Please allow us to share some of our travel experiences with you!

  • Collette's California New Year's Getaway Featuring the Tournament of Roses Parade

    4/3/2017 2:03:39 PM Link 0 comments | Add comment

    Collette has definitely made an impression with our clients. Here is another review of the California New Year's Getaway with Collette Vacation, from Cate, which we greatly appreciate! Come on in or give us a call and let us help you create a vacation that you will enjoy as much as Cate and her mother did!

    "As you know, the Tournament of Roses Parade was on my mom’s bucket list, so we made the arrangements through Mark Twain Travel for a Collette tour which included tickets to the parade and other extras. My mom (78 years old!) and myself are both somewhat seasoned travelers but I had never “toured with a group” before and admit I was somewhat nervous about how it would all go – and I’m very glad that my fears were completely unfounded!

    Mom and I arranged our own flights (we wanted to fly first class) and our flight did not arrive in California when most of the rest of our tour group’s did – we got to the hotel at around 11 p.m., and our tour guide was still up and waiting for us! They greeted us at the hotel, and had our room keys ready for us so we just went to our room and fell into our beds. (That was when we first met our tour group leader, Molly – an incredible woman!)

    The next morning we were up early to go to the float construction viewing followed by BandFest. The busses were clean and always there if we wanted to get back on them, and the driver was very courteous and professional. My mom is not quite as mobile as she would like to be, and at the float viewing place, there were “white suits” with golf carts readily available to tote us around where we wanted to go. (We did not find them at BandFest, and mom was fine if a bit flustered and worn out by the end of the day).

    Breakfast and dinner were mostly included while we were there and the food was good, fresh, and plentiful. The New Year’s Eve Gala was a lot of fun.

    I mentioned my trepidation about touring with a group and it actually turned out to be quite a bit of fun! It was nice to get to meet so many people from all over the country who had travelled to do the same thing – there was only once when we were held up because an individual did not get back to the bus on time (THAT was part of my concern with group travel! – I’m very much used to coming and going on my own schedule) but that really was one person being extremely inconsiderate, and I can in no way hold that against Collette. The complete Collette tour group numbered over 300 and they broke us down into groups (roughly about how many fit onto each bus, I suppose) and our group leader was Molly. Molly was AWESOME! Fun and friendly, very knowledgeable about the whole trip and options and other things to do. (The other group leaders seemed equally cool, but I mostly dealt with Molly). I really liked the way she seemed to get to know each individual in our group, and made sure that everyone was very aware of what we were doing, when, how, etc.

    I really liked how the days were scheduled … there was enough time to explore on your own and for the instances when large crowds were inevitable (float viewing, the parade), it almost seemed like we had a friend on the inside – we were accommodated comfortably and with no fuss.

    Thanks for your help in arranging all of this – I’m sure that if we had tried to make similar arrangements on our own we would have not had such success."

  • Collette's California New Year's Getaway Featuring the Tournament of Roses Parade

    4/3/2017 2:01:10 PM Link 0 comments | Add comment

    We love the tours that Collette Vacations offers, but don't take it from us! Below is a review from a client who has just attended Collette's California New Year's Getaway. Thank you Nancy for all of your praise! We look forward to working with you again in the near future!

    "My dream to go to the Rose Bowl Parade has become a wonderful memory because of the efforts of Mark Twain Travel Agency and Collette Tours. From the day my daughter and I left Elmira to our return, we marveled at the superior work behind the planning of this trip. Stephanie, on our first visit, you gave us all the options clearly to make this the best trip ever. Now in Elmira, we had to de-ice the plane before take off, but even that went quickly and smoothly. California did not present us with the sunshine we expected, but the "sunshine" of the Collette staff made us laugh and have a great time. We were surprised at how many were in our group, but soon learned the reasons why. Collette sure knows how to put on a great tour!!! If we ever plan on another tour, we will surely visit Mark Twain Travel Agency and ask for Collette. We have told all of our friends this is the way to guarantee a good time."

    If you would like to have an awesome time with Collette as well, check out our next two group trips available or come on in for a brochure! We cannot wait to hear from you!

  • Walt Disney World and Universal Studios

    9/8/2015 3:44:52 PM Link 0 comments | Add comment

    One of our client's, Anita, and her family recently went to Universal Studios and Walt Disney World in Florida. She was kind enough to write us a bit about her experience with the parks and resorts.

     

     

    We had an awesome time!!!

              We did, however see pretty much everything that we wanted to. 3 days at Universal was about perfect. We spent 2 full days at Magic Kingdom, most of one at Hollywood Studios, part of one at Animal Kingdom, and a little over one day at Epcot.

              Having the multiple park passes meant we were able to go back to the hotel for a little while at the hottest part of the day, then go to the park that had fireworks or shows we wanted to see.

              The Disney hotel was much better than the Universal one. Turned out that they had just remodeled the Disney one, so it was really nice. The resort included many activities and resources. ALL the staff were very nice and helpful when we needed it.

              It was great that everything was connected to the wrist bands for Disney. From out luggage at the airport, the bus to the hotel, the room “key” was them, our park tickets, the picture account, and I connected it to a credit card,, so we were able to use it as a pass code.

              My older daughter liked the rides at Universal better. It was easier to access food at Universal (most restaurants needed reservations if you wanted to sit and be served at Disney). AND the Harry Potter areas were AWESOME! Very worth the trip on their own. We ended up not using the early times for staying at the resort. We were just too tired. It didn’t make a difference for us though.

              It may have been the time of year, but the crowds were generally reasonable. There were rides we skipped in both parks because of lines. Not many though.

              So, that about sums it up. We had a great time and I’ve already recommended you to three people.  :)

    Enjoy the rest of the summer!   ~ Anita

  • Viking River Cruise

    9/19/2012 2:40:59 PM Link 0 comments | Add comment

    A client of ours, Fred, was gracious enough to share his daily account of his recent Viking River Cruise experience.  Enjoy!

    Entry 1:

    We’re in the Prague Hilton, an enormous very modern, comfortable affair that’s about a half hour’s walk from the old City Center.  They tell me Obama stayed here on his most recent visit.

    It’s warm.  Everybody and I mean from children to grandma is in shorts and sandals.

    We left here, a group of 12, free of coats and all that this morning at 8:30 for a five hour tour by minibus and on foot of the City of Prague…a city of about a million residents.  Architecturally, some date back to the 12th century.  Most of what’s prominent is 15th to 18th century with some 300 church or cathedral spires and now that the Czech Republic is no longer the Soviet’s Czechoslovakia, wonderful 21st century buildings.  There are lots of early and magnificently maintained gilded gold ornamentation, baroque metalwork, beautifully sculptural buildings and miles of ornamented cobblestone streets.  Sidewalks are delineated by tiles, as are crosswalks, traffic signs, trolley (tram) stops etc. and everywhere is remarkably clean.  With only 3% unemployment there’s not much incentive for street crime so too it felt safe both this morning and this evening walking by ourselves on the streets.  Even sitting here thinking back…I don’t think that was an illusion.  It is a very safe place…with its share perhaps of pickpockets. 

    This evening we went to a Vivaldi string quartet concert in the 18th century Clementine Mirrored Chapel in the Old City Center.  Fabulous intimate space extravagantly ornamented as only a 1740s prince could do with gilt carving, assorted cherubs peering down from the column’s capitals, beautiful marble floors and, even with all that…acoustically correct.  And a first for me was to listen to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons accompanied by an early pipe organ; probably what Vivaldi intended.

    Tomorrow we’re spending the day at Terezin.  It housed and exterminated the most gifted.  For ex:  I remember attending a full concert in Boston’s Symphony Hall, of music composed and saved from within.  And there will always be exhibits somewhere of the paintings and sculpture.  I’m fascinated by that historical period, for the Nazis captured and murdered gay people employed their similar justification for exterminating the Jews, but I don’t expect to return here enjoying a euphoria similar to tonight’s.  In fact…I’m wondering if I’ll have an appetite for the lunch that Viking Cruise is providing.  We’ll see.

    Entry 2:

    Today was much as I’d anticipated.  We witnessed a monstrous example of Nazi planning that amounted to THE depiction of man’s inhumanity to man.

    Material evidence is overwhelming.  Modern civilized Christians are capable and that about covers it for today’s note except to say that I am an authority now to refute those who might suggest that the Nazi’s Final Solution couldn’t have been that bad.

    It was.

    Entry 3

    End of a long day….

    We, that is 18 of us drawn from the Prague Hilton who, the way social conventions work on these smaller cruise ships, I’ll probably have some degree of friendship with by the time this vacation is done i.e. from smiling acquaintance to a lifetime’s friendship…who knows…spend seven hours traveling from Prague to Budapest in a medium-sized bus on a four lane divided highway similar to 128.  By all appearances engineered in ~1930 by Stalin’s or perhaps over time and changes in politics and alliances, maybe Hitler’s engineers.  12 foot by 8 foot slabs of concrete per lane placed together like tiles but without grout….  I guess to allow for extreme temperature expansion? 

    We are on board Viking Cruise’s ship Prestige in a very handsome cabin #305 equipped with a glass slider opening on to a narrow balcony.  Tonight’s dinner, the luck of the draw for us was with six very cheerful ones traveling together from Canada, was an unusual menu selection and very good.  I decided to be vegetarian and was rewarded!

    The ship’s tied to a series of floats shore side on the Danube River for another day before our 8:30 PM departure heading upriver I e against the current, tomorrow.  Towards Amsterdam.

    Tomorrow is the 27th.  Dick’s 75th Birthday.

    Twelve hours before we leave Budapest, Dick and I will be on a full city walking tour (actually it’s two cities that chose to combine…Hilly Buda on one side and Flat Pest on the other), then back to the ship around 1:00 for lunch and then we’ll have an afternoon to retrace our steps or whatever.  The weather’s been subject to showers for the last several days but today, Google forecasts 0% chance of showers for the foreseeable future.  Fine for us, but not great for the area which showed stunted crops in the fields on our way down; vast acreage of sunflowers planted for their oil but looking two months behind growth and unnatural brown.  Corn for fodder much the same.  I don’t think of Eastern Europe as being so agrarian…but it is.  Cities…even large cities…sprout up on the flat plains that are otherwise fields in production.

    And…shades of yesterday’s impressions…I couldn’t help but imagine Hitler’s troops and their armored machinery on those placid fields.  Not so far fetched.  He had terrific unobstructed success in this region.  Unlike, I am told its neighboring states.  Hungary is fundamentally resistance to domination.  So those Hungarians that were outspoken showed themselves early and were summarily murdered for their trouble.  In addition, Hitler did murder 900,000 Hungarian Jews

    Entry 4

    As promised…we went on a guided City Tour but it really was more of a history lesson with a sociological bent tied to Eastern European politics from Hungary’s uprising against the Soviets in 1956 to the present.  I could go on for paragraphs but I’m bushed and we will have this conversation later.

    Dinner was elegant.  We had good company at our table of six.  The kitchen surprised Dick with a sinful chocolate cake concoction.

    We left the pier at 8:30 and are underway up the Danube as I write this.  We’ll be in Bratislava by tomorrow at 2:00.

    Wish I could go on with more detail but I’m beat.  Perhaps  more tomorrow.

    Entry 5

    What a sensual treat to be sleeping while underway; very gentle sensation of movement on a river cruiser.  We’re housed amidships in an A Cabin on the top deck.  Perfect weather.  We left the glass slider open.

    The riverbank, much of it, so far, abutting thick forest, is packed with riprap that shouldn’t be visible but with sparse rainfall this year, the river is approaching an impassable depth.

    We left Budapest at 8:30 PM and arrived in Bratislava, Slovakia about 2:00 PM.  Delayed somewhat by our coming upon an enormous heavily laden river barge that had run aground in the channel and had swung perpendicular to the current…thus blocking our passage.  Another empty barge from the same company had come to their rescue so many on our ship assembled on the top deck (while we had lunch on the foredeck below) to watch as the savior pulled, furiously churning up masses of mud and stone from the bottom to free up the barge and for us, the channel.  So…first day out had a bit of drama and in time, a good ending.

    This is being written in installments.

    We’re just back from a City Walking Tour that was about half the time in a small sightseeing bus to take us up a steep grade to a handsome crème colored castle.  Then we descended through a fashionable residential area with houses perched much like those in some sections of San Francisco…including buildings housing the American and British Embassies…down to a what’s now become a familiar style of City Center.  Handsome primarily Rococo style concert, library, judicial, governmental and aristocratic buildings accented with a lot of mid and late Stalinist-Soviet piles of gray utility and zero color.  Seems spiteful to build such monsters next to such fabulous artistry but such as it is, they serve their respective purposes to attract the public and house primarily commercial enterprise.  After 70 something years of Soviet domination until 1989 when the Soviet Union collapsed, the state had forbid the practice of organized religion and had expropriated all church and private property, so during their occupation most religious buildings were used for utilitarian purposes.  Now there are many church and formerly municipal buildings back in private hands.  But the church is a minor owner and player here because 80% of the population are atheists.  So their cathedrals are historical museums or academies.

    Next stop tomorrow is beautiful Vienna in Austria.  That’s the first place on this tour that we’ve been before but now we’ll be there in warm weather. 

    We leave Bratislava tonight at 11:00.

    What’s done was written about 5:30.

    I’m just back from dinner.  I ordered the Lake Perch which it turned out was a mistake.  It wasn’t exactly bad.  Just overwhelmed with a fussy presentation with whipped potato and small Brussel sprouts and a strong sauce that all but obliterated the delicate flavor and texture of Perch.  Bummer.

    Dick had the short ribs that he reported were terrific.

    We made a point of arriving in the Dining Room exactly at 7:00 to be the first seated at a table for eight…quite frankly, to see who would gravitate.  We’re third night out and there were 12 who wanted to be at that table for eight.  Such interesting, creative people…most of whom had moderately interesting careers but because of their advanced ages were forced into retirement and have in sum reinvented themselves in retirement.  Really…it’s amazing what a person’s ambitions are when he doesn’t have to factor in the responsibilities of having a young family and a mortgage.  It’s been a Do Over too for the wives who helped run the farm or the real estate office or raised five children…or in some cases did all three or a variation of those things.

    Viking Cruise Lines attracts real people from around the planet…most of whom have saved up for their trip and are bound and determined to have an interesting time.  Pleasure to be here.

    Entry 6

    I’m surprised by how few photos I took in Vienna.  It’s perhaps because we’ve been here before, albeit 25 years ago, but I think it’s principally because there’s repetition in the architecture.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire was vast and it’s influence over 400+ years until it’s demise in 1918 can be best exemplified by the sameness in remarkable architecture.  Castles, municipal buildings, churches, cathedrals and on and on.  But they were built in the same period and when there was awful destruction in 1945 at the end of WW2, it was the intention to rebuild their history and account for the housing shortage with vast apartment housing complexes.  The guide this morning told us that the City of Vienna owns some 200,000 units of low-income housing.  That’s great for answering the housing problem with room to grow, but the structures are UGLY flat faced and roofed cement structures and next door there’re beautiful Baroque, Renaissance, and Rococo buildings so it’s a few and far between building that I’ll stop to photograph.

    Doors, their shape, hardware and grills…those, I’ll find everywhere and photograph.

    We had a superb guide today.  That makes such a difference when I’m in a group that I’m obliged to stick with…if only to be polite.  Yesterday’s was a blond airhead who was closer to a robot that had been stuffed full of quarters.  What a relief with today’s extraordinarily attraction person who was confident in her presentation and had a pleasant intelligible voice.

    But for Vienna as a city….  It’s a wonderful place with lots going on.  Better than half of the city area is either garden or park.  And those are beautiful botanically extravagant parks.  A la for example roses like Walter’s for acres!  There are innumerable concerts, shows, indoor and outdoor theater and film productions, alfresco and formal dining locations, religious and equally pagan celebrations and again, on and on.  And for the public, 99% of all this is free.  Austrians pay a larger % of their income in taxes than we do but they get a lot for their contributions and have since the end of WW2.  They have a single payer national health systems, have practically no labor unrest, have 4% unemployment rate and anyone salaried has a least 5 weeks of vacation a year.  That’s everyone who’s salaried and that time is paid for by the employer.

    The public transport system is a mixture of subways and trams.  And all the roadways and bridges have bicycle and foot traffic lanes.  In sum there’s every effort to eliminate the need in the city for cars.  Trucks are allowed into City Center overnight but they have to be out of town by 10:30 AM.

    So I’ve ha a full day.  We leave Vienne at 1:00 AM for Melk…last stop in Austria.

    Entry 7

    Today’s missive will be brief because there’s little to report beyond historical significance about Melk.  There’s an impressive castle build for and favored by Empress Maria Teresa (Napoleon’s wife’s, Marie Antoinette’s mother) in the 18th century and a typical surrounding township with a decidedly modern tourist’s bent.  Of 20th century lore, there was, thankfully beyond our open view, a concentration camp during WW2.  For Gypsies.  20,000+ perished.

    Most impressive today was the river passage…up the Danube from bustling cities we passed total dense forest to little villages with a single municipal or church building, all clinging to the Danube’s banking…it was an experience to behold to make this passage today.  The weather was breezy perfect and it really did feel like we are in the middle of a storybook setting.  Perfect Alpine houses with green roofs and flower gardens an egg-yellow stucco town halls and shops backing up to ancient forest.  It all was too perfect yet of course in real life it’s just regular living for those who live and work there.  Anyway…it was a treat to sit up and watch the world go by.  We were served an open air German Beer Garden type lunch with Carl’s type sausage and breads and all that goes with that…along with a good local Pilsner.

    Making up for last night’s less than stellar performance with my Lake Perch, tonight’s dinner was very good.

    There was a small electrical fire somewhere below that my nose picked up as a reportable issue; had us adrift for maybe 5 minutes.  Whatever was burning was bypassed and no one but we standing on deck and downwind from the prow knew it happened.

    The ship is 90% vibration and fuel odor free, burning natural gas probably in a turbine to power generators that power electrical motors that turn the screws and power the bow, amidships and stern thrusters.  Amazing how pleasant it is not having the noise, vibration, smell and smoke of diesel or heavy fuel oil burning engines.  So…when dealing with the fire that set us adrift, seems no one noticed the sudden silence.  Just as well.  There are a lot of first time cruisers who do not need their confidence undermined.

    Tomorrow we go to Passau, Germany, to visit for several hours and then after passing through several locks, we’ll spend thenight in Vilshoven.

    On that note:  Did I mention that this voyage requires passing through 68 locks?  Seems incredible but when I look at a map, we have to pass up, against the current, through a mountain range and then we’ll descend with the current to true sea level and Amsterdam.

    Entry 8:

    Our first rainy day and too our first day in Germany.  The only casualty thus far for the weather is that I was reluctant to take a lot of photos during our walking tour.  I’m sure it’s written down someplace that my Iphone is wonderfully weatherproof but until I’ve seen it….  So, I took a few interior shots of the enormous, ornamented St. Stephen’s cathedral, where we went for a noon concert, that houses the largest church organ in the world.  Fantastic sound and, surprisingly to us, a concert that had some wonderfully fresh new music.  The concerts are a daily noontime occurrence so, too bad…there are no printed programs for a souvenir and a reminder of what we heard.  Cathedral was full.

    Lo and behold…I’ve packed the right clothes.  More than a few looked enviously at my yellow foul weather gear/raincoat with its snug hood and broad visor to keep the rain off…as I pulled it from my leather shoulder bag.  Even scrunched up in a tight roll, it unfurls wrinkle free, miraculously breathes to keep me warm but not steamed, and even looks nice in my reflection in ship windows.

    Next morning:

    Thought I’d mailed this last evening but instead got distracted and sent the photos when the Iphone suddenly came alive via WiFi.  I thought I’d sent five photos but this morning the phone acknowledges two so maybe someday another three will show up?  Hope so.

    We’re on the Danube peacefully gaining on Regensburg where we should be by 10:00 AM.  Town was spared WW2 bombing so the scheduled walking tour should be a treat.  Maybe too I’ll get to see where my car was built.  BMW has their assembly plant in Regensburg.

    Peaceful is the right word for this form of travel…

    Entry 9

    Regensburg was an unexpected treat.  We had another excellent guide for this morning’s walking tour.  In every way she made it plain:  In modern Germany Regensburg is unique.

    As a result of its placement at the convergence of three rivers, Ragensburg was a major center of sophistication, industry, trade and fiancé 400 years ago.  Since then it’s had declining fortunes rendering the city a level of unimportance up to WW2 when they didn’t warrant even the job of billeting soldiers let alone housing a military installation.  They were deemed by the Allies to be of no military significance and not worth the cost of a bombing run.  So Regensburg is the only intact medieval city of its size in Germany.  So superb is this community of ~1200 ancient buildings and narrow winding streets, UNESCO declared them to be a National Heritage site which sets enormous financial advantages in place in exchange for strict conservation.  The Chamber of Commerce’s innovation to be compliant without losing significant business or commercial gains is remarkable.  A city of 120,000 roughly 10,000 are students at the local universities and Catholic Seminaries (the current Pope taught here for 12 years).  Especially in the City Center, many of the protected but less hospitable buildings with cramped quarters, narrow, steep staircases or small windows are rented in an otherwise expensive district as apartments for students who think it’s cook to live in a Medieval space and are then less likely to complain about and want to improve on medieval living conditions.  So this is a lively, vibrant, in many ways modern city with its significant young population thriving in the form of an ancient authentic museum.  I’ll never see anything like it.

    Regensburg is prospering today from it natural or historic businesses and, from the UNESCO designation, an influx of tourism.  I saw high quality shops, galleries and restaurants and hotels…one 5 star hotel that’s existed in the same building for 400 years.

    Neat.

    I spent a part of this afternoon in a beer garden.  Nothing special…but the beer, bread and cheese were good and the view of the Danube was terrific.

    Tomorrow we’ll be in Nuremberg.

    Entry 10:

    Nuremberg is a city of 500,000.  There’s a reasonably intact old city within ancient walls and surrounding that there’s a particularly beautiful cathedral and several cemeteries with elaborate ornamentation, a small by standards castle complete with flying pennants, and a rebuilt from WW2 bombing majority of the city that’s pretty boring to downright ugly in architecture but looking modern day prosperous.  I remember in particular:  There’s an enormous Siemens complex.

    What drew our attention is the Nazi party’s history here.  Nuremberg was the site of fantastic rallies that drew hundreds of thousands from 1933 to ’39 for an annual rally; truly theatrical extravaganzas with, typically, hundreds of marching phalanxes, surrounding installations of anti aircraft search lights, fireworks, bombastic speeches extolling the virtues of Aryian superiority followed by anti-Semitic diatribes etc.  So…in 1945 when the Allies were looking for a place to imprison the top remaining Nazi leadership and put them on trial for all manner of atrocities, what became an international tribunal the form and legal process for which had to be invented, Nuremberg was chosen…for the revenge opportunity to put the Nazi party’s thousand year ambitions to an unambiguous end and, for simple security, to hold the Germans during the eleven month trial period in a notorious Nazi prison that was true to form and strong enough to have survived the bombing.

    There’s a decent self-guided museum where I was reminded by film and photographs but learned nothing new.  Of primary interest to me…then minutes by bus away, I got to visit the building and sit in Court Room 600 where the trial proceedings were held.  Like sitting in the middle of a Life Magazine Photograph.

    We had an excellent guide…Janet.  A Scot who’d come to Germany on vacation in ’87 to improve her German, met her to be husband Hermann and stayed to raise a family of now two teenaged sons.  Her perspective was unique and fluency outstanding.

    We’re traveling on the Danube Main Canal.  Have a look with Google.  Fantastic engineering marvel.  We’re about five hours outside of Bamberg.

    And breakfast awaits…

    Entry 11:

    Turns out…Bamber’s a larger version of Regensburg.

    For the most part we’ve had a very pleasant day, at first with a young guide for a couple of hours who followed her playbook to the letter, but I can’t say that I learned a whole lot beyond seeing some better or maybe just more examples of medieval architecture.  Anyway, I took a lot of photos and, especially, the doors I saw, and someday you will in photos, were wonderful.

    We had more than usual free time in City Center.  Considering though that with the guide we’d seen the lion’s share of architectural and historical significant, our free time then was scheduled for shopping and as you might suspect I all but never do that.  So…I was ready by 4:00 for the bus scheduled to take us back to the ship at 5:30.  Praise Gott…it arrived to the minute on time.

    FLASH:  Here’s a revelation…

    In light of the protein rich offerings on the ship’s lunch menu, served in modest portions but nevertheless not in most cases at all a part of my daily lunch routine…I’ve chosen to order lower fat primarily vegetarian dinners.  The effect is enlightening.  Even with wine with dinner, I’m surprised how much clearer my head is after dinner and how much more settled my sleep and my plumbing in the morning.  Seems I don’t need more than one infusion of protein and animal fat.  Experience has shown it’s a pain to cook vegetarian especially if it’s to be interesting a well as nutritious, but considering ho much better I feel…it’s a message I’ll take home.

    Tomorrow we visit Wurzburg.  The view from my window this evening has been both of rolling farmland and vineyards working up to harvest, with eh appearance occasionally of tight residential developments of what I presume are bedroom communities.  Perhaps Qurzburg is the commercial magnet?  Maybe there’s a university?  We’ll see.

    Entry 12:

    I was probably right, as I guessed in my last note, about why there are residential developments on the outside of town.  Wurzburg is a city of about 130,000.  20,000 of that are university students so there well might be a lot of faculty housing and married student housing out there.  There’s very little industry.  The additional reason for suburban development is that the city was 90% destroyed in a March of 1945 bombing raid…so there was an enormous push from 1946 on to build small, subsistence apartments for the homeless, leaving the option decades later of suburban living for those who wanted to graduate to a townhouse or a free standing house.

    From the walking tour:

    It’s so deceptive to walk in City Center.  It looks architecturally and has the cobblestone windy street feel of an adapted medieval city yet it’s all but new, of medieval-type design, from a multimillion Euro reconstruction project that’s been ongoing from 1965.  An exception to the deception we visited this morning is a residential castle built for a 18th century Bishop/Prince that was only partially destroyed in the raid.  A bishop/prince had absolute religious and political power over a region, served at the pleasure of the Emperor and built his home/castle with his own money to provide lodging and amusement for the Emperor.

    I wasn’t allowed to take interior photos so you’ll have to imagine:  The vaulted allegorically painted ceilings, and, made of stucco and either then gilded with leaf or painted in pastels:  relief figures, enormous folds of gathered “fabric”, and whimsical or fanciful structures all affixed to the walls, the flat and vaulted ceilings and around or in some cases draped over tall window frames or octagonal lites, some mirrored, beneath the cornice at ceiling height.  And with successive rooms all leading from an interior portico large enough to turn around a royal carriage and team, a person/petitioner would pass through a day’s waiting on one’s way to an audience with either the Emperor or the owner resident Bishop/Prince, the rooms got grander.  Ex:  there’s a gilded totally mirrored room with a vaulted ceiling and a fabulous parquet that sos over the top it’s laughable until you get a closer look at the workmanship.  And it’s modern workmanship I’ve admired.  Although that room was stripped and dismantled as much as possible and then stuffed tot eh ceiling with straw by the locals when the tide of WW2 had surely turned against them, that wing of the castle was damaged by the fire in the raid.  So…it’s documented that it took over 20,000 hours of modern day craftsmen’s labor with tools to restore it from the shell.

    Too bad really that the bombing took place as Wurzburg was a vast historical treasure trove, had little industry and no strategic military value, but as reported by today’s guide, it was a raid to demoralize a potentially resistance civilian population.  The Nazis surrendered about 6 weeks later and, as was the intent, there was no good place for a sniper in Wurzburg.

    Entry 13:

    We’ve just spent four hours this morning on a walking tour of the intact and un-bombed medieval city of Wertheim.  Main claim to fame beyond heritage and architecture is all manner of glass works including the wares for sale of ~1,000 glass blowing artists who live and work in the community of about 20,000.  The region is famous too for excellent white wines…there’s a young version of each vintage that is particularly prized.

    And as if this all wasn’t picturesque enough, there’s a turreted castle partially in ruins high atop the town that’s been strengthen and fashioned with metal and wooden staircases to cross the ruined expanses thus enabling us to climb for the most fantastic view.  Today was a day for the camera.  And as you might imagine, I photoed some wonderful carved and metalworked doorways in the City Center.

    People take their leashed pets with them everywhere.  In that vein, Germany is wonderfully free of a lot of Nanny State health and building regulation.  Ex:  There are no warnings signs that lit stoves are hot and of course you dog can go with you into a café to sit patiently while you have a coffee.  Today’s dog of note was a medium sized (~30 lbs?) Schauzer but without a docked tail.  Sticks up curving forward like an antennae!  And come to think of it, the several like that I saw never barked…and for a Terrier, that, in my experience, is almost unheard of.  Anyway, they were cheerful, along for the ride, and silent.  Good Dog.

    Lunch is served.

    Entry 14:

    For Marksburg Castle.  Then short trip to Koblenz for over night.  This enables us to see Middle Rhine in daylight for all the castles in various states of repair.

    Entry 15:

    Today was unusual as we arrived in a primary site late morning, spent several hours on tour and then for another port for an overnight.

    The morning en route was spectacular.  It could have been both warmer and less windy but the sky did not even suggest rain and, as we wended our way up the Rhine, we’d occasionally turn and be in soft weather.  It cooperated entirely when a Karl’s type sausage and the fixings lunch was served behind a glass windbreak under an awning on the Observation Deck…something we regained today after a four day loss to us due to short bridges on the canal.

    From beginning to end, today’s voyage was spectacular photo time.  Really beautiful lush mountainsides, close to shore sides, and sparsely populated deep valley country accentuated with a succession of imposing coastal or aerial castles appearing around the bend…most, very early and built as fortifications or Tax/Toll stations.  The building stones of the castles in this region are softer than granite so to prevent deterioration, the owners ordered the exteriors painted.  Some are an expected sandstone or milk-white.  But others are true or accented with Yellow or Barn Red and some sections we saw were a compromise pale pink.  Today’s voyage had a story book feel.  For Ex:  We passed the point where the mythical female forms (Whistling Lorelei on the Rocks) were reported to have lured sailors from their course to smash on the rocks.

    After lunch we arrived in Braubach primarily to visit the intact medieval site, Marksburg Castle.  In every way I can think of, it’s the real deal.

    We took a short bus ride from ship’s quay up to a base site, disembarked, and then climbed ~500 yards on a serpentine route to the castle gate.  From then on, it was climb a stone rise, climb a flight, visit rooms, climb a flight.  The walking surfaces could not have been more treacherous for the truly elderly among us but, not to put too fine a point on it…determination won out.  Truth tell…I was astonished to see some of us in the castle’s parapet.  There was a lot of hooey in the guide’s narrative about some of the furnishings and what the rooms were used for…I don’t think it’s practical being at the end of a climb on the top of a rock pinnacle…a climb made purposefully difficult toward off invaders, that there was a room with a window that had clear potential to be used for storage or a room to billet soldiers or livestock that would have been dedicated as a torture room…but otherwise the guide was helpful and the view from up there was terrific, pictures to prove it.

    And now we’re in Koblenz.  Arrived at about 4:30 which left us enough time to go on an informal walking tour of the City Center before ship’s dinner.

    Koblenz is a beautiful place at the confluence of the Mosel and Rhine Rivers; a medieval City Center and intelligently restored areas there were extensively bombed.  Dick is remarkable both in his ability coordinate with a map and to utilize his sense of direction…so I saw more of Koblenz this afternoon that I would have on my own.  One highlight was discovering a church that had an ancient façade with an enormous circular rose window but behind all that was a thoroughly modern interior.  A later restoration from bombing done in +/- the 80’s?  Big surprise!

    Hope you’re well…

    Tomorrow we visit Cologne.

    Entry 16:

    I’ve had a full morning on a walking City Tour, was an excellent guide.  In addition to a great windy route of gawking and window shipping, I visited the great Cologne Cathedral and before returning to the ship for a late lunch, I spent a decent interval in Cologne’s wonderful museum.  It houses much of what’s been unearthed over time from their Roman period including much statuary, glassware, jewelry and personal items, some fixture pieces like an entrance gate’s stone arch and various building’s ornaments, and , the star attraction, marvelously preserved large mosaic floors.  The main floor consisting of a million and a half pieces was discovered in 1941 during a bomb shelters building project.  The floor was authenticated at that time, covered over with a protective structure and then uncovered again after the war.  When it proved impossible to move, the museum was built around and above the floor.  The building is handsome and modern/skeletal in design.

    Cologne is a big, ancient as in the Back to Roman, city consisting of about a million people, 240+ churches with their spires highlighting the skyline, and a majority of post WW2 restored architecture.  Interestingly, what’s been resorted from the vast devastation is in most cases not ancient but actually architecture that had been modernized by applying a new face to buildings in the early 1930s.  So what’s new construction here post bombing of 1945 is a copy of the appearance of Nazi inspired construction from the 30s, not as in the other bombed out cities we’ve visited where they restored the appearance and interiors of the original ancient medieval buildings.  That permissible nostalgia in Cologne for the 1930s is just another sign to me that there’s still a significant segment of the population here that’s not entirely repentant of Nazi influence.  They got beat so the flag came down and it’s a serious crime today to deliberately show sympathy or allegiance, but by way of what one does instinctively, there are too many signs of an undercurrent here that’s neither sorry nor repentant for supporting (with the clear exception of the monstrous Anti Semitism) the bully’s share of what national socialism stood for.  Hitler’s Nazis had little interest in promoting the individual…a la…you are nothing.  Your country is everything.  They went on and on about how fabulous the German race is but thought nothing of bulldozing cultures that had been fundamental or crucial to the successful origins of their current German race…if such a thing existed at all.  So, as a single example, tearing up an 800 year old building to straighten a street happened, as near as I can tell, without a whimper.  And the same thing by way of process cam easily to their thought police when someone had the temerity to say, “Yes, but I think we ought to do it this way.”  Wish I could blame this thinking on my being overly sensitive…but I don’t think so.

    This trip I am chronicling has been and absolutely is being every good thing I could have hoped for, including the ship’s amenities, good weather, and the company of fine companions from all over and of varied interests, but I am doubtful that I will return to Germany on another general sightseeing vacation.  The place is unsettling.  If there’s something specific to see or I can feel useful doing something in particular then I’d come with less hesitation but my sense of history and my concern for its' potential to repeat itself is trumping my will to forgive and forget.  With first hand impressions:  to do either seems irresponsible.

    And now that I’ve spoken with you…I’m going to walk across the Rhine and back on the footbridge portion of a metal suspension bridge that carries more train traffic than any bridge in Europe.  That’s one train every 30 seconds, most with fore and aft engines, and all powered by electricity.  The air in this busy city is amazingly clear.

    Entry 17:

    Hard to type on this machine.

    Not much to report on today.  We left Cologne about 11:00 last night and arrived in Rotterdam which is an enormous complex industrial and shipping center about 12 hours later.  We stopped en route in Kinderdijk this afternoon to pick up a native speaker to talk to us about the Netherlands’ elaborate system of floods control (much of the country is reclaimed land that’s below sea level) an dhow they’re running out of options what with the effects of Global Warming raising sea level at an accelerated rate.  The up close photos I sent come from a riverside park we visited, dedicated to showcasing a grid of canals and basic wooden windmills that serve to pump water that has seeped into the lowlands adjacent to the river into higher holding fields that are then drained by a screw drive pump chamber into the river when the river’s into it’s 3 foot outgoing tide.  Modern electric pumps do the lion’s share of that transferring of water from low to high ground, but due to the crucial nature of the task, the wooden wind driven pumps are by law kept in good working order lest there be a prolonged power outage…sort of like you keeping back up hand tools in your truck.

    We leave Kinderdijk shortly for an overnight steam to Amsterdam where we’ll leave the ship at 9:00 for a downtown hotel and 2 nights stay for City touring before homeward bound.

    We’ve been asked to dine at the Captain’s Table tonight.  Dick’s pleased and for me it caps his 75th birthday celebration.

    Hope you’re well…

    Entry 18:

    So…we are off of Viking Cruise Line’s Prestige.  Such nice people.  It would be wonderful if we could all stay in touch but of course that’s not likely to happen.  Still…we have impressions of each other that will last.  Maybe a lifetime?  Certainly some will have a place.

    We’re in Amsterdam’s Movenpick Hotel for two nights.

    After checking in at about 9:30 AM, that is we with about 30 from the ship, a young woman guide provided by Viking took us on a circuitous trek through the city which was really a walk down short streets and narrow alleys leading out to a series of community squares where we’d cross a bridge over a canal…in some cases to a remarkably new neighborhood.  Almost all the canal side buildings regardless of their facades are designed to be a combination of warehouses and residential so, for Ex…on most houses, at the roof’s peak, there’s a beam extending out like you’d expect on a New England hay barn on which there’s a ring or fixture for a winch or block and tackle that they’d used to lift a ton of goods.  Because of the potential for flooding, it’s the second and third floors for residential; everything else would be office or warehouse.  Some of the houses are deliberately built to pitch forward…I presume to spare the building’s ornamented front from scrapes?  The visual effect is dramatic.

    The social politics here is decidedly liberal.  There’s a legal and thus busy and I presume government/public health controlled red light district where (primarily) women sit in front of large open windows and advertise.  It appears to be a thriving trade.  Encompasses a large neighborhood or district.

    No surprise:  The Netherlands is hardly the largest but they have the third largest (EC) European Community economy and, the envy of many, an unemployment rate somewhere under 6%.

    After lunch we visited Amsterdam’s enormous Flower Market with many many vendors who in a covered flea market like setting have set out elaborate photo displays and baskets of rubbers like Dahlias and Amaryllis and tiered trays for many thousands of tulip and what all else for all manner of bulb flowers.  And then amongst the rows of seed packets, there were blister packed Marihuana starter kits on display.  Wow for a child of the 70s.  Would love to own one but I’m doubtful about my chances passing through customs in Boston with our flight originating in Amsterdam.  So I passed.

    We walked so far today and the hotel is nearby but not close to City Center…Dick is downstairs checking out the hotel for having dinner in.  We’ll see…

    Entry 19:

    We’ve had a full day touring on our own.

    Yesterday, Dick bought 24 hour tickets for the Canal boats.  Made the day…as it would have been exhausting to have covered anywhere near what we’ve seen.  And this way was entertaining as well as practical transportation.  The pictures will thrill.  There are ~60 miles of canals and 1,200+ bridges so we’ve seen only a fraction but what we did travel through and both over and under (!) but that coverage has left a profound impression.  First of all is the liberating fact that I can travel anywhere within this extremely that is, to my experience, foreign city…and yet I will find a majority that speaks English.

    Next day:

    We had dinner in the hotel last night and now I’m packed for our 2:00 flight home.

    Entry 20:

    We’re sitting here in the international airport on the “cleared by security” side…waiting at Gate C9 for the 2:00 departure of our Iceland Air flight to Reyjkavik.

    We’ll have an hour or so layover there and then continue at 4:20 PM their time with the same airline but on a different plane…directly to Boston.

    The check-in, baggage drop, and passing through the security process in Amsterdam airport was so much simpler than Boston’s.  I don’t in their defense think they gave the system of security short shrift…they’re just more efficient here with staffing and less hide bound by a lot of pretty regulation.  Anyway…we allowed a 3 hour window from the hotel and breezed through in a hour.

    Regulation is very tightly controlled here.  In a broad sense..  It seems the more public service suggestions and the fewer regulations, the better.  It affects how people make decisions.  This country for the most part works on an honor system.  When you buy something, there’s an automatically applied Value Added Tax (VAT) of 20%.  So a $10.00 item costs $12.  That tax revenue, which covers all income that gets spent in Holland…legal, underground, and from non-residents covers the costs of a whole host of things and public services we’re forced to buy or feel guilty about shirking.  A single example:  all the doors of the trams open but there’s nobody but the driver to check for tickets or passes.  All harbor ferries are free.  I’ve already mentioned the country’s costs avoidance of our US war on drugs and the bill we pay for incarceration of hundreds of thousands for minor drug offenses.  By legalizing and taxing soft drugs, that leaves plenty of behavioral health money to help those in trouble.  Almost nobody wears a helmet but there are millions of bicycles and yet I didn’t notice an army of damaged folks.  They’re fun to people watch.  It’s marvelous…babies ride in the front basket!  And the country’s incidence of obesity is a fraction of ours.  Vigorous exercise is a part of daily life.  People bike ride into their 80s.

    So.  From the standpoint of social behavior modification via an enlightened psychology of personal responsibility and a forced VAT contribution to public coffers…we have something to learn from the European Union.

    It’s been speculated that the US could do away with all income taxes with a 17% VAT.  Think of the underground economy we’d capture from every dollar spent.

    Enough from me.  It’s getting time to board.

  • The Rocky Mountaineer! 06/17/2012-06/22/2012

    6/29/2012 9:15:58 AM Link 1 comment | Add comment

    I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to take part in a “Learning Journey” on board the Rocky Mountaineer including stays in some of the Western Canadian Fairmont properties from June 17th through June 22nd, 2012.

    After flying to Vancouver and getting to the hotel we (the group of travel agents from all over the US) didn’t have a lot of free time since we had a dinner hosted by the Vancouver Sheraton Wall Centre followed by an inspection of the hotel.  The hotel is one of the largest in Vancouver and is comprised of two towers.  The towers are shaped kind of like a football (if you looked at them from above) so the rooms are spacious and each have an entire wall of windows with varied views.  My hotel looked out over downtown, but some of them had a view of the Bay.  The beds were very comfortable, and everything was clean and tidy!

    June 18th and 19th were spent on board the Rocky Mountaineer in Gold Leaf service.  When I first looked at my itinerary (which pretty much gives you exact times of where you need to be when and is very informative) I thought that the two long days on the train would be a bit tedious towards the end…but they weren’t!  The Rocky Mountaineer goes slower than your average train, and will slow down even more when you get to a particularly scenic part of the journey so people can take pictures (which you can do so from the outdoor vestibule).  The Rocky Mountaineer also “pulls over” for freight trains so sometimes that can prolong the journey as well.

    The journey I took was a 2 day journey from Vancouver to Banff with an overnight stop in Kamloops.  The first day the scenery was very much like what I am used to in the Northeast, except for the relatively arid climate of Kamloops.  The second day is when we really started getting into the Rockies and seeing some amazing scenery.

    Different levels of service available on board the Rocky Mountaineer:

    Red Leaf:  Red Leaf is more like a traditional rail journey.  The carriage has large picture windows and cold meals are served at your seat.  Complimentary beverages with lunch.

    Silver Leaf:  Silver Leaf is a good middle ground between red and gold.  The carriage is a single level domed car, although the windows aren’t as large as the gold leaf dome.  Meals are served at your seat for silver class as well, but they are warm and there is a choice of entrée.  Complimentary beverages with lunch.

    Gold Leaf:  Gold Leaf is luxury all the way.  The carriage is a bi-level dome, the lower level is the “dining car” and the upper level is a glass dome with very comfortable seats.  Meals are a la carte with your own kitchen per carriage.  Beverages are complimentary throughout the journey.

    The second day on board ended in Banff.  We said goodbye to our on board attendants (who were all lovely) and boarded our Brewster transfer to the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel.  Because we were in Gold Leaf service we stayed at the Fairmont properties, but Red Leaf passengers can upgrade their hotels to the Fairmonts as well!  The Banff Springs is a beautiful place, and is worth a visit even if you aren’t staying there (the first 3 floors and grounds are open to the public—you just have to stay out of the guest room floors).  It was built in 1888 by the Canadian Pacific Railroad as a hotel that was exclusive to rail passengers (this will also be true of the two other properties we stayed at).  Each room in the hotel is different, and there is even a year round outdoor swimming pool!

    Upon arrival in Banff we didn’t want to miss anything so we went downtown for a look around.  The town of Banff is very clean, and the people are friendly.  There are lots of tourist shops and restaurants.  It is about a $10 taxi ride from the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.  We went to sleep, and the next morning we had a hosted breakfast (the buffet was pretty amazing) and an inspection of the hotel.

    We then boarded our tour which would eventually drop us off in Lake Louise.  Having experienced both a transfer and a tour, if you have the option to take a tour that will get you from point A to B it is a much more pleasant experience with narration along the way.  We went to “surprise corner” to get a peak of the Fairmont Banff Springs from across the river, visited Emerald Lake, took a tour through Yoho National Park, and visited the Natural Bridge.  We ended our tour at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.

    The most amazing thing about the Chateau Lake Louise is the scenery.  The lake, once it has melted for the season, is this beautiful turquoise color due to the minerals that become suspended in the water as they run off the mountains.  Once again, the public areas of the hotel are in fact open to the public and you will meet lots of different people on the hiking trails all around the Lake.

    This evening we had a fondue dinner which was my first experience with fondue.  This was followed by an inspection of the hotel.  The rooms at the Chateau seem to be a lot more uniform than the rooms in Banff.  We then spent the evening walking around the lake and talking to some British tourists.

    The following morning we didn’t have to be ready for our transfer until noon so we decided to take advantage of the first real chunk of “free time” we’d had on the trip.  We got the sunrise wake up call so that we could go out by the lake and take pictures of the sun rising over the Victoria Glacier (this was about 5:10 AM).  After that we decided to take the complimentary transfer over to the Lake Louise ski hill to ride the “gondola” (you have your choice of an enclosed gondola or a regular ski lift chair) to the top of the ski hill.  The views were truly breathtaking and Lake Louise looked like a tiny turquoise speck amongst all of the mountains!

    We had to take a cab back to the hotel because we were on a time crunch, but normally you could take the complimentary transfer back as well.  We boarded our Brewster bus for a 3rd time and began our transfer to Calgary.  The drive is only about 2 hours but since we had lots of stops both in Lake Louise, Banff, and Calgary it took about 4 hours for us to get to our final destination, the Fairmont Palliser hotel.

    We had a couple of hours before we had to be back at the hotel for dinner and a site inspection so we took advantage and walked around Stephen Avenue, a pedestrian street a block from the hotel filled with shops and restaurants.  They had lots of western wear shops that were undoubtedly gearing up for the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Calgary Stampede.

    We had a 6:00 PM site inspection of the Palliser.  Many of the floors in this hotel have been renovated as well, which is giving them more of a uniform feel.  The rooms in this hotel were also a little larger than the other two properties we stayed at.  We then had an amazing dinner in the Rimrock Dining Room.

    Before we knew it, our journey had come to an end, and it was time to say goodbye and goodnight since some people had very early flights home.  It was wonderful to get to know my travel companions, and I feel fortunate to have experienced such an awesome product!

  • NYC Cruise Ship Inspections

    5/3/2012 8:57:12 AM Link 0 comments | Add comment

    This past weekend Lynette, Marge, and myself (Sarah) took a trip down to New York City to see a couple of the cruise ships that were in port that weekend.  We drove to Newburgh, NY and stayed over and took the train into NYC the next day.  This is an excellent way to cut back on the hassle of traffic in New York!  On Saturday we saw Carnival Miracle, and had a fantastic meal in their "grape" dining room.  On Sunday we saw Holland America's Veendam, and were able to observe the understated beauty of this ship.  We spend the night at a hotel very near to Times Square and took the train back out and up to Newburgh with ease.

     

    I will be posting the pictures from our weekend trip on our Facebook page!  Please feel free to contact us to book your next cruise!

    Left to right:  The Carnival Miracle and Holland America's Veendam

      

  • Travel updates from Mark Twain Travel...

    3/15/2012 10:55:22 AM Link 0 comments | Add comment

    It has been busy in the office both with our own personal travels as well as with booking lots of trips for clients!

    Joan recently spent a couple of weeks in Asia, Lynette had a great opportunity to cruise on Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, and Marge took a trip to Italy!

    If you're thinking of these destinations for any others, don't hesitate to contact us!

    Watch for new blog postings with more details coming soon!

  
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