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Vistiing Rome can be a tricky experience during the summer, when temperatures can rise into the 90s and the baking heat of the city’s concrete and stone sidewalks and streets creates a dry, brick-oven effect. When we docked in Civitavecchia the day after our visit to Sarande, however, we were encouraged by an early morning breeze that wafted over the Crystal Serenity’s decks. Because we’d already been to Rome several times over the past two years, we’d decided to take Crystal’s roundtrip motorcoach transport into the city and enjoy the day on our own.
Note: For those clients who have not been to Rome, insist they sign up for a shore excursion that treats them to an overview of the city. On our first visit to the Eternal City two years ago, we wandered around the hot city streets in search of some, in fact, any, attractions of note, to no avail. Last year, while on a tour with Vacations by Disney, our group enjoyed an entire day with a guide who showed us nearly everything of note, from the Colosseum to the Pantheon, to the Spanish Steps to the Via Veneto. We even visited the area around the Vatican and managed to have some pizza, Chianti and gelato along the way.
Crystal’s roundtrip motorcoach transfer to Rome took a little more than an hour and left us at the Piazzo del Popolo. Along the way, we enjoyed the narration of an experienced guide, who filled us in on the ins and outs of our destinations and, when we arrived, we were delighted to find that our drop-off destination put us close to many of the city’s main attractions. In fact, one of the Piazza’s main arteries, Via del Babuino, led straight to the Spanish Steps. Along the way, we were able to peek in at some of the city’s most fashionable couture shops. After paying homage to this major Roman attraction, which is also very close to several of the city’s most famous shopping streets, we continued along our way and gave a nod to the Trevi Fountain, which was teeming with large groups from all over the world, and wandered down a shady street that was lined with cafes. Upon emerging from the shade we were amazed to find ourselves at the Pantheon.
Even though our past, comprehensive visits to Rome had allowed us on this trip to simply wander, we did have an appointment, and that was to visit the Hotel de Russie, a Rocco Forte hotel. Amazingly, this luxury hotel is located at Via del Babuino 9, just steps away from Piazza del Popolo and from the location where we were to meet our group leader at 4 p.m. Since our reservation at the hotel’s famed Le Jardin de Russie restaurant was for 1 p.m., we had several hours to enjoy some of the best cuisine we’d ever enjoyed– which says a lot considering we were on a Crystal Cruise, where the quality level of the food is extremely high.
We dined al fresco at the restaurant, which is now overseen by Michelin-starred Chef Fulvio Pierangelini, who is famous for his work at his seafood restaurant, Il Gambero Rosso in San Vincenzo in Livorno. We spent several hours enjoying views of the hotel’s charming terraced gardens, with the focal point being a beautiful fountain elegantly spewing water upwards into the hot Roman sunshine. We even spotted a big brown duck and her ducklings ambling around in the distance.
Note: Advise your clients to ask their head waiter to select wines to accompany each course; they’ll be more than delighted. Our multi-course extravaganza was highlighted by our sea bass entrée, followed by a dessert of “traditional baba with Chantilly and wild strawberries.” While these two selections were extremely special, we have to admit we were overwhelmed with the amazing quality of a most simple first course of spaghetti with tomato and basil. When you’re in the presence of experts, there’s no such thing as average food.
The highlight of our visit to Hotel de Russie was a chance to catch up with General Manager Elena Bruno, who is one of the most dynamic hotel executives we’ve ever met. Having met her in New York on past occasions, we were more than delighted to see her on her own territory, where she has the responsibility of running of Rome’s top hotels. We also met with Dedy Ferrari Clerici, who handles public relations for both the Hotel de Russie and Hotel Savoy in Florence, yet another member of the Rocco Forte Collection.
Through sheer serendipity, we realized that guests aboard the Crystal Serenity would be well served if they reserved a seat at Le Jardin during their day in the city. They can sit and dine in one of Rome’s top restaurants and be close to their eventual meeting place when it's time to return to the ship.
As part of its “Mediterranean Masterpiece” cruise, the Crystal Serenity last Wednesday stopped in Sarande, Albania. This is a new port for the luxury cruise line; indeed Sarande is still growing as a destination and its denizens are just learning the importance of tourism. Dubbed as part of the “Albanian Riviera,” Sarande has long drawn sun worshippers, but it seems as if the Brits have just set their eyes on it and, as a result, a number of condos and new hotels are sprouting up around its Ionian shores.
Our particular land excursion took us to the Castle of Lekuresi, which was built in the start of the 17th century. Because we knew so little about this destination, we were overwhelmed by the loveliness of the views from the castle’s location, which is high above the sea, giving off stunning views of Butrint Lake, the Ionian and Adriatic seas and the coastline of Corfu, which you can nearly reach out and touch from some locations near Sarande.
Crystal had also prepared an “experience” for its passengers by supplying a trio of folksingers who greeted us when we arrived at the castle and a host of local dancers who charmed the entire crowd with regional Balkan dances. We even tried our hand at sampling some Albanian beer, which tasted remarkably like many of the typical beers back home.
I had read that Sarande gets quite hot in the summer, but during our day in port there was a gentle breeze blowing all day. Throughout our drive, we saw glimpses of the Albanian flag hanging from buildings. It is red with a two-headed eagle adorning it. Our guide told us that the red stands for the blood of the Albanian people while the eagle motif indicates that one of the birds is actually injured, the other is helping it. “So that means that, in Albania, we are always helping each other out,” our guide, Aliana, told us.
Indeed, Albania has quite a history. It was one of the first countries occupied by the Axis powers at the outset of World War II. Living under occupation for five years, Albanians can boast that they were the only Eastern European country to push out the Nazis without assistance from the Soviets. The country then fell under the leadership of Enver Hoxha, a leader of the Communist Labor Party. As a result, Albania lived in communism for more than four decades, during which time its leader forced it to lead an isolationist existence in Stalin-esque fashion.
Today, the country has just been a democracy since 1990. It is admittedly one of the poorest countries in Europe and, since its democratization, many of its denizens have immigrated to the United States, Greece and other nearby countries in search of a better life. Most of Albania’s churches were destroyed during the communist period since practicing religion was forbidden. Today, the country’s inhabitants enjoy a freedom to worship any number of religions and the various faiths may intermarry without any problem.
Note: The unit of currency in Albania is the Lek (ALL) and the current rate of exchange against the U.S. dollar is 77.47ALL. If they go, your clients will most likely have to exchange their money on shore, since most shops don’t take the dollar. We also recommend you sign your clients up for a shore excursion (another could include a visit to Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage site), since Sarande’s port area still has a ways to go in terms of creating dynamic attractions for visitors. However, a walk around this area will give your clients the chance to sample a destination that is unsullied by commercialism and, as a result, provides those seeking an authentic destination a true sense of place.
We give our visit to Sarande two thumbs up.
Amsterdam Transportation Ticket Makes Easy Travel for Tourists
The Amsterdam public transport authority and Dutch Railways organization, in cooperation with the Amsterdam Tourism & Conventions Board, have worked together to concoct a transportation package that combines ticket options for tourists that will make traveling to, from and around Amsterdam quite convenient. The "All-in-One Ticket"– which will be sold for a initial period between July 23 and October 31– includes admission for city trams, buses and the metro, plus return trip between Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport and Centraal Station.
The special ticket alleviates the confusion travelers have encountered in the past, as well as provides economic efficiency, when purchasing separate tickets for the journey between the airport and central Amsterdam and the transport lines once they arrive in the city.
The Dutch Railways portion of the ticket is good for one return trip only between Schiphol Airport and Amsterdam Centraal Station. Meanwhile the ticket is valid for rides on all Amsterdam trams, buses and metro lines. Tickets come in time increments of 24 hours, 48 hours, 72 hours and 96 hours.
Visitors can only purchase the All-in-One Ticket at the Holland Tourist Information office at Schiphol Airport. For more information, contact Brigitta Kroon-Fiorita at the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions ([email protected]) or call 917-720-1281.
OpenSkies Announces Daily Flights to Amsterdam from New York
OpenSkies will begin offering daily service between Amsterdam’s Schiphol International Airport and JFK International Airport beginning October 15.
“We’re expanding to Amsterdam because of its significance as a business and cultural capital in Continental Europe and the opportunity to bring premium service to travelers on another route across the Atlantic," said Dale Moss, managing director of OpenSkies.
Tickets for the Amsterdam-New York flight go on sale in early August. The flight departs from Amsterdam at 1:20 p.m. and arrives in New York at 3:35 p.m., and departs New York at 8:05 p.m. arriving in Amsterdam at 9:40am the following morning.
L'Avion Bought by British Airways, Will Join OpenSkies
British Airways announced Friday that it completed the purchase of French airline L’Avion, which will be integrated with British Airways’ subsidiary OpenSkies in early 2009. OpenSkies' flight between Paris Orly and JFK International Airport and L'Avion's two Boeing 757s flying between Paris Orly and Newark Airport will provide three daily flights between the Paris and the New York area.
“This is an ideal combination of two companies that share a focus on delivering an unparalleled experience on the transatlantic journey," said Dale Moss, managing director of OpenSkies.
Upon final integration of the two airlines, customers will experience an increased schedule and BA Executive Club privileges. OpenSkies and L’Avion currently operate a codeshare with L’Avion selling seats on OpenSkies flights.
Tour the Vineyards of Spain
Picasso Tours is offering an escorted motorcoach tour of the Spanish wine route. This seven-day trip only departs from Barcelona on August 17 and October 14, and May 24 and November 11, 2009.
This special tour includes seven nights at four-star accommodations, a bilingual tour escort, guided tours in Barcelona, Bilboa, Burgos and Logroñ, entrance fees to the wine cellars with tastings and appetizers and to certain sites on the itinerary, 26 breakfasts, four lunches and two special dinners.
The cost for the two scheduled trips in 2008 is $1559 per person, double occupancy, or $1974 for a single traveler. The prices for 2009 are $1698 per person, double occupancy, or $2129 for a single traveler.
Contact Picasso Tours at 1-800-995-7997 (Monday through Friday, 7 a.m.–5 p.m. PST) or visit its web site at www.picassotours.com.
Wine and Cheese in Tuscany
Tuscan Way is offering a new week-long “Cheese & Wines of Tuscany” tour. Guests can choose to stay at three of the company’s eight locations: Casa Innocenti, Villa Poggiarello or Villa Gaia. Participants will learn about Pecorino di Pienza in Pienza, and the delicate raviggiolo in Siena; coupled with private tastings of Morellino and Brunello wines at local vineyards.
The package includes six nights' accommodations, daily excursions with numerous cheese and wine tastings, all meals, and transportation throughout, including airport transfers.
Prices range from €2,100 ($3,327*) to €2,275 ($3,604*) per person, double, depending on location, and departures are offered throughout 2009. Prices are fixed in U.S. dollars at the time of the booking. Single supplement ranges from $396 to $555.
Luxury on Sale in Paris & London
Associated Luxury Hotels International (ALHI) is promoting a special “Luxury On Sale” at its member hotels in London and Paris.
North American meeting professionals and incentive specialists booking a program at ALHI members InterContinental London Park Lane or InterContinental Paris Le Grand Hotel will receive bonus InterContinental Priority Club Rewards Point Vouchers. Available to new groups with at least 10 paid guest rooms for at least one night and catering/banqueting, the promotion provides bonus points to planners (120,000 for spending 100,000 euros; 240,000 for spending spend up to 200,000 euros; and 360,000 for spending more than 200,000 euros). The promotion is open to new groups that are booked and contracted before December 31 for a program consumed by April 2009.
InterContinental Priority Club Rewards Points can be redeemed for resort and hotel stays, future meeting expenses (rooms, food, beverage and/or travel), brand merchandise, CDs, DVDs, airline mileage, car rentals, golf equipment, and adventure travel experiences.
Affordable Italy Package
TourCrafters makes Italy affordable with a five-day/four-night Early Bird Special to Rome that costs only $575 for roundtrip air from New York to Rome, four nights accommodation in the three-star Hotel Brasile, daily buffet breakfast, service charges and taxes and a 20 percent discount coupon for city sightseeing tours. The package is available in this hotel from November 15, 2008 to March 15, 2009, except during the second half of December. In other hotels it is available from November 1 to March 31.
Upgrades to four-star hotels ($711 for the Hotel Diana) and five-star hotels ($1,174 for the famous Bernini Bristol) are also available.
TourCrafters is also offering bargain-priced extensions to the Rome package: two nights bed and breakfast at La Badia di Pomaio in the countryside of Tuscany from $158, three nights bed and breakfast at the three-star Hotel Meridiana in Florence from $185, two nights bed and breakfast at the beautiful Villa Maria on the Amalfi Coast from $339 and two nights bed and breakfast at the three-star Hotel Hesperia in Venice from $125.
The air fare add-on from Boston is $91, from Washington, D.C. $55, from Chicago $60. Supplements from other cities are available on request, as are car rental rates for those who buy the Tuscany or Amalfi Coast extensions.
All prices quoted are per person, double occupancy, are subject to availability and change, and do not include airport taxes of $112 or a fuel surcharge of $330. Reservations must be paid for within 72 hours of booking.
Winter in London
Red Carnation Hotels is offering special deals at their three four-star London hotels: The Chesterfield Mayfair, The Rubens at the Palace, and The Montague on the Gardens– with a special Magical London package available from 21 November 2008 to 11 January 2009.
The Chesterfield: Doubles from £439.00 and Suites from £979.00.
The Rubens and The Montague: Doubles from £399 and Suites from £699.00. The Magical London package rates are based on double occupancy, inclusive of taxes, and subject to availability.
If you are planning on a longer stay, The Rubens has splendid apartments and The Montague's Guv'nor's Suite are a better deal. For detailed information, inquire directly with the hotel.
For further details or to make a booking, in Europe call toll free 00-800-1698-8740; in the U.S. call toll-free: 877-955-1515. Email: [email protected] (Chesterfield Mayfair), [email protected] (Rubens) or [email protected] (Montague). View online at www.chesterfieldmayfair.com, www.rubenshotel.com, www.montaguehotel.com and visit www.redcarnation.com.