful tropical jungle, with a small village nestled in between the leaves and fronds? Who doesn’t want to climb and explore the ancient ruins, only to be washed by a rainstorm once at the top?

Jordan Verdin Photo
Jordan Verdin Photo

Well, for my family and me, this was the experience we had at Playa Del Carmen. Playa del Carmen is located on the Caribbean coast of Mexico, about an hour south of Cancun. It’s in the state of Quintana Roo, in the Yucatán peninsula. While it’s only an hour away from the popular Cancun, it’s worlds apart in terms of experience. Firstly, Playa Del Carmen is still considered a beach town; that means everything is still smaller scale. Even the hotels and resorts, which are monolithic, are on the outskirts of town, leaving an adorable, sleepy town with locals at its center.

Playa Del Carmen has regulated hotels and large business so that they cannot go past three stories in height. This means that you do not have to worry about your view of the jungle or beach being marred by an obnoxious skyscraper. This is not the case in Cancun, which has a much more industrialized feeling attached.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t find great food, or that you won’t be able to get some great shopping done while at Playa Del Carmen. Guests are encouraged to experience La Quinta, more commonly known by tourists as 5th Avenue.

La Quinta has an interesting mixture of shops. You can find both Mayan-made products with their makers sitting quietly in their booths, or you can access a sprawling, air conditioned mall with designer shops and familiar chain restaurants. One of the best ways to unwind after a day full of adventure, snorkeling and eating is to walk as far as you can down La Quinta. Pop into each shop, take a look at their wares, and negotiate with the shop owner to get the best bargain on the trinket, piece of clothing or memento you want to keep from your trip.

Jordan Verdin photo
Jordan Verdin photo

If you walk off the main strip, there are more localized shops and stands with food that the locals eat, such as el Fogon. This two story taco shop was packed with families, couples on dates, and tourists who knew how to shop around before settling on dinner. Everything was chopped as it was ordered, and you can’t help but try to fill yourself with as many tacos and tortas as possible.

While there are lovely restaurants along La Quinta, there are plenty of taco stands along the blocks near La Quinta that will give you the best – and cheapest – fare. What you need to do is look for a stand that has plenty of locals waiting in line for something to eat. This lets you know that the stand will have fresh food, great flavors, and a decent price attached. One of my husband’s favorite parts of the taco stand crawl was the churro guy at the end: once he received an order for churros, he would place the fresh batter into boiling oil before throwing it into the cinnamon mix. Customers are left with delicious, piping hot churros to top off their already full bellies.
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Another bonus of being in Playa Del Carmen is the quick access available to Cozumel, an island sitting just a few miles off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. For under 20 dollars, guests can take a round trip ride to an even more remote part of the Riviera Maya. Cozumel is only partially developed, and doesn’t have a lot going on after the sun falls, so it’s great for a day trip.

The view from our fish house in Cozumel
The view from our fish house in Cozumel

Once you arrive, don’t feel like you have to stay in the port village of Cozumel. There’s an entire island to see! We rented a buggy, then hit the open road. There’s a single road that circles the entire island, and we were able to stop at the southernmost point of the island and have lunch at a small shack on the beach.

The fish was freshly caught, the breeze was beautifully cool, and the sights were spectacular. Along the way around the island, there are several stands selling coconuts just off of the trees, and you can even stop and get a massage on the sand while your family or significant other snorkels along the reef.

 

Top Tips for Summer Switzerland Vacation Trips from an Insider: Nature, Wine and Chocolate Galore!

By Andrea Verdin
Photos courtesy Switzerland Tourism

Even though we are in the middle of our summer vacation season, the Wander team cannot stop planning ahead and daydreaming about what next adventure is down the pipeline. Coming back from the Mexican Riviera, I’ve got my mind on the next big excursion, and Switzerland seems ideal for a luxurious getaway.

People around the world have been heading to the Alps for thousands of years for jaw-dropping views and amazing experiences that cannot be had elsewhere. However, there’s so much to experience, it’s nearly impossible to figure out what to do while in Switzerland.

I asked Switzerland expert Greg Witt from Alpenwild about some of the tops tours, attractions and special events that guests should make sure to include in their tours, and here’s just a glimpse of what Witt suggested. We reached out to Witt and Alpenwild because of the knowledge regarding the Alps he could provide.

“Alpenwild is the leading operator doing hiking and walking tours in the Alps. Our most popular trip is the Haute Route, a legendary trek through the highest peaks in the Alps linking Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn,” said Witt. “It’s the most scenic trek in Europe. It connects the historic mountain resorts of Chamonix France and Zermatt Switzerland. Along the way we traverse ancient trade routes, pass immense glaciers, skirt scenic alpine lakes, and come within view of the 14 highest peaks in the Alps.”

With no further ado, here’s what Witt recommends for those traveling to Switzerland this summer.

The majestic Matterhorn
The majestic Matterhorn
  • Book a view from the Swiss mountaintops
    If you’re looking to get 360° views and the fresh mountain air, Witt recommends the Stanserhorn Cabrio, the world’s first double-decker cable car with an open air upper deck. Another option is a new mountain attraction in Engelberg called the Rotair, the world’s first revolving gondola.

    “So like the Cabrio you get 360° views, but with the Rotair, the gondola car does the rotating as you ascend to the summit of Mt Titlis,” said Witt. “Once at the summit of Mt Titlis you can get your palms sweating by crossing Europe’s highest suspension bridge—the newly-completed Cliff Walk. On the tamer side, don’t miss the new Olympic Museum in Lausanne. Located at the home of International Olympic Committee, the newly-reopened museum explores the events, athletes, and history of the Olympic movement. It’s the most interactive, engaging, and entertaining museum I’ve ever visited—guaranteed fun for all.”

  • Eat the cheese and chocolate; sample the wine.
    If you’re planning a summer Switzerland vacation, it’s essential to eat as much Swiss chocolate as possible.

    “For chocolate lovers, Lindt will be opening a much-anticipated chocolate attraction in Zurich in 2016,” said Witt. “But for those who want to satisfy those cravings this very minute, go to Maison Cailler, Nestlé’s premier chocolate factory, for a tour followed by unlimited tastings.”

    SWITZERLAND - SOMMER - BRAUCHTUM - TRADITIONENFor those more interested in food and wine, Alpenwild offers a tour called Cheese, Chocolate, and the Scenic Alps.

    “We link Alpine meadows, farms, dairies, and vineyards with some of the most spectacular scenery in the Alps,” explained Witt. “Switzerland is really emerging as a gastronomic powerhouse in Europe, and it’s becoming recognized as one of the great culinary regions in Europe. The cheese, wine, and chocolate are superb. The word is getting out—you can have a great food and wine experience in the Alps.”

  • Find a travel agency that will cater to your specific wants.
    If you want a trip that focuses solely on hiking, then you need to find a company that primarily offers hiking trips. If you’re looking for a haute trip that has individualized experiences catered to small groups, don’t expect every company to provide what you want. However, Alpenwild offers a wide array of what Wanderers might be looking for.

    Dividing the cheese ceremony in the Justis valley, Bernese Oberland. Each cattle owner fetches his animals in autumn and collects his share of the cheese produced.
    Dividing the cheese ceremony in the Justis valley, Bernese Oberland. Each cattle owner fetches his animals in autumn and collects his share of the cheese produced.

    “We specialize in the Alps—it’s really all we do,” explained Witt. “It’s our passion and expertise and we’ve been at it for three decades. We know the trails and towns inside out. We know the hoteliers and their rooms, the restauranteurs and their menus. Our guides are on the trails every day throughout the summer which gives us a level of expertise that other operators can’t match. And our guests get a richer, more enjoyable experience.”

    Guests who choose a summer Switzerland vacation with Alpenwild will stay in carefully chosen inns, small hotels, and classic berghotels. They are typically independently-owned inns that offer a superbly satisfying mix of a welcoming atmosphere, traditional cuisine, and authentic charm.

    “We pride ourselves in offering exclusive experiences and unique itineraries that would never be possible on other tours or traveling alone. We make cheese over an open fire with an alpine farmer, we learn the art of making chocolate truffles with a master chocolatier, and we’re hosted for winery tours and tastings by the region’s top vintners.”

    Wine tasting in the wine cellar of Gerard Raymond at Saillon, Canton Valais.
    Wine tasting in the wine cellar of Gerard Raymond at Saillon, Canton Valais.

    Summer is prime time in the Alps and you’ll find a full array of hiking, walking, culinary, and sightseeing tours at www.alpenwild.com. Additionally, Alpenwild offers an intriguing variety of specialty and custom tours throughout the year—photo tours, cheesemaking, literary tripsplein aire paintinghistory toursChristmas market tours, and trips for cross-country skiers and snowshoeing.

For more information, or to book a summer Switzerland vacation, check out the Alpenwild website.

Zambia jeep safari with Wild Planet Adventures

Experience Extraordinary Zambia Safari Tours with Wild Planet Adventures

by Andrea Verdin

It’s time to plan your summer getaway, so the Wander team has begun to look at ways to get the most out of your vacation. We’ve been looking both at international and domestic travel, small weekend getaways and elaborate international excursions.

If you’re the type who loves diverse travel, looking for a chance to see exotic wildlife and stay in the middle of nature, then see Zambia – Africa’s Hidden Safari Gem – with Wild Planet Adventures.

zebras

The safari season in Zambia is year-round, but the best wildlife viewing is from July through October, so you want to make sure that you plan with this in mind. Because African safari travel is such a popular getaway, it may be hard to choose a travel company to plan a safari with. However, Zambia safari tours are a head and shoulders above all others for several reasons.

Wild Planet Adventures founder Josh Cohen explained that Zambia is one of Africa’s least visited countries, and since his company specializes in intimate encounters with exotic wildlife, this was a perfect option for his guests.

“Guests have the ability to see unusual animals and their behaviors that might not always be seen,” explained Cohen.

The reason Zambia safari tours are markedly different from other African safaris is the lack of tourism and jeep congestion.  With less than 860,000 annual visitors compared to South Africa’s 9.5 million, Zambia ranks among the least visited African countries.

canoe safari

“Unlike East African countries where it’s common to find up to 50 vehicles chasing a lion, Zambia boasts remote sectors where guests are unlikely to see other vehicles,” said Cohen, who explained that his Zambian tours do not require his guests to be in caged busses. “Safari-goers still enjoy 360 degree views from open jeeps instead of being crowded into nine-passenger mini-vans.”

Without numerous vehicles surrounding the same animals, there is no risk that animals will lose their ‘wild’ instincts.

“Wild Planet Adventures goes to great lengths to preserve the authentic safari experience by combining truly isolated and remote locations with master guides who exemplify tracking as an art form, so travelers see authentic ‘wild’ animal behavior while minimizing adaptation,” Cohen said.

lion at shumba camp

In addition, guests can choose to combine tours, so they can experience walking, jeep, and canoe safaris. This allows for a broader experience of animal exposure.

“It’s an adrenaline rush,” said Cohen. “Once we saw a herd of elephants surround their matriarch while she gave birth. On our canoes, we enter watering holes where herds of elephants and hippos just walk across, right in front of us. When these factors come together, you get a superior experience.”

shumba camp

Of course, just because you are in the middle of the safari doesn’t mean that you have to stay in an uncomfortable tent on a lumpy cot.

“Zambia has the same high end camps that other African tour camps have,” said Cohen. “Overall, Africa has high standards for its guests.”
There are a lot of safari travel options for guests to choose from when planning Zambia Safari Tours, with options for every budget.
For detailed tour itineraries on all of Wild Planet Adventures wildlife eco-tours and safaris, call toll-free 1.800.990.4376, visit http://www.wildplanetadventures.com/ or contact trips@wildplanetadventures.com.

 

WPA Zambia from Wild Planet Adventures on Vimeo.

New Orleans Hotel Omni Royal Ranks as a Top 10 Brunch Hotel in US

Is there anything better than exploring a new city until the wee hours of the morning, then sleeping in until noon before heading over to the brunch table? I think not, unless you can say for certain that the restaurant you’re eating at has been selected as one of Gayot’s 2014 list of “Top 10 Brunch Hotels in the U.S.”

With an omelette like this, you almost don't need to sleep in. Almost.
With an omelette like this, you almost don’t need to sleep in. Almost.

The Omni Royal Orleans, based in the heart of the Big Easy, is featured for its lavish Sunday Jazz Brunch. There are a few breakfast choices that you would anticipate from a New Orleans hotel, such as Eggs Benedict and House Smoked Salmon. However, there are a few surprises awaiting you. Guests can sip on turtle soup, dine on pan-fried chicken livers with Creole cream cheese grits, Pontchartrain blue crab and grilled redfish with Andouille sweet potato hash and Croque Royal, made with prime rib debris, goat cheese Béchamel and a pan-fried egg.

This smoked salmon from the Rib Room is beautiful to the eyes and stomach
This smoked salmon from the Rib Room is beautiful to the eyes and stomach

Talk about elegance to the highest level.

If you sleep in past the brunch hour, don’t fear; the Zagat-award winning Rib Room restaurant is known for its beef specialties, fowl and seafood prepared on giant French rotisseries and mesquite grills.

The Rib Room is overseen by Chef Michael Gottleib, who said he is inspired daily by the culture and vibrancy of New Orleans.”

 

The Omni Royal Hotel
The Omni Royal Hotel

“It’s rewarding to deliver that in the food and experience we offer our guests,” said Gottleib.

“It is an honor to be recognized on a list with such highly-esteemed hotels throughout the nation,” said General Manager Dennis Pearse. “The Rib Room truly offers a brunch unique to the city, and we encourage visitors and locals alike to pay the restaurant a visit whether staying at the Omni or elsewhere.”

The Rib Room boasts beautiful brunches
The Rib Room boasts beautiful brunches

If you want to see other Top 10 Brunch spots around the country, the list highlights other distinguished hotel brunches such as The Queen Mary in Long Beach, Calif., Four Seasons Hotel Miami in Miami, Fla. and The Jefferson in Richmond, Va.

The Omni Royal Orleans is a 345-room hotel in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana. Located on St. Louis at Royal, this New Orleans hotel has received the four-diamond luxury award for the past 31 years. With a $15 million renovation in March 2013, the hotel welcomed modernized guest rooms, 24 new iconic wrought iron balconies and refreshed public spaces. Additional features include a rooftop fitness center, on-site barbershop, rooftop outdoor heated pool and an observation deck with picturesque views of the French Quarter and Mississippi River.

The Omni Royal Orleans is described by the respected restaurant, hotel and travel guide as standing apart from average regional cuisine with its focus on prime rib, adding, “In fact, it’s a true local, from its location on Royal Street in the French Quarter to its Sunday Jazz Brunch featuring Sugar Bear and the Jazz Cats.”

Real King with Balcony with view Quickie

To get additional information or book accommodations, visit omnihotels.com or call 1-800-The-Omni.

Look Inside the Virgin America Airport Lounge at LAX

Step inside the Virgin America Loft at LAX

Written by Nadia Ibanez, Photos courtesy of Virgin America

We are a sucker for a luxurious executive, member’s only lounge. Whether it’s in the penthouse of a fab hotel, or tucked away from the chaos at the airport, we love sneaking away to get some work done using complimentary Wi-Fi, while nibbling on treats and sipping on cocktails.

Take a seat inside the Loft at LAX

We just found out that our favorite airline, Virgin America, has opened its first official Airport Lounge at LAX. The new loft offers an area to unwind before you board in a space similar to the modern design aesthetic you’ll find within the aircraft. Patrons can opt for a day pass for $40 and take advantage of complimentary cocktails at the mood-lit bar, or nosh on snacks and small plates like assorted sushi, fruit and cheese plates, or Otsu Soba noodles. Fancy, right?

Great views of the runway inside the Loft

Need to send a few emails out before you board? Get online in the lounge or just enjoy the people watching inside the space and on the runway outside.

Inside the Clubhouse at JFK

Traveling through, SFO, JFK, or IAD (Washington DC)? Drop by the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouses for a peek into luxury traveling for a mere $40-$75 ticket. (P.S. The Brasserie at the Clubhouse at JFK looks unbelievable.)

The Brasserie at the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse JFK

The Virgin America Airport Lounge at LAX is open from 6:00 am to 11:30 pm daily and is open to any Virgin America or Virgin America airline partner traveler. For more information, visit http://virginamerica.com/vx/lax-loft.