Melk, a small town with big charm.

Melk is a small town in the Wachau Valley of Austria, located on the Danube river. It is a popular stop with river cruises due to the Benedictine Abbey located there.   The population isn’t much over 5,000 people but what it lacks in size it makes up for in character.  The first thing you will notice once you leave the lovely forested banks of the Danube is the imposing Melk Abbey, perched above the town and dominating the landscape.  Your river cruise will bus you up to the abbey to begin with and from there you can have a leisurely stroll down to the old town which is small, neat and full of charm.  When it is time to head back to the ship, it is a short walk from the old town and  over a bridge with beautiful views of the Abbey,  from there a short scenic stroll back to the dock.

We visited Melk for the second time on our last river cruise, we opted to just spend our time in town because we had already visited the Abbey on the previous trip.  We were told not to expect much to do because it was a Sunday and a holiday, but sometimes we are okay with strolling empty streets just taking in the architecture and small details.  This turned out to be one of the nicest days of our trip, a leisurely day in a beautiful Austrian town doing a little shopping, sipping on the most amazing hot apricot punch and meeting some friendly locals.

We were pleasantly surprised to find a few of the local shops open, including a pottery shop whose artisan was busy making pieces and a shop carrying some of the local apricot liqueur.  Somewhere along the way we were greeted by a very friendly local kitty who really wanted us to stay and socialize with her a bit, I am a total cat person so we obliged for a while.  Even though I am typically a go, go, go and see, see, see kind of traveler, one of the nice things about not having plans and just meandering is that you can take your time, relax and if you find something worth spending a few extra minutes on, you can.

We visited during the Christmas season and Melk has a small Christmas market in the historic town center, which we were afraid would not be open during our short stop.  After our stroll around the town we came back to the market to find the stalls opening.  I decided to get a cup of gluhwein but passed the Melk Tennis Club’s stall where I was asked if I would like to try apricot punch, I am glad that I agreed to,  I think it may be the best hot beverage available at any Christmas market.  I had already purchased two cups of punch and was telling all of our friends from the cruise about it, as they began to filter in from their abbey tour,  when I stumbled upon another friendly local, Horst.  He was a member of the tennis club and told me I was their best apricot punch saleswoman, he even offered to buy me another cup of punch and who am I to turn down an offer like that?  We enjoyed a nice chat over our punch, new friends were made and it was a nice and fitting ending to our short time in Melk.

 

 

Advertisements

AmaWaterways’ AmaSonata & AmaPrima

I have had the good fortune to (so far) sail onboard two of AmaWaterways’ newer twin balcony ships with another, the AmaStella slated for 2018.  Initially, I decided to try Ama because of the twin balcony cabins but I have since learned, that there are many other reasons to give them a try.  They are top rated by travel and cruise experts such as Berlitz, Cruise Critic, Travel Weekly and many others.  In our experience they have a consistently outstanding crew, with everyone from the Captain and Cruise Director to the dining staff and cabin stewards, always providing professional and friendly service. Another area where they shine is onboard dining.  Ama is a member of the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, a prestigious culinary society that is by invitation only,  it shows in the quality of the onboard dining.  I am still missing their eggs benedict for breakfast!  One other great thing I should mention, is that the Ama ships have a shallow draft and sleek profile. This may not seem so great, but it allows them to continue sailing much longer than some of the other river cruise lines, when there are issues with river water levels.  That can be a very big deal if you want to lessen the chance of your dream river cruise becoming a bus trip.

The overall feel of the ships is clean and elegant, both I have sailed have been very well kept, they sparkled like new inside and out.

When you step aboard, you enter on deck three, otherwise known as the Violin deck.  Upon entering you will be in the airy and bright reception lobby, that in addition to the reception desk, boasts an elevator to  take you down to the two decks below.  The elevator is flanked by a spiral staircase for you to use if you would prefer to burn some of your overindulgences off.

Continuing our tour we will walk towards the front of the ship and to the starboard side of the reception desk.  We pass between the gift shop and the beverage center, which includes a few cafe tables to sit and enjoy your coffee or tea.

From here we see the bar on our left and the main lounge ahead of us, this is where you will spend a lot of your time onboard.  The lounge has a buffet area in the center of the room, where snacks and beverages are provided throughout the day, it is also the staging area for continental breakfast items for the early risers as well as more substantial offerings around lunch and dinner.  Comfortable groups of sofas and chairs are positioned around the perimeter of the lounge as well as along the front.  There are floor to ceiling windows along both sides and looking out over an outdoor dining area and the bow of the ship.

We now head back along the port side of the ship toward the stern which brings us by the bar and the library before returning us to the reception lobby.  From there we take the stairs to the Violin deck cabins (they are offset from the public areas of the deck.)

AmaSonata_library

*Library photo courtesy of AmaWaterways

Once we make our way up to the Violin deck cabin area we find ourselves at the Cruise Director and Hotel Manager’s desks.  On our two cruises the Cruise Director was the awesome Rachel!

e20161205_142148WT20161212_084736

From here we continue heading towards the rear of the ship passing through the hallway of the deck three cabin area.  There are five cabin types on this deck, including our AA twin balcony cabin 305.  You will first pass the one AA+ twin balcony and three suites, followed by the AA twin balconies and then the BA twin balconies, with the Category C French balconies at the end of the hallway.

AA Cabin 305

For information and photos on the other AmaSonata cabins (AmaPrima would be the same save colors)

From here we proceed to the aft of the ship on deck three, where the Chef’s Table restaurant is located.  You may have dinner here one night of the cruise and it is complimentary.  I do recommend on itineraries including Budapest, to choose your night there, the views are spectacular!

Leaving the Chef’s Table, just forward of it’s entrance,  you will see the entrances to the Gym on one side and the massage room/hair salon on the other.

*Salon Photo courtesy of AmaWaterways

From here we will take the aft staircase down to deck two, the Cello deck.  The section of deck two aft of the elevator and main staircase is only made up of cabins, starting with Category C French balconies farthest aft, followed by BB twin balconies, category AB twin balconies and finally finishing with a few more BB’s at the farthest position forward.  I am including a photo of our BB cabin from the AmaPrima, you can see the link above for photos of the other cabin types.

e20141209_092753WT

So we find ourselves now back at the elevator and main staircase,on the deck two cabin area landing.  From here we take the stairs down to the deck two forward area, where the main restaurant is located, breakfast, lunch and dinner are served here daily, have I mentioned their eggs benedict??

If we leave and return to the elevator and stairs we can either go down to level one, the Piano deck, here we will only find a cabin corridor, this corridor is first occupied by Category D fixed window cabins, with Category E fixed window cabins farther aft.  Instead, we will go up to deck three reception lobby, from here we can step outside through large sliding glass doors on either side of the ship.  Here we will find stairs leading to the Sun deck, which is the large outdoor deck on the top of the ship.  The sun deck is home to a decently sized, heated outdoor pool with swim up bar.  There are also comfortable seating areas, a walking track, large outdoor chess game and the wheelhouse.  I imagine this will be a great place to hang out in the warmer months, like my July 2018 cruise!  So far I have only sailed the Christmas market itineraries, which are just magical but brrrrrrrrrrr……….

*Pool photo courtesy of AmaWaterways

Cruising on  one of the AmaWaterways’ twin balcony ships is a great way to see Europe.   I cannot wait for my next cruise, right now it seems so far away!  Oh, and did I mention how much I love their eggs benedict?  Stay tuned and I will do a writeup on AmaWaterways’ dining.

 

 

If Vienna during the Christmas holidays is not on your bucket list, it should be.

It is HOT, HOT, HOT here in Florida so I’m thinking, how about some Christmas in July?  Let’s make it one of my favorite cities at Christmastime, Vienna!  I just can’t even describe how incredibly beautiful the Christmas lights in Vienna are, how awe inspiring it is to walk along the Graben towards Stephansplatz under the giant, sparkling chandeliers while gazing around to all the varying light displays adorning the other streets we pass.  It is the most beautiful and festive display I believe I have ever witnessed.  A great way to visit Vienna and other cities along the Danube with festive markets, is on a river cruise, we visited with AmaWaterways, our favorite river cruise line.

 

 

In addition to the gorgeous Christmas lights on display there are multiple unique Christmas markets to visit.  I have not visited them all but I have visited several, each having it’s own distinctive feel, unique crafts and charm.

I’ll start with the largest, the Rathausplatz Christkindlmarkt, located in front of Vienna town hall, it is a large and at night a very crowded market with row upon row of booths selling everything from gluhwein and authentic handicrafts to Chinese made, mass market trinkets  (although they have cut down on the amount of stands hocking these wares.)  This market has quite a presence with the town hall lit in the background and the large Christmas light displays adorning the entrance.

 

 

A new market for me visiting this past Christmas and perhaps my favorite so far in Vienna, was the Karlsplatz Art Advent Christmas market.  It is a smaller and less crowded market with the beautiful Karlskirche as a backdrop. They had a stage set up for live music and many vendors selling delicious treats including raclette, which is a personal favorite of mine.  The quality of the items for sale here is very good overall, a lot of really nice and unique handicrafts.

 

 

The last two markets that I have visited are the market at Schonbrunn palace and the market at Maria Theresien-Platz, these are both smaller markets again with beautiful landmarks as the backdrop.  The Maria Theresien-Platz market also had a cool projection light show to add to the festive feel.

 

                            Schonbrunn Market

 

                            Maria Theresien-Platz

 

These are only the ones I have been fortunate enough to visit, there are others in this great city that I am sure are very worth the visit if you have time.

There are so many other wonderful things about Vienna, it is such a charming city.  I cannot imagine any better place to spend some time during the Christmas holiday season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom (Part 1)

I had intended to visit during the passholder preview, that was given before the official opening on May 27th, but I missed the email invitation (thanks to Gmails “helpful” filters) and by the time I saw it, it was much too late to get on the list.  There was no way I was going anywhere near Animal Kingdom on opening day, which happened to fall over the Memorial Day weekend, so we decided to visit a few days later.  It was still crazy busy but not the 4 hour plus lines of opening day.  We planned to visit later in the evening and ride the attraction with the shortest wait time, which happens to consistently be the Na’vi River Journey.

Here are a few photos of the walk into Pandora, which during the day looks much like the rest of Animal Kingdom with it’s lush, tropical landscaping and sculpted concrete hardscape.

 

The stated wait time for the Na’vi River Journey was 105 minutes, this ended up being an excruciating 150 minutes, a reminder to not always trust the wait times…  So, we grabbed a cold beverage and a “Fruits of Mo’ara” Raspberry, lime and strawberry popsicle from a cart by where the loooooong line for the ride was queued, to help cool off.

The theming in the main covered queueing area was quite nice and the occasional fans and water bottle refill station were a nice touch.

At loooooonnnnggggg last we finally made it to the ride!  It was short and there really is no story line like Pirates of the Caribbean but it is very beautiful and the animatronics were absolutely lifelike.

 

And of course, this being Florida in the summer, when we got off of the ride it was FLOODING and STORMING!  I can tell you that there are not enough covered areas in this part of the park when it rains and being shooed out of nearly any available shelter in the middle of an active thunderstorm,  by park employees, made me quite angry.  Anyway the rain eventually dwindled and I was able to get a few shots of Pandora at night which is just beautiful with the black lights and glowing paint.

We spent some time in the very crowded Satu’li Canteen waiting on the rain to diminish, I tried a Pandoran Sunrise while we were there which was pretty good.  The food here looks great and we plan on trying it when we go back on Thursday to ride Avatar Flight of Passage so stay tuned for my next Pandora post!

Szentendre, worth a visit if you have time.

Embarkation day for our cruise had arrived but we had a few plans, with our guide Gabriella, to take care of first.  We planned to make a half day visit to Szentendre with a stop at the Roman ruins of aquincum on the way.

The drive to Szentendre took us over the Danube to the Buda side and through parts of Budapest we otherwise might never have seen,  areas developed under the rule of communism with sprawling utilitarian housing blocks alongside modern department stores and with a spattering of some much, much older construction, the remnants of Roman occupation.  Gabriella explained some of the hardships of living in the sprawling communist structures, such as having very small living quarters and a centralized heating system, that was turned on and off by the government and of which you had no control over whatsoever.

The scattered Roman ruins we passed were once part of Aquincum, the capital of Roman occupied Hungary, which at the time was called Pannonia.  Hungary was under Roman rule from the 1st century BC to the 5th century AD.  Aquincum was a town of about 15,000 people and the main excavation site can be visited along with a museum, I was disappointed that it was not open the day we were there but we did stop to look at the excavated ruins from the street.

Once we were past Aquincum things started to get a bit more rural, we were leaving Budapest and the remaining drive to Szentendre was short, which makes it a great option for a half day trip.

Szentendre has been settled since Roman times but was destroyed in the Mongol and Ottoman invasions in the 15th and 16th centuries.  It was rebuilt in the 17th century so most of the historic buildings are in the Baroque style and it is really very pretty.   When we arrived we were dropped on the outskirts and walked to the main square, it was a leisurely stroll through the winding cobblestone streets with so many photo opportunities.

Once you get closer to the main square there are many interesting shops with local artists and Hungarian made goods.  We would explore this area but first we made the climb up to the Saint Janos church to take in it’s lofty views, on the way back down we met a couple of friendly and furry locals.

We made our way back to the town square for a look around and more importantly shopping and eating!  We hit the small Christmas market first and I decided to try a Hungarian pizza called Langallo, it was so good!  After that we spent the rest of our  limited time shopping and ended up with a pottery sculpture, a Hungarian leather handbag and Christmas ornaments made from handpainted eggs.

It was time to head back to Budapest, we had a ship to catch!  We walked down to the waterfront.  Szentendre lies on the Danube and the promenade along the river reminds you of somewhere in the south of France, which come to think of it a lot of the town reminded me of Southern France.

If you have a couple of days in Budapest and want to see something different, I highly recommend a trip to Szentendre.  I do hear that it gets very crowded in the summer with locals and tourists alike flocking there.

River Cruising and Travel Anticipation

 

So, I am planning my first river cruise…..  I am very well versed in ocean cruising on large, 100 + ton cruise ships, in fact they are at the moment my favorite way to travel.

I travel for exciting new adventures so I decided that it was time to change up the routine and given the current surge in popularity of European river cruises and the fact that we usually travel in the summer months, I chose a Christmas market river cruise on the Danube.  Being a Florida native, our Christmas weather never really feels Christmas-like, so I have been obsessively watching Youtube videos of the snow covered Christmas markets nestled amongst the charming European architecture and reading about all of the traditional Christmas treats available for purchase at the markets.   

The excitement is really building for this trip and I believe the anticipation of a trip is half of the fun; it gives you more time outside of your actual travel dates to enjoy what you have spent your hard earned money on.  It is also a good idea to be familiar with where you are going so that you don’t miss out on any highlights and must sees, research and planning not only builds anticipation it gets you prepared!  You also can’t forget about the amazing history that Europe possesses, I try to read historical fiction novels based in the places that I travel to; it helps to give some perspective on what you are seeing, to understand it.

My experience applying for and using Global Entry (US Gov’t trusted traveler program)

Applying for Global Entry

I know that not everyone is aware of the US Government’s Trusted Traveler Program, I do a lot of Internet research on travel and that is the main reason I became aware of it.  I am not a fan of the government knowing my business but with all the talk of sequestration affecting immigration and customs at airports and with our history of having delays and missed connections on return flights I thought it might be in our best interest to apply before our summer European vacation.

To begin the process I started at www.globalentry.gov, the website has links to apply as well as a lot of useful information on enrollment center locations as well as participating airports and airlines.  I knew from reading online forums that I should be prepared to answer questions on where I have lived, worked, travelled and attended school over the past ten years or so, I also needed to have my passport. I knew that they also have questions about any criminal history or customs violations, which wasn’t a problem for me.  The online application portion was somewhat tedious and just a little nerve wracking because if you accidentally post erroneous information it could lead to your application being denied, which means you have just thrown away one hundred dollars.  Before you begin the application you have to register an account on the GOES (Global Online Enrollment System) website, then you can begin the application process and pay the fee.  It took around a half hour to complete my application and then the waiting game began….

The next step in the process is obtaining your initial approval, the wait for this was about eleven days for me, and once I had my initial approval I could complete the final step of obtaining my in-person interview. I would caution you now to begin the process well in advance of your next planned trip because the longest wait was for the interview with customs officials at my local enrollment center, I had to wait a little over a month for my interview at the Orlando International Airport location.  You can keep checking for vacancies that open but the date we had worked for my husband and I and was well in advance of our trip.  Another option, if you are a frequent traveler, is to see if there are any vacancies that correspond to your layovers at airports with enrollment centers.

I was pleasantly surprised with my experience at the enrollment center, I was expecting the same treatment that you get when passing the TSA checkpoints, but it was the exact opposite.   You are told upon your initial approval to print and bring the approval letter along with your passport and proof of address (utility bill or similar documentation,) so with this in hand we headed to our appointments, to begin with we found the office, which is landside, to be easy to locate.   After arriving at the enrollment office, we found the agents to be very professional and friendly, we were even allowed to conduct our interviews together.  The questions asked were really just confirming that our information was entered correctly, once we finished with the questions we were fingerprinted using an electronic scanner and approved.  We were given our Global Entry ID numbers and told that we would receive our cards in about a week.  The agent also gave some helpful tips and information on using the system.   Just can’t say enough about how easy and pleasant the experience was!

Using Global Entry

We have just returned from our European vacation and were able to try out our new Global Entry status, we just happened to be flying out of an airport and on an airline that participated in the TSA pre-check part of Global Entry, and breezed right through.  There was no one in line at the pre-check TSA checkpoint and when using this line you don’t have to remove your shoes, belts or electronics and liquids from your carry on bags, so much BETTER!

Right now not every airport and airline are participating in TSA pre-check and it can all be very confusing, for example we were flying American Airlines which participates at MCO but not TPA, if you were flying Delta you could participate at TPA or MCO.  Here is a helpful link to participating airlines/airports http://www.tsa.gov/tsa-precheck/tsa-precheck-participating-airports, but I will warn it isn’t completely accurate because it doesn’t show that you can use MCO pre-check when flying American.

The return home through the Global Entry kiosks at customs was also very easy and has the potential to be a big time saver at peak arrival times when the lines for customs and immigration can be very long.  You simply walk up to one of the self-serve kiosks, place your passport on the scanner, allow it to take your photo, answer a few questions (the ones you typically answer on the paper form handed out on the aircraft,) place one hand on the electric scanner to verify your fingerprints and then take your printed receipt.  The printed receipt you will then hand to the dedicated Global Entry/VIP customs agent, who will probably ask a few questions about your purchases abroad, that’s it!  There are a few caveats, one is that you still have to wait the same time for your bags if you don’t have priority baggage handling from flying in the premium cabin or being a frequent flyer, so if there is a short line for the standard customs and immigration entry you have little advantage.   You also have to use a non pre-check equipped security line to return airside if you have a connecting flight, at least this was my experience at MIA, I imagine that it will be different at each airport so you may want to do your homework.

Overall, I think the one hundred dollar charge for five years enrollment, is money well spent if you travel internationally for your vacations or even if you travel frequently for domestic trips to make use of the TSA pre-check.  We have travelled Internationally five times in the past seven years and this years trip was by far the easiest when it came to TSA checkpoints and customs.