At the beginning of September 2013, I embarked upon the Highlights of Austria, Slovenia and Croatia Guided Vacation to a part of Europe I have been wanting to visit for many years, but was not able to due to the war in the former Yugoslavia.
Recently Dana, a member of the Grand European Travel team, went on the new Ireland’s Castles & Manors Guided Vacation. She enjoyed new experiences like exploring Dublin, staying in the tour’s castle hotels and visiting Sligo, the area where the poet Yeats lived. She also enjoyed traveling as a single person on a guided vacation. Read about her experience below.
This year I decided to try something new, I usually go on one of our guided vacations at least every year, if not every other year, but normally I go with a friend or family member. This year I decided to try traveling as a single in a single room. I choose our Castles and Manors Guided Vacation. Having been on several such vacations before I knew that most people that embark on vacations like this one are friendly people that enjoy traveling with like-minded people.
I found this to be true again, everyone on the trip welcomed me and I made instant friends. I was welcomed at the dinner tables, invited to join smaller groups for drinks and included in inside jokes among longtime friends on the motorcoach.
For those that haven’t traveled alone much, a tour like this is a great way to get out and experience another country and culture in the company of people you can trust and that will look out for you. The Travel Director was always there to guide me on my restaurant selections. The entrance fees and ins and outs of the site were already handled and I never felt nervous being alone in a big city.
I happen to be a good independent traveler so I enjoyed the design of the trip. I could join in with the group or if I wanted to wander by myself to explore the Cliffs of Moher for a while I could do that too. Then I had people to share my adventures with when I got back on the motorcoach.
One of the best parts was the people I met and the friends I made. I made friends with several other single women and now have friends I can travel with, visit or exchange travel stories with via email.
For anyone that is considering traveling as a solo traveler on an guided vacation I would highly recommend it. You will have an instant group of friends, feel the safety in numbers that you might not feel otherwise and as a bonus you have people to take your picture so you can show the people back home what a great time you had!
Did you miss Dana’s write up of the Castles & Manors Guided Vacation? Click here to read.
Dana, a member of the Grand European Travel team, traveled to Ireland on a Guided Vacation this past summer. She shares her experiences of the Emerald Isle below.
I have been lucky so far in my life to have traveled to many countries in Europe and throughout the world and have to admit Ireland is now one of my favorites. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the country. From the lush emerald hills of Yeats country that bring his poetry to life, to the scenic vistas of the ring of Kerry, to the barren Burren, I loved it all. The people were also extremely friendly, there’s nothing like stepping into an Irish pub for a pint and being welcomed by a smile and friendly conversation.
The tour began in Dublin. I booked an extra night at the beginning (something I highly recommend) so that I could see a bit more of Dublin. Our hotel was right by Trinity College and Grafton Street so I could walk on my own to many of the sights and sounds of the city. I found Dublin to be a vibrant city with something going on around every corner. There were street performers well into the evening on Grafton Street and the restaurants and pubs literally spill out onto the street at night.
Once we departed Dublin, we headed for the countryside. As I mentioned before, there was a breathtaking site at every turn. Then it was off to Killarney, where we had the chance to explore the city center in a jaunting car!
It was in Killarney that I started staying in some of the most amazing hotels that I have ever experienced. Whether it was The Malton Manor in Killarney or one of the three castles we stayed in, I was amazed at the luxury and by the quality of the food. These accommodations were a step up even from first class, many felt like four and five star hotels and the meals were always three or four course gourmet meals.
Many people have asked me what my favorite part of the trip was. My favorite castle was Ballynahinch Castle, with its winding hallways and hunting lodge feel. It seemed the closest to castle life you can get, but with modern day luxuries. The grounds were extensive too, with the original castle from the 14th century still standing in the middle of the lake and many pathways and fishing platforms for diehard fly fishermen.
My favorite area was Sligo, where the poet Yeats lived, with its boggy countryside, fjords and lush green hills. And lastly, my favorite activity was dining and enjoying the companionship of my fellow travelers.
I saw a lot on this tour, covered a lot of ground and enjoyed every minute of it. When I bid farewell to Ireland, I promised myself I would go back and visit again.
Have you been to Ireland? What were your impressions of the Emerald Isle?
Dana, a Grand European Travel team member, joined our 14-Day Italy at Leisure tour in October and shares what it was like visiting beautiful Cinque Terre.
My Mom and I took GET’s Italy at Leisure tour this past October and had an amazing time. We chose the tour because we had never been to northern Italy or Tuscany and it had always been a dream of mine to see the Cinque Terre. The tour began in the Italian Lake district, a very scenic and relaxing part of Italy. We stayed on the shores of Lake Como and spent our time on the lake, in the ’real Bellagio’ and just exploring the town of Como. They still have some of the original city walls intact!
From Como we went to Cortina at the base of the Dolomite Mountains. This by far was one of the highlights of the tour. We were so lucky to have sunny blue skies everyday here. From sunrise to sunset we never got tired of the dramatic views of the mountains. Plus every building has window boxes filled with flowers and everything is green and lush. Even the river water was unique with a fascinating color of ice green — Cortina is said to be the Aspen of Italy with many fancy shops and tasty restaurants. It was a great place to go for a stroll and find a yummy bite to eat, then stroll back to our mountain lodge hotel and sit by the fire to warm up.
After two days in the mountains it was time to venture down to sea level and explore the island of Venice. We had both been there before so this time we made an effort to get off the beaten path and wander the side alleys. I enjoyed just sitting over a drink and watching all the local families come out Sunday afternoon to enjoy the piazzas. They don’t have yards or even streets to play in so they just wander in their little niche of the island and play ball in the piazzas surrounded by buildings 1000’s of years old. It was really neat to see.
From here it was on into Tuscany with its rolling hills topped with villas and the famous cypress trees. Even the one morning we didn’t have sun the hills looked magnificent with fog hanging around the trees and buildings making it look like a mystical land. We got a good feel for some of the villages such as San Gimignano and Montepulciano, enough to know we would both love to go back and spend a few weeks exploring that region.
As I had hoped, Cinque Terre was the next highlight of the trip. We spent the day exploring the area with stops in the villages of Vernazza and Monterosso. We arrived by boat which was the perfect way to start because it gives you the best views of the colorful villages, some of them hanging on these sheer cliffs, overlooking the ocean. You would think the houses of pink and yellow and orange and blue would be eye catching enough and then you see a medieval looking fortress rising out of the cliff in one, and then a 1,000 year old church built right out into the sea in the next.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Cinque Terre and were thankful we once again got to see an amazing part of the country in full sun and blue skies as we enjoyed the sunset ride on the train back to our awaiting motor coach. The last stop on our adventure was the eternal city of Roma. Every time I have the opportunity to see this gorgeous city I leave wanting to go back. Everywhere you turn there is a historic building or an extraordinary sculpture, even on the most mundane of streets in the city. Besides touring the major sites like St. Peter’s Basilica and the Colosseum we also wandered the streets of Capital Hill to get a hill side view of the ancient Roman Forum, and walked the small streets of the Jewish ghetto getting a feel for what life has been like over the centuries. The last night on our own we ventured to the top of the Spanish Steps to view the city at sunset then made our way down to find a hidden gem of a restaurant for dinner, even getting roasted chestnuts along the way! It was a fantastic way to end our journey.
As we made our way home I reflected back on the great group of people we got to travel with, from all parts of the United States, and the amazing jobs that Margaret, our tour director, and Carmine, our motor coach driver, did. Margaret shared with us the history, art, beauty and soul of her country, all while seamlessly seeing to all the arrangements for us along the way. She gave us an appreciation for Italy that I will always value and that will help me to better understand Italy in what I hope to be many more visits. Thank goodness I threw that one coin into Trevi Fountain so that I may return again someday to Rome and begin another adventure exploring the amazing country of Italy.
Barb, a Grand European Travel Specialist, rediscovers Greece after 30 years. Part two of her story includes visits to Thessaloniki and Delphi.
We had a sightseeing tour of Thessaloniki that included an orientation around the lower part of the city near the harbor. We then went up to the upper part of the city, that has a Turkish influence, as it has been primarily inhabited by Turks. The streets are a labyrinth of winding, paved cobblestone, narrow ways between many houses and shops that are packed in close together.
At the top we reached the ancient ruins of the Ana Polis and the city’s walls. We then headed down to the Byzantine Church for a visit. It is a beautiful church that has been restored due to a devastating fire that occurred in 1917. We were able to visit the Crypt that had some of the original marble floors and relics inside it.
The rest of the day was free and I spent it visiting the Byzantine Museum and the Archeological Museum that focused mostly on Macedonia. Both were very well done, with great explanations in each of the rooms. I then decided to check out the market areas of twon, selling everything from cheap kitchen items, to old furniture, fruits, vegetables, antiques, jewelry, it was fun just to get lost in the maze.
I also took a walk along the waterfront where there is café after café teeming with people chatting and drinking coffee.
Traveling from Thessaloniki to Delphi I was able to take in the magnificent views of the countryside and on the winding roads up to Mount Parnassus. Upon arrival into Delphi, we first made a stop at the Temple of Apollo, dating back to the 4th century B.C. for our initial visit to this amazing site.
We then headed for the hotel to relax after the drive. Delphi offers such spectacular views from its location up on Mt. Parnassus, our hotel rooms had views of the valley down to the water. When the sky was dark, you could see the clusters of lights from the small villages in the valley below.
The next morning was the real treat – visiting the site at Delphi! We started out at the museum, where the relics that were brought as gifts are on display as well as some statues. We then toured through the site, climbing slowly uphill to the famous Oracle, then on up to finish at the stadium. Not only is it amazing to be walking on grunds that have been such an important role in history, but the setting is breathtaking.
The last day of the tour we departed Delphi for the relatively short drive back to Athens with free time to take in our last views of the Acropolis, visit a museum, shop for gifts, or just sit at a café and people watch. The Farewell Dinner was a wonderful end to the tour, with its rooftop view of the Acropolis lit up at night. We all had so many memorable experiences on this trip.
Overall, I had a lovely time in Greece! It had been 30 years since I was last there and I had such a great time exploring the country again. There is much history and great architecture there, but at the same time new museums and things to see too. I really encourage anyone considering traveling to Greece to go now, we all felt very safe and welcome.
Barb, a Grand European Travel Specialist, went on a tour of Greece this last fall to rediscover Greece after 30 years.
I first visited Greece 30 years ago and had been anticipating this trip for quite some time. I was really looking forward to seeing how things had changed over the years as well as visiting those sites that held a special place in my memory.
One week before I was to arrive to Athens a large demonstration took place in Syntagma Square against the austerity measures. When I arrived into Athens I was relieved to find a city that was business as usual.
After traveling from Portland, Oregon, I cleaned up and headed out into the streets of Athens. My first destination was the New Acropolis Museum. From the Divani Caravel Hotel, I waslked past Syntagma Square, curious about any activity, it was calm without any hint of protesters.
I meandered my way to the museum taking in the sights and sounds along the way – I had missed this, they instantly brought back memories of my first trip to Greece! I spent quite a lot of time at the museum, reading the interpretive signs as I viewed the relics on display. They have done a wonderful and thorough job of creating this museum. I needed a break and was told that the museum’s restaurant is good, so I had a bite to eat on a terrace outside with views of the Acropolis and Lycabettus Hill. Stunning!
Afterwards, I wandered through the Plaka area before making my way back to the hotel. During my free time the next day my plan was to visit the Central Market, the Benaki Museum and perhaps the Archeological Museum if time allowed.
I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the monasteries perched high on the monolithic rocks in Meteora but found our stop in Vergina to be truly fascinating. We visited a museum where Phillip’s tomb was found in 1979! After centuries, it had never been robbed. It was filled with gold and all of his and his wife’s belongings that they ‘take with them’ to the next life.
Then we proceeded to Pella, where Alexander the great ruled. It is famous for the beautiful mosaics made out of rocks and pebbles gathered from the river. Our Tour Director, Sandra, noticed that there were some archeologists on site, unearthing more relics. We ventured to where they were digging and were allowed to watch them in the process and have one of the archeologists give an explanation about the new area! That was such an amazing experience.
Late this October my Mother and I embarked on Grand European Travel’s Portugal and Spain River Cruise. We have been lucky enough to travel to Europe several times but this was the first time in a few years and we are so thankful we went.
We selected this cruise because for its location and the opportunity to see parts of Portugal and Spain that are still very untouched hoping for a chance to experience the true culture of the places and the people. The cruise began with 3 nights in Lisbon and then we drove north through Portugal, to Porto where we boarded our ship and sailed along the Douro River. The trip by far exceeded our expectations and also fulfilled our needs for relaxation and fun.
The trip started with 3 nights in Lisbon at a lovely hotel within walking distance of downtown. We had a fantastic local host, Pilar, who was from Lisbon and shared her love and insight of this unique city with us. She not only gave us guidance on restaurants and shopping but she was also one of our city guides and amazed us with her knowledge of the history of Portugal and Lisbon.
Lisbon is a city of museums and unique neighborhoods. A 15 minute walk from the hotel was the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, one of the most outstanding in Lisbon. We saw Degas, Rembrandt, Rodin and a world-famous collection of Lalique Art Nouvea. It was the perfect way to spend our arrival afternoon in the city.
As for the neighborhoods, the Alfama is the oldest section of the city and has winding cobblestone streets filled with the life and passion of Lisbon. We wandered past local fish markets and meat markets and saw a glimpse of the local day to day life. Many residents of the Alfama rarely leave their neighborhood, finding their church, their produce, their meat and fish, and their entertainment within these winding streets that are over 800 years old.
From Lisbon we traveled north to Porto to join our river cruise. Porto was fantastic with one of the most breathtaking cityscapes I have ever seen. Our ship was docked across the river from Porto so during the day and night you could look out at the city with one historic building after another rising from the hills. There was little damage by war or natural disaster to the city so the town is dotted with cathedrals and city structures dating back to the 11th century. Everywhere we turned there was a picture perfect scene. We could walk within 15 minutes into the oldest part of the town, the Riviera district and enjoy the cafes and shops along the river.
In Porto we also got our first opportunity to learn about and taste Port. The cellars we visited were a 3 minute walk from the ship. The guides gave us a great tour with a wealth of information about Port as well as many fun stories about the history of the drink. Throughout the trip we had other opportunities to discover the Quinta’s that grow the grapes and see the incredible landscapes that the grape vines create.
The cruise proved to be a wonderful way to see a very untouched portion of Portugal, the Douro valley. Along the river was terrace after terrace of grape vines that created a blanket of reds, oranges and yellows with their leaves. It was fall foliage at its best. As we traveled we spent time on our balcony taking in the colors and the natural beauty of the country side.
One of my favorite days on the cruise was the day we went to Salamanca. We arrived in Salamanca mid-morning and quickly got on our way exploring the many cobblestone streets and pathways. We went to the Mercado first which is the market where the locals go for their meat, fish and produce. We were fascinated by all the different types of sausages, meats and the fish galore! It was a very colorful sight and a good glimpse at the local lifestyle.
From there we wandered to their famous town square that is surrounded by beautiful sand stone buildings and the town clock. As we made our way back to our meeting point we took little streets here and there and marveled at how architecturally unique each building is. It was one of the best picture taking opportunities we had. The most eye catching building of all was the cathedral. It rises out of the center of town with a very unique combination of Gothic and Baroque styles and is breathtaking. It reminded me of Notre Dame but it is much more dramatic because it is built in so close to all of the other buildings making if feel more immense and intriguing.
The cruise itself was very luxurious and tested our will power when it came to all the decadent food. One of my favorite meals was the Captain’s dinner. It was 6 courses and each course was better than the previous. How they manage to get beef tenderloin done so perfectly for everyone is still a mystery to me but I was just happy to enjoy it all.
We of course fit in a bit of shopping, finding beautiful ceramic tiles, jewelry and port. The ceramic shops in Sintra were by far the best we found anywhere with very rich colors and designs depicting the beauty of the countryside there. We brought back a bit of port to share with our family and some very precious ceramic boxes and bracelets.
If someone asked me to pick a favorite part of the trip it would be very hard to do so. Porto, Lisbon and Salamanca were a wonderful set of historic and scenic cities and I am thankful I had the opportunity to see them and experience the local flavor. However the river and the cruise were so relaxing, beautiful and luxurious I loved that too!
I brought home memories to last a lifetime, plus many photos, a few keepsakes and the desire to travel again, both back to Portugal as well as to other countries and cultures. There is nothing like discovering the lifestyle and history of other countries, there is so much history and beauty around every corner, it leaves you ready to book the next trip before you even return, what a wonderful addiction, travel!