Budget Travel Warehouse Inc. London Ontario's Blog

Do You Know Your ABCs? Islands, that is.

They're as far south as you can go in the Caribbean Sea.  A stone's throw north of Venezuela, the 'ABC' Islands are blessed with a location outside the Caribbean's hurricane zone… and on the radar of travelers in the know.

Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao were part of what was formerly known as the Netherlands Antilles, and they are still part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.  Colorful Dutch colonial and West Indies heritage, unique climates, landscapes and ecosystems much different from the rest of the Caribbean, and that slightly more remote location, make the ABC Islands a haven for travelers looking for a new kind of island experience.

ARUBA

The closest of the ABC islands to Venezuela, only 15 miles off its coast, Aruba is still only a 2½ hour flight from Miami, and has the most standard 'Caribbean' tourist development.

But instead of the tropical humidity and frequent rain you associate with the Caribbean, Aruba's climate is a dessert-like dream: dry, sunny, and breezy with constant trade winds crossing the flat surface of the island.  

Photo Credit

The western and southern coasts are known for their white, sandy beaches, ideal locations for the majority of the island's hotels and resorts. Palm Beach, Eagle Beach, and nearby capital of Oranjestad are home to the island's international restaurants, shopping, casinos, golf and other international travel amenities.

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But make sure to get off Aruba's beaten track. The famous trade winds shape one of the most famous symbols of Aruba: the divi divi tree, bent into fantastical, bonsai shapes. 

The arid landscape is also dotted with cactus and aloe vera plants; a tour in Arikok National Park, which covers nearly 1/5th of the island, is a great way to see this unusual Caribbean landscape, as well as caves and archeological remains of original inhabitants, and the dramatic rocky eastern coast of the island.

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Don't miss San/Sint Nicolaas, and up-and-coming 'second city' for all that is young, hip and artistic in Aruba. Public murals painted by artists from around the world, an early fall art festival, and trendy hipster bar and restaurant scene make it worth your while to explore farther afield from the capital.

BONAIRE

The smallest of the ABC Islands, Bonaire is essentially a coral reef pushed out of the sea and surrounded by one of the world's most celebrated coral reef systems. The reefs start from the very shoreline and have made Bonaire a bucket list destination for divers who considered it one of, if not the very best shore diving destinations in the world.

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Bonaire has led the Caribbean in nature conservation and eco-tourism. The entire coastline, from the high-water mark on land to a depth of 200 feet offshore, was designated a marine sanctuary in 1979. It protects the 350 species of fish, 60 species of coral and 4 species of sea turtle in its reefs.

Bonaire's shoreline is dotted with lagoons and inlets that are home to marine birds including one of only four nesting grounds of Caribbean flamingos. Outside of that highly protected area, mangrove forests are popular kayaking and snorkeling destinations for hotel guests and passengers in port from cruise ships.

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Nearby Lac Bay on the windward side of the island is on the map of the world's top wind surfers. With reef protecting the entrance to the bay and consistent trade winds, it's one of the stops of the PWA Windsurfing Freestyle World Cup. In fact, the island's most famous export might be its windsurfers; half of the world's highest-ranked freestyle windsurfers are from Bonaire. So if you have been meaning to take up the sport, this is the place to find both ideal conditions and expert instruction.

In the southern part of the island, Bonaire's unique topography has salt water flowing over low lands, enabling the island to commercially produce salt by evaporating seawater.  One of the more unique – and delicious - souvenirs you can find in the Caribbean.

CURACAO

Larger than Aruba or Bonaire, Curacao is also a more commercial center with financial and oil-refining business. It's a popular cruise port and has direct flights from cities on the Eastern seaboard as well as Miami and the Netherlands.

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The capital Willemstad dates from the first half of the 1600's. Its collection of well-preserved Dutch colonial architecture, cotton-candy and lacy versions of design typical of Netherlands in the 17th century, is the best example of the style in the Dutch Caribbean and has earned UNESCO World Heritage status.

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In addition to the marvelous pastel-perfect streetscape, the Dutch built forts in the 1600's to protect themselves in the age of piracy and European marine warfare.  Six can still be seen today; preserved historic sites, or transformed into hotels, casinos, and even plazas.

The island also has a thrilling geological feature for avid scuba divers: the 'Blue Edge', where the sea shelf drops sharply off only 200 feet from shore.

Photo Credit

Also famously blue, and possibly more famous than the island itself, is its world-famous namesake liqueur. Curacao is the famously peacock blue liqueur that's also a top souvenir of any trip to the island. It's distilled from the island's Laraha fruit, a bitter orange that is the failed result of very early Spanish settlers' attempts to raise Valencia oranges in the dry, poor soil.  Although its fruit is almost inedible, the peel is powerfully aromatic.  And that trademark blue?  It's always just been added color.

With their extraordinary terrain, climate, heritage and lifestyle, the ABC Islands should be on any traveler's list of top Caribbean destinations.

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A New Place for the Best Views of Old Havana

The Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana has opened in Havana.  It's the Cuban capital's first five-star luxury hotel, located in the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Old Havana.  And it is the first foray into the Americas for Europe's oldest luxury hotel group Kempinski.

The hotel is a revival of an historic six-story colonnaded building begun in the late 1800's.  It lived through various incarnations as Cuba's first European-style department store, a silent film theater, and later, government offices, slowly decaying like much of the historic architecture in isolated Cuba.  Its re-imagination as a luxury hotel brings the Manzana building back to its glory days… and then some.

Now as a 246-room urban lifestyle hotel, the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana, with its whitewashed façade, is again a landmark and beacon of style in Old Havana. A cool, pale color palette, with vivid tropical hits of pinks, teals and purples, cements its design hotel credentials.

Rooms all have ceilings 4-6.5 meters ( 13-20 feet) in height, contemporary furnishings and many have large French doors/windows perfect for admiring the patio and city views.  Worth mentioning is the air conditioning and wi-fi, which, along with truly luxury levels of service, you can't take for granted in the up-and-coming tourism destination of Cuba.

A 100 square meter (10,000 square foot) spa by Resense, and a business center round out amenities that include six bars and restaurants covering every whim of entertaining around the clock. 

When in Cuba, as they say… so of course there had to be a cigar lounge.  You are guided through a Cuban cigar experience by a cigar sommelier who also suggests a perfect beverage pairing – with Cuban rum, naturally.

And the spectacular roof top bar is the best place in the city for incomparable scenic vistas day or night over Old Havana’s Parque Central, and El Capitolio (a replica of the U.S. Capitol).   The panoramic rooftop views are icing on the cake of this hotel that is at once majestic, high-style, and fun.

The Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana has reclaimed the building's position as a hub in the centre of the Old Havana.  As Cuba continues its upward trajectory towards full-fledged modern tourism, it provides an international urban lifestyle hotel experience for that luxury group of travelers, visitors to its bars, restaurants and spa. It also sets a high bar for new arrivals on the luxury travel scene in Cuba's capital.

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Think of it as the digital generation's version of flair bar tending. 

The bartender gives you a great show making your drink.  But instead of bartenders flipping and juggling glasses and bottles, in Royal Caribbean Cruise Line's 'Bionic Bars', you are entertained by two robotic arms making the cocktails.  The Bionic Bar debuted on Quantum of the Seas, and now, four Royal Caribbean ships: Harmony of the Seas, Quantum of the Seas, Anthem of the Seas, and Ovation of the Seas, all give you the opportunity to sidle up to a Bionic Bar.

It's not quite as impersonal as you think.  Although you do place your order on a tablet, each robot bartender has a name - and they have different names on each ship.  A bonus? If you are in the habit of pouring out your secrets to the bartender, you know these robots won't tell a soul.

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Rosewood Tucker's Point in Bermuda offers guests exclusive chartered spectator yacht Mariner III for the ultimate VIP experience of the 35th America's Cup.

Bermuda is a long-anticipated venue for the America's Cup.  With 181 islands, marine activities are the life-blood of Bermuda. The Great Sound forms a natural amphitheater for the racecourse, and the Royal Naval Dockyard houses the America’s Cup Village with team bases, food and drink, entertainment and concerts.

Trials are already underway, with competition beginning May 26th. It's an exhilarating 5 weeks of the best sailing in the world.  Finals begin on June 17th, culminating in the awarding of the 'Auld Mug', the oldest trophy in international sport.

Fans of sailing and thrills will turn to Bermuda's iconic Great Sound where the best sailors on the fastest boats will continue a decades long tradition and long rivalries for top sailing spot. The defending Champions, ORACLE TEAM USA, will compete with the top challengers from around the globe, with exciting sailing scenery anticipated every day.

If you're a fan of sailing, there's no need to watch the drama from a screen.  And we mean drama.  ORACLE TEAM USA has already capsized its new boat during trials in Bermuda!

Photos: Rosewood Tucker’s Point

A quick flight to Bermuda can get you in the thick of the action, watching the racing 'in real life', especially if you're a guest of Rosewood Tucker's Point or their neighboring Harbour Court Villas, positioned on Castle Harbour and the mighty Atlantic Ocean.  The luxury resort has chartered the Mariner III Spectator Yacht each race day.

If you love sailing's double facets: a rich tradition of teak and white sailcloth on the one hand, and cutting edge technology on the other, this is the race experience for you.  The stylish and sophisticated spectator yacht evokes a golden age of marine lifestyle. Built in 1926, The Mariner III features rich varnished teak, gleaming brass and hand-crafted bevelled lead crystal windows from Paris, a large, open upper deck perfect for spectating and small aft deck with a bar for intimate dining or cocktails. Outside, a large open air deck includes a Bimini for shade.

The 122 foot-long motor yacht's large open deck offers unparalleled viewing of the high tech yachts being put through their paces on the racecourse. Each race morning, the yacht departs from the Harbour Beach dock and returns in the late afternoon following the completion of the races. Up to 80 guests of the resort each day can buy a ticket to join the yacht for exclusive access to the race course from the Superyacht area in Bermuda’s Great Sound, while enjoying sunshine, cocktails and cuisine by the hotel’s executive chef.  Ticket prices include complimentary lunch, snacks, wine, prosecco and beer.

Land lubber or sailor, this will be the maritime experience of a lifetime.

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Nature and Heritage at Jamaica's First UNESCO World Heritage Site

A first for Jamaica and a first for the Caribbean. In 2015, Jamaica's Blue and John Crow Mountains became the country's first UNESCO World Heritage Site, and also the Caribbean's first World Heritage Mixed Site for both natural and cultural riches.

The emerald mountains define the eastern part of the island and cover an area of 480 km2. The UNESCO site is 260 km2 within Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park.

Nature and Biodiversity

It's a rare 'tropical mountain' environment on the steep (nearly 1,000-meter) slopes, with cloud forest, a unique ecosystem that only occurs in 2.5% of the world's tropical forests.

The Blue and John Crow Mountains are a global biodiversity hotspot, one of the world's 78 most irreplaceable protected areas for plant and wildlife species conservation.

The park has 1,357 species of flowering plants; a quarter of them are only found in Jamaica, and 87 are found only within the park.

It is the last of two known habitats of the giant swallowtail butterfly, the largest butterfly in the Western Hemisphere, and the habitat for 200 species of birds including the endangered Jamaican blackbird. It is one of the largest migratory bird habitats in the Caribbean. It's also the home of the Jamaican boa and the threatened rodent hutia.

Culture and Heritage

This is where indigenous Tainos and former slaves fled to escape colonial enslavement. The thickly forested mountains provided the seclusion and natural resources for the Maroons' survival and fight for freedom. They developed a profound knowledge of and spiritual connection to the mountains, creating a cultural legacy that survives in modern Jamaica.

Tangible history of the Maroons' life and resistance in the mountains also remains today. The Nanny Town Heritage Route includes settlements, trails, viewpoints, and hiding places.

The Blue and John Crow Mountains sustained Maroons and supported them as they struggled to survive and achieve recognition and liberation. Their example influenced other slave resistance in the region, and is a powerful story of humanity for all people of the world.

Jamaicans and Visitors

The Blue and John Crow Mountains' designation as a dual UNESCO World Heritage Site was a momentous occasion for Jamaica and Jamaicans.

It was dedicated to the legacy of the Maroons of Jamaica, "strong, cunning and resourceful persons who found ingenious ways to dismantle a system that blighted peoples of the region… They have helped to shape our identity of self, and community."

As a Mixed World Heritage Site, the Blue and John Crow Mountains' one-of-a-kind environment and profound cultural heritage will be preserved for ancestors of the brave Maroons, and for visitors to the country looking for a deeper connection to Jamaica.

To plan your visit, contact  the Office of Park Managers, Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust by email at jamaicaconservation@gmail.com; or by phone at (876) 960-2848-9 or (876) 960-8278-9. Photo Credit - Jamaica Social Investment Fund

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Top Caribbean Beaches for a Winter Escape

Maybe you thought you could tough this winter out in the cold. Or maybe you've been planning a break in the sun all along. Well, if you haven't booked a winter escape to the warm embrace of the Caribbean yet, here are our favorite, more under-the-radar beaches to inspire you to try a new island, a new beach in this year's travel plans:

1.  Crane Beach, Barbados

Crane Beach was originally a harbor, is considered one of the most beautiful in the world with its dramatic cliffs and surrounding vegetation.  If you think 'Crane' beach is just for birdwatchers, you're wrong: it refers to the large crane that once sat on the top of the cliff loading and unloading ships. The waves in this area make the Crane beach a great spot for body surfing.

2. Trunk Bay, St. John, US Virgin Islands

This white sand beach has been a showpiece of the US National Park Service since it was donated by a Rockefeller family member to the Virgin Islands National Park. A one-of-a-kind, 650-foot underwater snorkeling trail provides terrific viewing of colorful fish and corals, including the rare, indigo-blue tunicates  – in less than 20′ of water, perfect for every member of the family.

3. Eagle Beach, Aruba

Aruba is as far south as you can go in the Caribbean before you hit South America, and its uniquely dry, sunny, almost dessert-like environment, so different from elsewhere in the Caribbean, is worth a few more minutes in the air.  Wide and white, Eagle Beach is home to two of the most photographed and renowned divi divi trees in Aruba (pictured), with their trademark silhouette shaped by the constant, refreshing trade winds. Low rise resorts line the beach, which is also a famous turtle nesting and hatching site.

4. Mosquito Bioluminscent Bay, Puerto Rico

This might be the only beach in the Caribbean best seen at night! Tiny micro-organisms, up to 160,000 of them in every liter of water - give off a supernatural, blue-white glow year round.  It's the most luminous bioluminescent display in the world - and makes this the beach experience on Puerto Rico's Vieques island unforgettable!

5. Horseshoe Bay, Bermuda

This is the most famous beach in Bermuda, and one of the top-rated in the world.  A very popular tourist spot, it lies on the main island's south (Atlantic) coast, shaped in, you guessed it, a horseshoe. Fringed by limestone rocks, the pink sand and turquoise water are mirrored by the British Caribbean island's pastel architecture. 

This year, don't let your winter escape be the 'same old, same old' island experience.  Discover a new favorite beach in the Caribbean.

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Cruise to Cuba? Yes You Can!

10 ways you can cruise to Cuba this year.

One of the biggest travel stories of the past year has to be the renewing of relations between Cuba and the US and the rise of Cuba as a destination for American travelers. Cuba has long been a favorite sun and culture destination for Canadians and Europeans. Only US citizens were prevented from traveling to the Caribbean's largest island.

Now American cruise ships are permitted to sail to Cuba, and late in 2016, Cuba approved a number of US cruise lines' applications to make port calls.  A few international cruise lines could always go, and they have increased sailings and itineraries.  So cruising to Cuba is one of the biggest travel stories this year.

Canadians and Europeans now have a lot more choices to cruise to Cuba, and Americans now have that cruise option, although they still need a visa. US cruise lines now sailing to Cuba generally facilitate a 'people-to-people' visa for American guests.

BestTrip.TV's cruise expert Lynn Elmhirst rounds up 10 ways you can cruise to Cuba this year.

From single days in port in Havana, to a week or more exploring the island, cruises to Cuba allow you to get a taste or immerse yourself in Cuba's culture, history, and natural wonders.

ALL-CUBA CRUISES

Celestyal Crystal

This Greek line claims to offer the only true circumnavigation of Cuba on 7-day, all-inclusive cruises departing every Monday from Havana, and every Friday from Montego Bay, Jamaica.  

Formerly known as Cuba Cruise, this cruise began sailing 3 years ago, and now sails year-round in Cuba on a 1200 passenger ship that was renovated in 2016. They offer the p2p program visa for American citizens.

Itineraries include two days in Havana and various calls including Maria La Gorda, known for its impeccable beachfront and underwater marine life, the perfect destination for scuba divers, snorkeling enthusiasts and beach lovers, Punta Frances on the Isle of Youth, Cienfuegos, an 18th-century fortress, and historic Santiago de Cuba, 16th century capital of the Spanish colony of Cuba.

Ports and shore excursions provide city tours, history, adventure, cultural walking tours, hiking, beach days and snorkeling to passengers of all ages and tastes.  This cruise is family-friendly, with a supervised children's program for 4-12 year olds.

National Geographic - Lindblad Expeditions

Lindblad Expedition cruises' partnership with National Geographic means these cruises are for travelers serious about in-depth expertise: photographers, naturalists and cultural specialists join guests on the 11-day trips. These land and sea tours are an extension of Nat Geo's existing land tour programs, and they fulfill the p2p visa requirements for Americans.

Trips begin with a flight from Miami, and include several days in Havana, as well as stops in Trinidad, Cienfuegos, the historic Bay of Pigs, Isle of Youth, and Cayo Largo.

Fewer than 50 guests are on board the Panorama II, a small expedition ship, as it makes ports of call that highlight Cuba's marine and natural wonders and culture, highlighting music, history, and interacting with locals like artists, mechanics who inventively keep those classic US cars running, members of Cuba's renowned medical community, and naturalists protecting endangered species.

Natural highlights include searching for the smallest bird in the world, the bee hummingbird, a visit to a sea turtle breeding center, diving, and lots of wildlife and scenic photography.

G Adventures

Canadian tour operator G Adventures provides a less intense/ serious, and more youthful and affordable version of a Cuba expedition cruise on its 8-day 'marine tour' of Cuba's Canarreos archipelago in a catamaran with only 14 people on the tour. This cruise option is one of several types of trips to Cuba the company offers.  Americans are welcome, but need to arrange their own visas.

Cruises start and finish in Havana, and spend 5 low-key, soft-adventure days exploring off-the-beaten-path islands and island communities, with relaxed days of snorkeling, kayaking, sailing, easy exploring, visiting lighthouses, enjoying seafood dinners, and lazing on deck or on the beach. 

Pearl Mist

Pearl Seas Cruises (a sister company to American Cruise Lines), offers 10-night 'Cuban Cultural Voyages' that fulfill the American p2p visa requirements.  On the 200-passenger Pearl Mist, guests enjoy luxury elements including all private balconies on its 100 staterooms and high-end culinary offerings, but the company also makes sure to point out that there is elevator access to all decks and on board medical for its senior guests. 

These cruises run January through April, 2017, and start up again in November.  There's a packed program of stops on the island beginning with 2 days in Havana, and other ports include Isla de la Juventud, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, El Cobre, Santiago de Cuba and Parque Baconao.

Guests engage first hand with local tradespeople, artists, musicians and historians at museums, national parks, art studios, architecturally significant homes and UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Photos courtesy MSC Cruises

CRUISES THAT OVERNIGHT IN HAVANA

MSC Opera and MSC Armonia

MSC Cruises, a European company, was one of the first major cruise lines to feature Cuba in its itineraries for its European and Canadian guests. The cruises have been so popular, MSC has homeported 2, 2000-passenger ships, the Armonia and the Opera, in Havana.

Guests spend about 2 days in Havana on MSC itineraries. MSC does not design its Cuba itineraries to meet American citizens' requirements for p2p visas, so guests have more flexible options that include not only historic and cultural attractions, but also beach days in Cuba as part of cruises that also include other Caribbean destinations.

Azamara Quest

Royal Caribbean's smaller-ship, sister brand Azamara has just one Cuba port of call this season: it's added an overnight in Havana to one 12- night Caribbean cruise on the Azamara Quest departing March 21st from Miami with stops in Key West, Tampa, New Orleans, and Cozumel, Mexico as well as Havana.

The cruise line says it's planning to introduce more dates and more Cuban ports, but it already offers an impressive line up of 6 of its signature 'Land Discoveries' immersive destination programs, including Hemingway's Havana and Havana by Classic American Car.   The programs fulfill visa requirements for Americans, so this cruise is a destination-focused opportunity for the Azamara Quest's 700 guests to get a taste of Cuba.

Seven Seas Mariner

Regent Seven Seas Cruises is the only North American classic luxury cruise line to sail to Cuba – yet. 

It has added Havana to two Caribbean cruises aboard the 700-guest Seven Seas Mariner on April 11th and 18th.   The itineraries are identical, with an overnight in Havana as part of week-long cruises that also call on Harvest Cay, parent-company Norwegian Cruise Holding's upscale resort destination in Belize.

Regent Seven Seas cruises are all-inclusive, with fares that include airfare, unlimited shore excursions, alcoholic beverages, WiFi, gratuities and more.  Its Cuba tours fulfill US p2p visa requirements and provide guests with authentic Cuban experiences that explore the people, music, art, history and culture of the island.

Norwegian Sky

Norwegian Sky, with 2000 guests, is the largest US vessel sailing to Cuba in 2017.  NCL has scheduled 5, 4-day roundtrip cruises from Miami to Cuba on May 8, 15, 22 and 29th. 

The cruises overnight in Havana, and also spend a day at Norwegian's private island resort in the Bahamas, Great Stirrup Cay. Norwegian Sky's cruises to Cuba, like some of its others in the Caribbean, include an open bar, so overall, these short cruises will have mostly a party atmosphere.

However, guests will be able to go ashore to visit sites in Cuba's capital, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Old Havana, and experience the local art and music scene; engaging with local artists (and fulfilling US p2p visa requirements).

CRUISES WITH ONE PORT DAY IN HAVANA

Marina

Oceania's Marina is the first of the Norwegian family of cruise lines to sail to Cuba. The 1250-guest, upscale ship begins one day or overnight calls in Havana in March, with programming that meets visa requirements for Americans.  These 10 day or two week Caribbean cruises depart from Miami in multiple itineraries that also include NCL's new private island resort Harvest Caye in Belize.

Empress of the Seas

Royal Caribbean recently updated and renovated the 1600-guest Empress of the Seas for its Cuba itineraries. Beginning in April, 4, 5, and 7-night cruises depart from both Miami and Tampa on Western Caribbean itineraries with one day in port in Havana.  Royal Caribbean's Cuba shore programming allows Americans to meet visa requirements while enjoying Royal Caribbean ship experiences like rock climbing, multiple pools, restaurants, nightlife, and even the Cuban-inspired dance club Bolero.

Cuba is a brand-new destination for Americans, and cruising to Cuba is novel even for Canadians.  A travel advisor can help you choose the right ship and itinerary, and navigate the details to ensure your cruise to one of the world's newest cruise destinations is all you dreamed.

 

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Celebrate the Holidays French Style Around the World

You say: Christmas, the French say: Noel. Paris is always a top holiday escape destination, but the City of Light is not the only place to have a 'Joyeux Noel'. Here are my other favorite places in the world to celebrate the season with French 'joie de vivre'.

By: Lynn Elmhirst, Producer and Host, BestTrip.TV

Provence, France:

In the wondrous South of France, Provence isn't just for summer tans. Winter in Provence is one of the most magical times to visit. There's still sun and fresh air and charming, uniquely Provencal seasonal traditions.

There's the 'Big Supper' on Christmas Eve, culminating in a ritual of 'The Thirteen Desserts', said to represent Jesus and the 12 apostles. Local and family traditions vary, but the desserts often include almonds, figs, dates, and other local fruits and flavors.

My favorite Provencal Christmas tradition is one that visitors can enjoy year round… and even take home as a souvenir or a gift. Santons are small, hand-painted clay figurines (the word is derived from Provencal dialect for 'little saint'). Santons make up table-top nativity scenes, but in a traditional Provencal nativity scene, it wasn't just the Holy Family, three wise men, angels, a shepherd and some farm animals. Traditionally, there were 55 figures that included characters from everyday Provencal life, like a fishwife and a vegetable seller.

Picture of crèche: Guillaume Piolle

Santon-making is a family craft that is still passed down through generations today, and you can buy santons from workshops through the year. Marseille holds a December Santon fair, and there are also children's holiday santon painting workshops.

Photo: Guillaume Piolle

New Orleans, Louisiana:

Wherever the royal French motif, the fleur de lys, pops up around the world, it's a clue to that area's historic French ties. In New Orleans, the fleur de lys city symbol joins Creole and Cajun dialect, culinary and other traditions in an enduring, beloved, and unique culture. Two of its holiday traditions were originally observed only on Christmas Eve, but these days, visitors can celebrate the season with locals through the month of December.

Photo by Rebecca Ratliff/NewOrleansOnline

Bonfires on the Levee date back to the earliest Cajun settlers. They were set along the banks of the Mississippi originally to light people's way home for the holiday, or to Midnight Mass, or it's said most recently, to light the way for 'Papa Noel' – Cajun Santa Claus. They have become extravagant in size and design, some accompanied by fireworks and concerts, drawing crowds that feast on bowls of hot gumbo and community good cheer. A hundred or more may be lit every year in neighboring parishes, and visitors can take guided scenic tours of the experience.

Reveillon Dinners were also once exclusively on Christmas Eve, following Midnight Mass. Now, instead of dinners starting at 2 am at home, Reveillon ('awakening') dinners are usually family and friends gathered at conventional dinner hours in a restaurant. Dozens of top city restaurants offer Reveillon menus through the month of December, not just on Christmas Eve, so it's easy for visitors to the city to participate in the tradition.

James Beard Award-winning chef Frank Brigtsen of Brigsten's Restaurant is at the forefront of a new generation of New Orleans chefs who are revitalizing Creole/Acadian cooking, creating modern dishes that pay tribute to Louisiana's culinary traditions. He shared his Reveillon Dinner menu recipe for Oysters Bienville, named after Jean Baptiste le Moyne, the Sieur (Lord) de Bienville, the founder of New Orleans.

Brigsten's Oysters Bienville - Makes around 3 dozen oysters

2 Tablespoons unsalted butter

1 cup diced ham (1/4-inch pieces)

4 cups finely diced yellow onion

3 cups finely diced celery

1 bay leaf

1 tablespoon + ½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon ground white pepper

¼ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

½ teaspoon dried whole-leaf thyme

½ teaspoon dried whole-leaf oregano

2 teaspoons minced fresh garlic

2 cups sliced scallions, white part only

½ cup diced shrimp

2 Tablespoons brandy

1 cup oyster liquor

1 cup milk

2 cups cream

1 cup unsalted butter

1 ½ cups all-purpose white flour

36 oysters on the half-shell

1. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a pot over high heat. Add the ham and cook for 3-4 minutes, stirring occasionally.

2. Add the onions, celery, and bay leaf. Cook over high heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions become soft and clear.

3. Reduce heat to low. Add the salt, white pepper, cayenne, thyme, oregano, and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 1 minute.

4. Add the sliced scallions (white part only). Cook, stirring occasionally, until the scallions become soft, 2-3 minutes.

5. Add the shrimp and cook, stirring occasionally, until the shrimp turn pink, 1-2 minutes. Add the brandy and cook for 1 minute.

6. Add the oyster liquor and cook for 3-4 minutes, stirring and scraping the bottom and sides of the pot.

7. Add the milk and cream and bring the mixture to a boil. Simmer for 3-4 minutes. Remove the bay leaf. Transfer the mixture to a tall container and purée until very smooth. Transfer the puréed sauce back into the pot.

8. Make a blond roux: Melt the butter in a skillet over medium-low heat. Gradually whisk in the flour and cook for 1 minute, whisking constantly. Bring the Bienville sauce to a boil and gradually add the roux, whisking constantly. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 1-2 minutes. Remove from heat. Refrigerate until fully chilled.

9. To serve, preheat oven to 500 degrees. Using a pastry bag, top each oyster on the half-shell with about 3 tablespoons of the Bienville Sauce. Bake at 500 degrees for 15 minutes. Serve immediately.

Bon Appetit!

Martinique, the French Antilles:

It's a little piece of France in the Caribbean. Over the years, residents of the island of Martinique have combined the best of both worlds in their unique local Christmas traditions.

One of the most charming must be the 'Fleurit Noel': the 'Christmas Flower'. This delicate white flowering shrub made its way into local Christmas traditions due to a blooming season that runs December to March. It certainly makes me think of an angel's cloud! It's also thought to cure colds and flu.

Photo: Tourism Martinique

If you travel to Martinique during the holiday season, experience Christmas caroling like you've never experienced it anywhere else in the world. Chante Nwel are get togethers with traditional Martinican holiday cuisine - much of it pork based from a history of households keeping a pig in the backyard and making it the focal point of holiday meals - and singing accompanied by the goatskin tambour bele drum, and call-and-response.

Photo: Tourism Martinique

The carols are collected in a booklet of local versions in Antillean Creole, and you'll never forget the first time you sing - to the tune of 'Jingle Bells' - joyful song lyrics “Gut the Pig”, or other unique local twists on traditional carols.

Quebec, Canada:

Quebec City, the cradle of French civilization in North America, is unforgettable. Built over 400 years ago, it is the only walled city north of Mexico, a UNESCO World Heritage site of stone buildings and steep rooftops true to the French architectural style of the day.

Photo: Quebec City

Wandering the streets of historic Quebec City feels like a taste of Europe at any time of year, but during the snowy Christmas season it's truly magical – the city has been voted one of the top 10 places in the world to celebrate the holidays.

The province's biggest French city, Montreal, is Quebec City's slightly younger sibling, celebrating its 375th birthday this year with the tallest Christmas tree in Canada. Quebec is world famous for its music scene; make sure to attend caroling and concerts in both cities during the Christmas season, and do not miss the opportunity to go to Christmas Eve midnight Mass in one of the historic cathedrals.

Photos: Tourisme Montréal. Giant Christmas Tree: Eva Blue. Place St. Jacques: Matthieu Dupuis.

My mother's side of the family is French Canadian, and we follow the tradition of midnight Mass and a traditional 'Reveillon' meal, including tourtiere, Quebec's traditional meat pie, served with pea soup.

Here's my family recipe for you to enjoy during the holidays or any time of the year.

Photo: BestTrip.TV

Lynn's Family Tourtiere Recipe (Quebec Christmas Meat Pies)

Makes 2 pies or 24-30 tarts

3 lbs ground meat (We use 2 lbs beef and 1 lb pork. Some use all pork, or game, or even duck)

2 large onions, grated or finely minced

2 cloves garlic

2 teaspoons salt

1 t thyme

½ t sage

½ t pepper

¼ t ground cloves

½ t allspice

Brown meat with onions and spices til onions and meat are cooked and still moist. Add

1/3 c red wine

2 large potatoes, peeled, boiled, mashed

Mix thoroughly and cook 5 min. Let cool to room temperature.

Mix in 1 egg

Pack into pie or tart shells, top with a pastry cover, cut slits for vents, and

Wash tops with 1 egg beaten with 1 t water.

Cook in pre-heated 410 degree oven til pastry deep golden. Serve hot.

Bon appétit and Joyeux Noel!

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How to Party like a Prince in Antigua and Barbuda

This British Caribbean nation celebrates Prince Harry's Commonwealth visit with a modern twist on a local cocktail that has a royal heritage.

Antigua and Barbuda is a twin-island nation located in the heart of the Caribbean Sea; the largest Leeward Islands. 365 white and pink sand beaches, one for every day of the year, are attraction enough, but the country also has a rich history and topography.  Highlights include a 1755 Georgian fort, a full-scale sugar plantation from 1674, Devil's Bridge, a natural limestone arch carved by Atlantic breakers and the world's largest frigate bird sanctuary. 

Photo of Turner Bay Beach: UpstateNYer

It's a dream for visitors who love the water and sailing; the country hosts World Class Antigua Sailing Week, a Classic Yacht Regatta, Antigua Sports Fishing, and is a port of call for luxury, sail and motor powered, yachting-style Windstar cruises, whose elegant ships and guests fit into the lifestyle.

If you're visiting this week, you might rub elbows with the Queen's grandson. His Royal Highness Prince Harry visits in recognition of Antigua and Barbuda’s 35th Anniversary of Independence and the continued close ties between the UK and the Commonwealth.  What better way to celebrate the famously fun-loving Prince's visit than with a specialty cocktail?

“The Prince’s Ginger” is made with the twin-island nation’s award-winning English Harbour rum and fresh, locally-sourced ingredients. The cocktail follows historic royal tradition, as it is inspired by a liqueur created for King Edward VII in 1903 called “The King’s Ginger’.

The aptly named new cocktail has been invented by Timmy Thomas, the head bartender of Coconut Grove - a popular beach bar-restaurant for locals and visitors alike. Timmy is one of the greatest bartenders on the island, and was recently named the Brand Ambassador for Angostura.  Timmy’s specialty is using the twin-island nation’s fresh local produce and ingredients to create unique, refreshing and delicious cocktails, and we're in luck!  he shares his recipe with us:
 

Ingredients:

1 1/2 oz - English Harbour 5 year Rum

2 1/2 oz -  fresh “Antigua Black” pineapple juice 

1/2 oz - fresh lemon juice 

2-4 - local ginger slices 

4 – freshly picked lemon grass sprigs 

1/2 oz - sugar syrup 

3-4 dashes of Angostura bitters

Method:

  • Muddle ginger slices and lemon grass springs in a mixing glass. 
  • Add all remaining ingredients to muddled mixture. 
  • Add ice then shake vigorously. 
  • Double strain into a high ball glass. 
  • Fill with ice. 

Garnish with lemongrass and “Antigua Black” pineapple peel.

The Prince’s Ginger cocktail is available at Coconut Grove - and now, at your place! We don't know if the handsome royal will actually have the chance to drink one himself, we hope so!  But now we can all dream of a holiday where we can relax on one of the country's pink-sand beaches and raise a toast to a Prince who knows how to party.

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Our 'Plan a Cruise Month' Smorgasbord of Offers

Mark it on your calendar. October is 'Plan a Cruise Month'. 

This is the time of year when the world's top cruise lines introduce some of their best offers of the year.

And with the nights getting chillier, thoughts of getting away this winter to the Caribbean's turquoise waters, exotic Polynesia, or fun loving Australia leap to mind.  Or an expedition of a lifetime to South America or Galapagos. And there's always Europe and the elegant Mediterranean in the spring.

There's a smorgasbord of cruise offers available right now, so if you were thinking of a romantic escape, a family or multi-generation holiday, an expedition cruise of a lifetime, even an employee incentive trip or a group getaway with your club, here's our round up of some of the best offers available.

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New Cruise Ships Arriving this Fall in the Caribbean

If you like 'new ship smell', you won't want to miss the opportunity to experience some of your favorite Caribbean ports of call this winter – in a shiny new cruise ship.

A number of new cruise ships made their entrance on the cruising scene this spring and summer in Europe. But as temperatures cool, they start their migrations, repositioning to the Caribbean for a sunny tropical winter cruise season.

No matter your cruising style, there's a new ship to enjoy the islands this winter.

Seven Seas Explorer - Regent Seven Seas

Regent Seven Seas Explorer made a glamorous debut in Monte Carlo mid summer. She was christened by royalty, (Princess Charlene of Monaco) and explored the Mediterranean through the summer and fall, heading for Miami in November for its inaugural Caribbean season.

Highlights:

You'll be joined by only 750 privileged guests in a glittering, all-suite, all-balcony environment on a ship that's been called 'the most luxurious cruise ship ever built'. (Its Regent Suite is as spacious as any resort on shore, nearly 3900 square feet of exquisite design, with two bedrooms and even an in-room spa!) Guests may choose to dine in six fine dining venues, and enjoy the ship's two-story theatre and Culinary Arts Kitchen cooking school. Like other top end luxury cruise lines, the fare is all-inclusive, with packages that may include air, wine and spirits, shore excursions, wi-fi, gratuities and more.

Harmony of the Seas - Royal Caribbean

Have you been keeping track? Royal Caribbean's latest Oasis-class ship, Harmony of the Seas, is now the largest ship in the world, at an amazing nearly 1187 feet in length. This wonder of maritime engineering has been cruising in the Mediterranean since her launch in June, and repositions in November to her new permanent homeport of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. From there, she'll take nearly 5500 guests at a time on Caribbean itineraries.

Photo: BestTrip.TV

Highlights:

Hard to list in just one paragraph. Guests flow through the ship's immense space in seven distinct neighorhoods, where you have the opportunity to experience some of Royal Caribbean's favorite experiences and some new ones: 20 restaurants; FlowRider surfing simulators; a zipline and jungle gym, an AquaTheater for diving shows; a waterslide; a water park if you can picture your kids or your inner child having a blast with water cannons; a drench bucket; two climbing walls; and an ice-skating rink. The question is whether a 7-day itinerary gives you enough time to begin to explore the whole ship, let alone experience it all. You might want to consider back-to-back Eastern and Western week-long itineraries to spread out this much excitement over two weeks!

Koningsdam – Holland America Line

The first of HAL's new Pinnacle-class ships is the largest Holland America Line ship to date. When it debuted in May, christened (as is the tradition for the line) by Dutch royalty, the Koningsdam was praised as a new era for HAL. After a season sailing in the Mediterranean, in November, she arrives in her new homeport of Fort Lauderdale, Florida for winter and spring Caribbean cruises.

Highlights:

The Koningsdam ushers in a new era of fresh, celebrity design for the quietly elegant cruise line. Design innovations include new, upscale suites, including family units, and a top deck with a stunning pool with fountains and whirlpools. You'll be among 2650 guests enjoying some acclaimed dining experiences (always a HAL strong point): an intimate new seafood brasserie, exquisite garden-to-table cuisine (thanks to its glass-enclosed growing space), even a wine-making venue, BLEND, and new entertainment venues. The Koningsdam's 'Music Walk', features different nightly performances in three venues: Lincoln Center Stage (featuring world class performers as a result of the partnership with the famed Lincoln Center), Billboard Onboard, and World Stage.

Viking Star - Viking Cruises

The Viking Star is an honorary member of this group, since it launched as the first of Viking's ocean cruise ships in the spring of 2015. So technically, she's over a year old now, unlike the other ships on this list that launched this year. But she is crossing the Atlantic for the first time when she makes her way to Montreal this fall, then on via the Eastern Seaboard to New York, finally repositioning to San Juan to spend the winter in the West Indies before returning to Europe in the spring.

Highlights:

If you're a fan of Viking's river cruise ships, you won't want to miss the opportunity to experience its first foray into ocean cruising while the Viking Star is this close to home. The 930-guest Viking Star features the same, unique, Scandinavian modern design you've come to expect from all of this Norwegian company's ships, but in a larger ocean cruising format; all veranda staterooms; a LivNordic Spa, which includes a Snow Grotto; The Wintergarden for afternoon tea; multiple dining venues; and Viking’s Culture Curriculum for onboard learning.

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More than Tropical Beaches: Exploring the Natural Beauty of the Dominican Republic

Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism

If you thought a vacation in the Dominican Republic was all about the sand and the surf, think again. Outside the resort areas you can find some of the most diverse natural beauty in the Caribbean.

No less than nine different ecozones mean there's natural diversity and varying climates:  the perfect eco-playgrounds for all nature enthusiasts.

Both the Highest and the Lowest Points Above and Below Sea Level in the Caribbean

Lake Enriquillo is a scientific marvel situated in a rift valley. This saltwater lake is both the largest lake and the lowest elevation in the region, at 42 meters below sea level. The lake is a designated Ramsar Site you can best explore by boat, allowing visitors to take in the spectacular sight of the wildlife refuge featuring tropical birds, flamingos, two types of iguana and American crocodiles.

To the northeast of Lake Enriquillo stands Pico Duarte, the highest peak in the Caribbean at 3,087 meters (two miles) above sea level. The peak is accessible by two- to four-day treks from nearby Jarabacoa. It's worth the effort; you get magnificent panoramic views once you arrive to the top.

Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism

Cool Mountains and Sand Dunes

Jarabacoa's cool mountain climate is also a welcome break from the more tropical weather in other parts of the country.

By contrast, the sand dunes in Baní—about an hour from the capital of Santo Domingo—offer a desert-like atmosphere, spanning over 15 km and reaching heights up to 35 meters. If you plan to explore the dunes on foot, this is not a time for flip flops!  The sand is hot and you'll need good, closed shoes.

The Long and the Short of It...

Dominican Republic is home to another extreme: the shortest river in the region. Los Patos River in Barahona, named for its large populations of ducks, is not only the shortest river in the Antilles/Caribbean, it's even one of the shortest in the world.

On the flip side,  the Yaque Del Norte River is the longest river in the Dominican Republic, winding from Jarabacoa up to the far northwest corner of the country in Montecristi.

Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism

So once you've decompressed on the beaches of your resort, make sure you take the time to explore the rest of the natural beauty of the Dominican Republic.

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5 New Reasons to Escape to Nassau, Paradise Island, the Bahamas

Nassau Paradise Island, Bahamas is known for having some of the most beautiful white sand beaches in the world, turquoise blue water, the Caribbean’s best entertainment and a spectrum of resorts from ultra-exclusive to family-friendly.

With a new hotel opening, local authentic culinary classes, kid-friendly events and more, here are Five More Reasons to Visit Nassau Paradise Island:

1. New Adults-Only All -Inclusive Hotel

In October 2016, Warwick Hotels and Resorts is introducing its newest four-star hotel to Paradise Island. Set along the Nassau Harbour, the resort features 250 guest rooms, which have touches of local craftsmanship throughout 12 floors. One of the most noteworthy aspects of the 28 million dollar hotel is its 6,000 square foot terrace, which will overlook the marinas across the harbour.  The new resort, named  Warwick Paradise Island Bahamas, will welcome guests 18 and older with all-inclusive rates. Only a 10-minute walk from the famous Cabbage Beach, the resort also has great on-site offerings, including three restaurants, a poolside pizzeria and grille, a beach bar, a lobby bar and more.

2. Tru Bahamian Food Tours Launches Culinary Class at the Graycliff Hotel

It's called the Authentic Bahamian Cooking Class & Lunch Experience.” The class offers chef- guided, behind-the-scenes food preparation followed by an authentic Bahamian feast at the 5-star Graycliff Hotel & Restaurant in downtown Nassau. Included with the cooking course is a welcome treat and refreshment, a three-course meal featuring local delicacies including conch chowder and snapper, wine, a private tour of Graycliff’s legendary wine cellar, signature recipes and an “Insider’s Guide to Eating in Nassau” to take home. The class runs on Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m, and private classes are available during the week.

Three New Experiences in Atlantis:

3. New Partnership with Cartoon Network:

Atlantis Resort and Cartoon Network have launched a new partnership to provide activities and programming for families, including a new land-based, Cartoon Network-themed inflatable obstacle course, where guests can experience a We Bare Bears climbing wall and zip line course, a Powerpuff Girls-themed zig-zag maze and slide, a Nerf Super Soaker Flood Zone and more. Children can also take part in themed activities and culinary programs at Atlantis Kids Adventure (AKA) and attend Splash Screenings of their favorite Cartoon Network shows in the evenings.

4. New Mobile App:

Also new for summer is a dedicated mobile application, Atlantis. The mobile app is designed to provide travelers with the ability to navigate their booking details easily and provide relevant information throughout all stages of the trip, serving as a mobile concierge. The free Atlantis app is available for download through the iTunes App Store and Android Marketplace.

5. New Restaurant:

The Village Burger Shack located in Marina Village  is a family-friendly, casual dining experience with indoor and alfresco seating. The menu offers a selection of gourmet burgers, fresh fish, vegetarian dishes and salads, an extensive list of sides, and unique shake combinations.

Nassau Paradise Island in the Bahamas is already a top beach destination, with its island lifestyle easily accessible through non-stop flights from most major eastern U.S. and Canadian cities.  Nassau Paradise Island is so close, yet feels like it’s a world away, and now, there are 5 more reasons to visit!

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