The Camino, a Walking Journey for the Soul
September 3-15, 2020
by Diana Saint James
“A core question arises: what turns a walking holiday into a pilgrimage?”
A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago: Camino Francés by John Brierley
My brother Brian and I walked the last 100 km of the Camino de Santiago. It was both challenging and fascinating. We hiked 10-16 miles each day through forests, rolling hills, charming villages, Roman ruins. It is impossible to get lost as the trails are always marked with yellow arrows and scallop shells symbols. The Camino de Santiago dates back to the 9th century when the remains of Christian apostle James were discovered in what is now Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. The final part of the journey is entering the city gates at Santiago de Compostela and giving thanks at a pilgrim’s mass .
There are a number of pilgrimage paths through France, Spain, and Portugal all leading to the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. Like in the movie The Way, many people traditionally start at the France/Spain border and walk 778 kilometers (483 miles) of the “French Way” over the 30-40 days. Growing in popularity is walking the last 100 kilometers (68 miles) of the French Way over a week. 100km is minimum distance required by the Catholic Church to be an official pilgrimage. The 100 km walk can be done on your own or as part of a group. Luggage can be packed on your back, transported for you daily by a tour operator. We used the tour operator, Cosmos, with the Globus Family of Brands. They provided a tour director, map, luggage transfers, hotels, rail tickets, and most dinners at an affordable price.
Day 1: September 5: MADRID: Our tour began tonight at the Orientation & Welcome Dinner at the Hotel Praga. We met our 14 tour companions and local Madrid host, Julian. Everyone was at least 55-75 years old – all nice people. Two couples (Northern CA and Virginia), Brian and me (Northern CA), two retired priests (Nebraska) and the rest were women (Illinois, Minnesota, Southern CA).
Rain is predicted for a good part of our journey ahead. We all anxiously talk about clothing, rain protection, socks, and boot choices. Did we bring the right stuff? Did we train properly? Can we do the 70+ mile walk over the next 5 days? Everyone hoped they had the perfect plan. I had walked four to six miles several times a week over the past six months and did least 9-12 miles in a day a few times in the weeks prior. I had well-broken-in Salomon hiking shoes, medium weight Darn Tough wool socks and an 18 liter Osprey daypack. I'm short (5'0") so finding the right size pack took time. Fingers crossed this works for me.
Pilgrims from all over the world have walked to Santiago de Compostela for over a thousand years, originally seeking forgiveness for their sins, and most often today they are making a journey of personal growth. They walk for many reasons – to mark a zero birthday, express gratitude, celebrate recovery, or to move on from loss. For me, I'm contemplating the next steps in my life.
DAY 2: September 6: MADRID–SARRIA Our group transferred by motor coach midday today to Madrid’s Chamartin rail station to board the train for Sarria, 4.5 hours north in the Galicia region of Spain. The town of Sarria, at 117 km away from Santiago de Compostela, has the closest train station to the 100km start point. We had seats in 1st class train coaches. Upon arrival, we checked in at the Alfonso IX Hotel, one of my favorite hotels on the trip for its riverside location.
We met Carvin tonight, our local Galician Tour Director. She is a young Australian woman who lives in Spain and speaks fluent Galician Spanish. She is resourceful, funny and easy-going. This is the first Camino Walking Tour that Cosmos has operated in 18 months. She got us all connected together by phone using What’s App, and handed out our Pilgrim Kit that included John Brierley’s Camino Francés guidebook, an official Pilgrim Passport (credential) and the traditional pilgrim’s scallop shell.
DAY 3: September 7: SARRIA–PORTOMARIN We walked 14.7 miles (23 km) today in 6 hours. No rain - whew! It was a peaceful but long walk in shady oak forests and through villages on dirt paths. My brother and I, who have never really hiked together, found that we do walk quite well as a team. It was wonderful to have so much time to talk with Brian. After climbing many stairs to arrive in Portomarin, we checked into Vistalegre Spa Hotel and explored the quaint town.
It seems Galician Spain can be tough for vegetarians. Meals are mainly meat, seafood, potatoes, eggs and rice. Brian is generally a vegetarian and he is having to be flexible. Vegetarian means just no meat in your entree and there were few vegetables served at dinner. We took fruit from the breakfast buffet for trail snacks and found cafes along the way that served salads for lunch.
DAY 4: September 8: PORTOMARIN–LESTEDO We walked 16.6 miles (27 km) today in 6.5 hours. At Castromaier, we took a short detour and visited the ruins of an ancient Roman village (4th century BC). As we explored, one of our group members talked about her family’s arduous journey in the 70’s from Vietnam to the USA. We were in awe of their strength.
It poured rain in the afternoon and even with ponchos, we got quite wet. After taking a 1.5 mile detour off the Camino to see Monastery of Our Saviour of Vilar de Donas, a little chapel with 13th century pilgrimage frescos (restored now) and the tombs of nine Knights Templar, whom protected Camino pilgrims across the centuries. But the door was locked due to COVID. Tour Director Carvin found a local woman with a key who unlocked the door. I had a weird feeling that the lifelike knight statues on their tombs would change from stone and come to life – I’ve seen too many movies! We overnighted in Lestedo at a large family estate/farmhouse: Casa Roan y Casa Grande. Thank goodness for hair dryers to dry my shoes. After dinner, the farmhouse owner showed us his copper still and brought out several strong, home-brewed orujo liqueurs for us to taste. It was extra challenging to get up the next day…
DAY 5: September 9: LESTEDO–MELIDE
We walked 16 miles (26 km) today in 6.5 hours. Enjoying our dry morning, the Camino took us past acres of farmland and over medieval bridges. I even made a new friend. We stopped outside Melide for lunch where the Galician delicacy is savory grilled polbo a feira octopus. We had more rain this afternoon and got soaking wet and completely lost in town (no internet signal for GPS) before we found our way to Pension San Anton in Melide. This was the funkiest place we stayed in. I had an odd rooftop room with a skylight, no windows. Only one hairdryer for the whole hotel, so my shoes would be was damp the next morning.
We had a big dinner at 9:00pm at a nearby local restaurant. It is not easy for me to eat so late. Dinners after 9:00pm are traditional in Spain but they can be tiring for foreign pilgrimages after arduous days with early starts. All of our delicious dinners were multi-course and hearty with generous wine/beer pours. But it was not comfortable going to bed so full. Eventually some in our group started skipping dinner, and eating bigger lunches and late afternoon tapas.
Day 6: September 10 MELIDE–ARZUA
We walked 9.5 miles (15 km) in 4 hours on this sunny day. It was very important to stay hydrated before, during, and after each day's walk. Brian and I drank all local water from the tap and were fine. Others in the group would drink only bottled water. I only got one small blister from yesterday's wet socks. Thank goodness for Compeet blister pads. Others in our group dealt with big blisters and chronic pain and to their credit, they would all finish the pilgrimage.
For a time today we walked with one of our group members who is recovering from cancer. Her fierce commitment to complete the journey is admirable. We stayed at Hotel Arzua and dinner was a massive but delicious seafood paella. Arzua is a modern town that circles around its medieval center. We went to mass tonight at the Church of St. James.
Day 7: September 11: ARZUA–AMENAL
We walked 15.5 mi in 6 hours. The route today is over gentle slopes and through woodland, with some stretches along a busy road, which we had to cross on occasions. We came upon the Chapel of St. Irene with a spring renowned to be a “fountain of youth”. Reluctant to drink from it, I did wash my face in it but have not noticed a difference L. The rest of the route to Amenal was a mix of country roads and shady forest tracks. We were shuttled to a very nice, huge 4* hotel, Gran Hotel Los Abetos with great views of the region just outside of Santiago de Compostela. Tonight one of our group members told us about her struggles as an immigrant, how much the Church had helped her and her conversion to Catholicism. One of our group members fell today, sprained her wrist and bruised 2 ribs. After an emergency room visit, she returned still fiercely intent on finishing the Camino tomorrow.
Day 8: September 12: AMENAL–SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA
This is the final stage of our Camino. We walked 9.5 mi in 4 hours. There was a steep climb up to San Marcos, then we stopped at Monte do Gozo (Mountain of Joy) where we caught our first glimpse of the spires of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Our group met up at a café for lunch so we could enter the city walls together.
Finally…we entered the old city walls of Santiago de Compostela. We made our way to the main square marking the end of our long walk. I DID IT! I felt joy, relief, and a huge sense of accomplishment.
We gathered for a group photo with the cathedral in the background. Since I walked at least 100 kilometers of the Camino I did receive my Compostela, the Certificate of Accomplishment. Cosmos took care of validating our fully stamped passports with the pilgrimage office so we did not have to wait in the long lines to get it. We attended the 6:00pm mass in the beautiful cathedral and Cosmos had arranged for priority seating. While we could see the botafumeiro (a giant hanging incense burner), it is only swung like a pendulum at the 12:00 noon mass so we did not see it in action. We stay at the centrally located Hotel Compostela.
Day 9: September 13: SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA & FINISTERRE
It was baking hot today. Our group took a full-day (60 miles) motor coach excursion to the Atlantic Ocean to Cape Finisterre peninsula, believed in Roman times to be the end of the world. Many pilgrims keep walking another four days past Santiago all the way to Finesterre. They used to throw their worn boots into the ocean here (but now that is considered littering) so my brother and I cast stones into the sea to let go of all the things that no longer serve us. On the way home, one of the priests and I talked in depth about the communion host, a fascinating conversation I never expected I would ever have. Meeting the two priests, who actually are siblings and good kind men, has helped me think so much better of the Catholic Church.
Americans need a negative antigen Covid test within 3 days of returning to the USA to re-enter the country. Everyone was thrilled that Cosmos arranged for a nurse to come to the Hotel Compostela to give the tests to the group and even covered everyone’s the testing costs - a very generous gesture. Brian and I and two others needed a PCR Covid test for our British Airways return flights via London. Cosmos even arranged for this test too at a local hospital and covered those tests as well.
In the afternoon, our group took an in-depth guided walking tour of the city center of Santiago de Compostela with a local guide. We joined the queue to go beneath the Cathedral into the Crypt and pause reverently to gaze upon see ornate silver casket that is said to hold the remains of St. James. We walked a very LONG way to see this. Brian and I went out for wine and tapas with the priests – a fitting end to a momentous pilgrimage.
Day 10: September 14: SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA–MADRID
This morning we transferred to the Santiago train station for the 4.5 hour train ride back to Madrid. We said goodbye to our Camino/Galician Tour Director Carvin and hello again to our local Madrid host Julian in Madrid. Brian and I made late afternoon trip to visit the Prado (love the intricate art of Hieronymus Bosch) and had dinner at Vega, one of Madrid’s few vegan restaurants. We stayed one final night at the Hotel Praga.
Day 11: September 15: MADRID-LONDON-SAN FRANCISCO
Early pilgrims then had to walk all the way back home again. We were fortunate to have had a morning flight to the UK then a final plane ride home to San Francisco.
Thoughts after the pilgrimage. During the Camino, I didn’t think as many of the profound thoughts as I hoped I would. Traveling in the time of COVID was challenging. The walk logistics often distracted me. But now that I’m home again, I'm seeking joy. The insights are starting to flow and I look forward to where they take me, my career and my relationships in Act III, the next part of my life.
“At the end, ask yourself, what was the gift of the journey and then expand the moment”.
From “The Art of the Pilgrimage – The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred” by Phil Cousineau
by Jill Romano, Owner and Travel Advisor
What, When, Why, Where!
What? Silversea, Silver Muse
11-day sailing out of Seattle, to Ketchikan, Sitka, Icy Straights, Skagway, Endicot Arm and Juneau
When? August 9-18, 2021
Why? Invited to experience the Return to Cruising with Silverseas!
Where? Alaska - don’t wait, go now and go often!
Today's Port - Ketchikan
Arrived via the Tongass Narrows, be sure to be up early to watch the Alaskan scenery from your balcony or the comfort of your suite. Our local guide says, “there are 2 seasons “Winter and August”!
Travel Tip for Today:
Take a scroll down Creek Street, the painted houses just a few blocks from the pier and enjoy the artisan shops or pick up a souvenir of two!
Fascinating, small port, quite near Juneau (35 miles away) Short gondola ride for those that want to see a bit of the island, walking a short way to the old cannery and shops.
The village prides itself on being home to more “brown bears, than humans”. This is the place to be adventurous, ATV and Jeep expeditions to zip lining through the canopy of trees to kayaks and canoes and of course whale and orca excursions…there is something for everyone.
Travel Tip for Today:
Great port for bear viewing and whale watching….or try the Ziprider!!!
Easy walk into town if you are not doing a shore excursion - highly recommend the White Pass Scenic Railway (departs from a rail line, steps from the ship) ferries over to Haines, visit the Skagway Museum or a variety of wildlife viewing excursions. Remember, as you walk around the town, forms part of the Klondike Gold Rush National History Park!
Travel Tip for Today:
“Did you know…why there are so many jewelry stores in Skagway…it’s because there a max of $132 dollars tax place on any jewelry purchase, no matter the price! So do your shopping here!
Dinner at Kaiseki Tonight
Reservations required and a small booking fee. You can eat at the bar as you watch them prepare each delicious dish or choose for a table for 2 or 4. Each dish was beautifully presented and delish!
Morning Mendenhall glacier and whale watching photo safari through Gastineau Tours is a Must here! Short ride to the harbor about 20 mins, great commentary along the way, combing local history, beautiful sights like Auke Lake (Auke is the Tlingit word for “little lake”, so it’s Little Lake, Lake!)
Great captain, worked for the Coast Guard for years, now working these trips, full of local insights into daily life. Our guide was excellent, working about 20 years and thrilled to be working again!
Quick set up for everyone with cameras and a pointer or two for the Camera/Phone users such as, when you take a video, “start” with the phone horizontal, if you start vertical and then turn…. the video will record in vertical only and you will miss 1/3 of the scene.
Great time of year to see the whales, they are feeding like crazy, and we saw 15+ very near our boat and both the captain and guide were able to tell us, by their tale markings, which whales they know…it was like listening to someone greeting an old friend “look there’s Sasha!” “Over there is Flame and her calf, Bolt” (named for the lightning bolt marking on his tail!)
Travel Tip for Today:
Remember, after madly taking photos and video…put everything down (maybe the binoculars too) and just watch and enjoy…these are precious moments with these majestic mammals.
Short ride Back Loop Road towards the start of our walking tour up to Mendenhall glacier. Gentle walk, through the rainforest, feels a bit like Hobbit Land! Our guide took time to point out where the bears have been feeding on the various plants, the flora and fauna as well as how to approach taking photographs.
Travel Tip for Today:
If you can, get down low and look back up towards your subject (everyone else will take theirs from above…get a different perspective)
We photographed a variety of interesting mushrooms, the Devils Claw, very transparent so take a picture from underneath! And of course, waters walls and streams…currently full of spawning salmon. Markers along the route signal where the glacier was in the early 1900’s outlying the speed at which it has been moving.
Did you know…the ground under your feet is rising at an average of one inch per year! Why, it’s due to glacial isostatic adjustment the pressure from the glaciers, once they have passed through, releases and the ground begins to rise again, fascinating!
Travel Tip for Today:
This type of tour also provides some great vantage points to view the glacier, many tours only take you to the Visitors Center and the effect is very minimal.
Endicott Arm - Dawes Glacier
This was a last-minute change as we were due to visit Tracy Arm but as the ship cannot get in very close, they opted for Endicott Arm. A “must see/do” is the catamaran trip into Dawes glacier. Normally this starts out early in Juneau, but Silverseas arranged for the boat to moor alongside and 120 pax were able to easily board and head out on our journey. Along the way we stopped at Ford’s Terror and Wedding Cake falls, with commentary along the way. But everyone was waiting to see the glacier and we were not disappointed! While the Silver Muse was able to get up to about a mile away, not a bad view for those on board…. we were right up within about a 1/4 of a mile to see this wondrous, wall of ice, with spikes like high-rise buildings. The sound of silence broken only by the “bang” as the ice calved - wow!!!
Returned to the ship in time for lunch and continued to enjoy the view of the Dawes glacier from La Terazza restaurant!
Travel Tip for Today:
Board early if you can and sit on Deck 1, front row, great view. At each stop, they open up access to Deck 2 and 3, where this is plenty of room to view and take pictures. Deck 2 has 2 levels, so if you don’t find a place at the railing, you will still get a great view. Top Deck, go up at least once, but be prepared, even without the wind, it’s a bit chilly!
Two more wonderful days at sea, so it’s off to the Zagara Beauty Spa for a bit of pampering before I decide what else to do!
Today we turn the clocks forward one hour as we make our way back down the coastline to Seattle.
Travel Tip for Today:
“If you love Caviar, like I love Caviar” you can order it anytime, anywhere on the ship. I enjoyed this with a cocktail up in the Observation Library on Deck 11 as we sailed along, at dinner in Indochine and in our suite.
by Wynette Brecher, Travel Consultant
Dinner under the stars...A sunset beyond words...
It was hard to leave such a magical place...
I was fortunate to be able to sail around Tahiti and the Society Islands aboard the Paul Gauguin. If I can assist you with a Tahiti vacation (or anywhere!), please reach out to me.
My trip was pre-COVID. If you'd like to now more about the current health entry requirement, please visit https://cibtvisas.com/health-requirements and choose French Polynesia.
Flying to Tahiti
I flew on Air Tahiti Nui from Los Angeles. It is a nice carrier and we had an on time departure.
Two meals were served (main course and later a snack), I ordered my vegetarian meals in advance and they were quite good. They gave out little amenity bags with socks, eye mask, ear plugs and headphones. There were pillows and blankets on every seat with good entertainment options. We arrived Papeete in the early evening, transferred to ship, and we were in our cabin on the Paul Gauguin by 10:00pm.
Aboard the Paul Gauguin
Ship is lovely, small but very functional. The staff ratio was practically 2-1 and they were very accommodating. The pool is small but just big enough. It was filled with salt water, drained each evening and refilled each morning.
We had a far front cabin on starboard side. The the only issue was that we were above the show room (and went to sleep to the sound of drums) and near the anchor. Luckily we are early risers. I will make sure I don't book that cabin for my clients!
Our cabin was a nice size with tons of storage and good size bathroom. Our balcony was small but great and I could not imagine sailing without one on to that destination. The in-cabin arrival amenity was a big bowl of fresh fruit and bottle of champagne. The fridge is fully stocked with whatever you want as this cruise line is all-inclusive.
We started off our dining experience with a nice food buffet available for the late arrivals (us!). The food was very good, plentiful and fresh. I did meet with head restaurant maitre’ d as there were not many vegetarian options, but he said “we will make you anything you want”, and they did! Desserts were over the top! There were three restaurants on board, two of which required reservations for dinner and passengers need to do that as soon as you can onboard. We did not and could not get into those restaurants til end of our trip. This is another thing I will tell my clients!
The Other Passengers
The ship's capacity is 330 guests. Most are well traveled and over 50 yrs. There were a few small children and some teens, but I hardly ever saw them. There was a mix of nationalities with half of the passengers being French Canadian and the rest were Americans, French and Polynesian.
Spotting wildlife: From our stateroom balcony, we saw dolphins early one morning and some flying fish. I also a turtle in port at Bora Bora.
Water Sports: The water sports marina is off the back of ship, and kayaks, paddle boards, and wind surfers were available. They provide snorkel equipment but you cannot snorkel off back of ship, only ashore on the motus.
Spa & Fitness Center: The fitness center was small but satisfactory but no view. I did not use the spa but it looked nice.
Blessing Ceremony: We did not attend blessing ceremony as it was on the overnight in Bora Bora, but I saw the photos and it looked lovely. Lots of guests took part to renew their wedding vows.
Flowers: During lei and hei making, I made right there on the spot to match my dress. I was adorned with a neck lei as well as a wrist lei!
Entertainment: The shows were good and the Polynesian night was fun!
Shore Excursion - Moorea
Moorea: Our snorkeling excursion in Moorea was cancelled due to lack of sign ups. So we took the ship's shuttle to go to the InterContinental Moorea Hotel. The property was very nice and they gave us full access to pool/beach. Snorkeling was not great on property, but beach was lovely. Food was good, staff very nice and the grounds pretty. They do call their bungalows “over water” but they are actually on land and the deck is over the water. And they are just oversized rooms, not suites like at the Four Seasons. They do have a few that are truly over water and they are in the premium category.
Shore Excursion - Bora Bora
Bora Bora: it is possible to overnight ashore as a shore excursion at the Four Seasons Bora Bora. The resort picks you up in their private boat at the port of Bora Bora and 30 min later you are at the resort. They met us at the dock with juice, towels and leis. The resort is absolutely jaw dropping!
We did a site inspection upon arrival, exploring the property by golf cart. It is all over water bungalows or private villas on the beach. They are converting some of the bungalows to allow families to stay, not connecting, but with a wall built for privacy to house two bungalows together by a walkway.
We stayed in a mountain /lagoon view over-the-water bungalow, which are the best on property.
The bungalows are actually huge suites, large living room with sofa bed, leading to huge bathroom with separate tub and shower area (tub looks out on lagoon!). bedroom has king bed, also facing lagoon. It even had a glass bottom floor and we did see fish. We had room service and we did not want to leave! The deck was also huge with a large table for dining, two chaise lounges and a ladder leading right into the water.
The sunset was beyond words.
As full as the resort was we never saw anyone til we went to the restaurant the next morning. The breakfast buffet was plentiful.
They do about 1 wedding a day at this time of year. We did see a beautiful bride!
The resort had snorkel gear waiting on our deck. We snorkeled in their private lagoon and saw every fish under the sun and gorgeous coral. We were the only ones in the lagoon! Incredible.
Upon departure, the General Manager and Director of Sales came to see us off. They put a shell lei around our neck (right from their fridge, so very cool on a hot day!), and presented a glass of juice. Then the resort shuttled us back on 11:15am boat to the port in Bora Bora and we rejoined the cruise. It was hard to leave such a magical place. It was the cherry on the cake of the trip. Our last night was in Papeete and we had dinner under the stars. It was lovely!
The next morning we had a 4am wake up call, were off the ship by 5am,caught our flight at 7:50am, landed in LAX at 8pm.
Farewell to Paradise!
HAWAII CRUISE 2012
Aloha! Our Hawaii cruise sailed roundtrip from Los Angeles December 5-19, 2012 aboard the Golden Princess.
2009, 2008, 2007, 2006 and 2005 GUIDE DOG CRUISES TO MEXICO - OLE!
Guide dog teams, cane users, and wonderful family and friends have joined us on 10 or 11-day Princess or NCL cruises to Mexico roundtrip from San Francisco. We have visited Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco, Mazatlan, and Cabo San Lucas, La Paz and Topolobampo along with relaxing days at sea. Our Mexico cruise memories are an amazing jumble of dog kisses, snorkeling and kayaking for the first time, swimming with dolphins (dogs watch poolside), handicraft marketplaces, tequila tastings, bicycle cab rides and the swinging bridge of Puerto Vallarta..
By Jodi McNamara | Travel Advisor
I was fortunate to be able to join a familiarization cruise aboard the Celebrity Edge. If I can assist you with a cruise (or a trip anywhere!), please reach out to me.
By the way...a familiarization trip, or "fam", is an educational group trip often just for travel advisors. They are hosted by cruise lines, tour operators, hotel owners, local attractions and restaurants. The sightseeing pace or training can be intense, like a cram course, but it allows me to see and learn so much, meet key local people and leave feeling like I really got know a part of the world much better.
Arriving in Ft. Lauderdale
Flying out of Sacramento to save a few dollars on the evening of July 9, the airport was eerily empty. Hardly a soul in sight. We changed planes in Salt Lake City and arrived in Fort Lauderdale about 6:30 am on July 10th. Red eyes are just like I remember them, horrible. A couple notes about the flights, etc. You had to wear a mask at all times on the plane, (even when asleep and in between bites or sips of your beverage) and in the airport, but there was no real social distancing at all. We ended up getting a day room in Fort Lauderdale as our check-in time at the port with Celebrity wasn’t until 3:30 pm. The Rodeway Inn was a great stop to shower, nap and eat before we embarked on the ship. Luckily, we didn’t fly in later as there was a bomb threat at the airport after we left and the airport was closed as flights were diverted. I know of at least one person who didn’t make the cruise because of it. Good reminder to get in the day before so you don’t miss your cruise.
Embarkation on the Edge was a breeze! Most of it was done via the Celebrity app on my phone before we even got onto the ship. The app is pretty cool. It turns your phone into a cabin key and also keeps track of anything you reserve, such as a fine dining night or a show on a daily calendar. Security was very tight at the port, everyone had masks and social distancing was in play. They took our temperature, checked our vaccination records and on we went. The final step of check-in was to go find our Muster Station and check-in there before 4:30 pm. We made our way to the casino and checked in with the personnel located there.
Ship capacity was about 50% capacity with 2908 passengers and almost 1,000 crew. The customer service was unbelievable. They were so excited to be cruising again and we were taken care of like royals. No Masks on ship. It was 99% vaccinated and the 2 people that weren’t vaccinated had already had the virus and they had to wear masks and bracelets. It was so nice to move about the ship without masks.
The Infinity Veranda
Our cabin was an infinity edge balcony. Done is soft blues and creams, it had a balcony that could be part of the room, or partitioned off. The window moved down from above and the glassed in veranda could be either part of the whole room or sectioned off by itself. It was very spacious with the extra footage from the balcony included in the room. There was also a blackout blind that we could lower so we could block out the light. The closet was a nice size as well as the bathroom. The shower was lovely and very roomy. The sitting area in the room was very comfortable also. The décor was very contemporary, sleek and very relaxing. We were on the 7th floor, aft. Dennis felt a bit of ship movement but I didn’t feel anything.
We were assigned to the Cosmopolitan Restaurant on Deck 4 from 5:30 to 9:30 pm. Our servers were Dewi, Suzannah and Queenie. Dinner was excellent every night we ate at the Cosmopolitan! There are four main restaurants, the Cyprus, Normandie and Tuscan. We ate at the Normandie the morning we disembarked. All the menus were very similar and the food was very good.
Typically 3 to 4 courses starting with a bread basket, then soup or salad, a fish, chicken or some steak entrée and dessert. The dress code was smart casual with one night of Evening Chic. There were also the fine dining options: Raw on Five, Eden Restaurant, Fine Cut Steakhouse, and Le Petit Chef & Friends at the Grand Bistro. Luminae was for the Retreat guests and Blu was for the AquaClass exclusively.
Le Petit Chef - WOW Dining!
Dennis and I tried Le Petit Chef and friends at Le Grand Bistro. It is a very clever 3D dining experience that projects an animated movie from the ceiling onto your plate. Four animated chefs engage in a competition by each assembling a course on your plate in front of you at your table. Then the actual waiter comes out with the finished product and puts it on your plate. Very innovative and quite entertaining, we enjoyed the show between each course and it was quite delicious as well.
How Do the Buffets Work Now?
The buffets were open and doing a hearty business. There were dedicated handwashing stations at the entrance and an attendant that directed you to use them in case you weren’t aware. Very well done dining options, fresh fruit, salad, cheese, bread, charcuterie all served to you as you stood in front of the food stations. Entrees varied from chicken, seafood, beef and vegetarian options… I noticed quite a bit of Indian options which were delicious and a Mexican option when we were in Cozumel. A great favorite was the Pizza bar open until 1:00 am. Dessert was different daily and offered cakes, puddings, and other fruity delicacies. Waiters roamed the tables to take drink menus and I never really had to wait for anything – very well staffed. There was a wonderful station for ice cream and cookies as well.
Spa & Fitness Center
The Sea Thermal Suite in the spa is unbelievable. (Aqua class guests have unlimited access). There are a quite a few different experiences.
by Carol Farnworth, Travel Consultant
I had clients stay at Marquis Los Cabos in March and reported in such a positive way that thought this might be the closest thing to a cruise vacation available right now for my husband John and me. So we did travel to Cabo in late April and loved it. It was so nice to vacation where the sun was sunny and weather warm and have no humidity. If I can assist you with a Mexico vacation (or anywhere!), please reach out to me.
Our nonstop flight on Alaska from PDX to SJD took about 3 ½ hours. Alaska currently has a very limited beverage service, soft drinks and coffee or tea, and no sale of alcoholic beverages. A cookie on the morning flight and pretzels on the afternoon return. It is possible to pre-order a snack/sandwich in advance online. Otherwise no food available for sale on the flight. Either order online or bring your own food onboard.
I was alerted by Alaska Airlines that we needed to fill out a form for Mexican health authorities at www.vuelaseguro.com. The website indicated that there was no ability to do it on paper for either San Jose del Cabo or Puerto Vallarta. I asked some of my hotel sources what they knew about it, and they were unaware of this needing to be done. But I filled it out anyway day of flight and nobody asked us for any information on arrival. However, it WAS mandatory on the return flight. You couldn’t enter the final check point at San Jose del Cabo airport without having the QR code on your phone or device.
Hotel Marquis Los Cabos
The resort is about 25-30 minutes from the airport. The resort was built 18 years ago. It’s a beautiful and has been very well maintained. It was originally built as an AM Resort—Secrets Los Cabos. It is currently affiliated with Leading Hotels of the World. It is located at the tip of the Cabo peninsula, so the ocean is actually Sea of Cortez. You sign a statement at check in that you understand this is NOT a swimmable beach. There is a dangerous undercurrent. However, the Hilton is a 10 minute walk from the Marquis and it has a cove/bay where it is safe to swim.
On arrival resort was about 40% capacity. When we left a week later it had increased to 50% which is currently the capacity they are allowed to operate. Before going to the check in you walk through what looks like a metal detector device, like at an airport, but you are stepping onto something that disinfects your shoes and does a light mist of disinfectant. Of course you are asked the usual questions about exposure to Covid, your temperature is taken, etc. And they have health authorities on site and can schedule your Covid test which is necessary to get back into the U.S. Cost is $50 U.S. We had our results both sent to an email and a paper copy within a half hour of the test the day prior to flying home. Well organized.
About the Hotel Guests
A surprise was the demographics. I would say on average people were in the 35-45 year category. Some younger, only a few as old as John and me! He stood out as the only person in a wheelchair, and I as the only lady with grey hair! All Americans except for perhaps 10% Mexican nationals.
The entry level accommodations are junior suites which are 650 square feet. Oceanview suites are the lower floors of the main resort building. Upper floors are sold as oceanfront suites. Each room type has a balcony. All rooms feature marble floors, Jacuzzi bathtub, large shower, and double sinks.
There are also Master Suites but I did not see any. I did see casitas. These are beautiful suites with separate living room and bedroom, dining area. None are stand alone. There are 4 units per casita. Some are garden view, some ocean view or ocean front. All have plunge pools. So two units lower level and top upper level with access by stairs—not suitable for anyone who has difficulty with stairs. I think these are very popular with honeymooners, but I would not count on the plunge pool to be private—most can be viewed from the main building. So no pool hanky panky unless you want to share with an audience.
There are five restaurants. The main restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They offer an international menu for breakfast and lunch and Mexican cuisine for dinner. The food was excellent. For breakfast there is a buffet, nicely appointed with silver servicing dishes, but you are not allowed to help yourself. Staff are there to serve you. For the time being the menus for the most part are available only by scanning by phone. There is indoor and outdoor dining in this restaurant.
There is also an Italian and an Asian restaurant. They are open at dinner only. Also an outdoor café called Dos Mares which serves three kinds of ceviche and light meals like shrimp tacos. It is open from 11 a.m. till mid-afternoon.
There is also a coffee bar but it’s mostly a take away place with sandwiches, many kinds of espresso/cappuchino drinks, ice cream, cookies, etc. This area also has a book exchange area for people to leave a book and pick up a new one. People will stop here the last day of their stay to have a sandwich or something else packed to take along to have at the airport or on their flight home.
The fifth restaurant is a French tasting menu restaurant called Canto del Mar and is the only one with additional cost. We thought it was expensive and not worth the cost at $108 per person. Our complaint was the quality of the wines served here, which were supposed to be paired to the dinner. We spoke with the food and beverage manager who seemed concerned we were disappointed and refunded the cost of the meal.
When I saw where the only lunch options were the main restaurant and Dos Mares I thought crowding might be a concern. Wrong. It was interesting, the vast majority of guests chose to have their lunches ordered and delivered to them at their lounge chairs. This seems to be the case for breakfast as well, where it appeared most people seem to order for delivery to their rooms. The room service menu was quite varied and good. There were also 3 or 4 afternoons where the Italian restaurant became a grill restaurant for lunch with hamburgers, various grilled meats, etc. available. There were also of couple of themed dinners served outdoors. A BBQ night and a Mexican night (with good entertainment) during the week we were there.
Outdoor seating at the resort is mostly lounge chairs grouped two by two with a small wooden table between and with shade umbrellas.
Pool and Outdoor Space
As with many resorts, or even on cruises, people are up early to claim their spot. Most popular areas were those closest to the ocean. This is a sophisticated resort—no loudspeaker announcements about activities taking place. There is a daily program listing when there were classes like yoga, or aquatic pool exercises.
On-line reviews of the resort emphasize the high level of service. It was excellent. The staff take only a day or so to recognize and know your name, what you like, English Breakfast tea for John in the morning, and green tea for me. One day I got a mixture of green and mint tea, and mentioned how good it was and the next thing I knew the restaurant manager was there horrified I had been delivered the wrong order! Beginning at about 11 a.m. there are servers checking with everyone in lounge chairs about drink orders, and later, as I mention, about food they want ordered and delivered. All done professionally but with warmth.
We were told that the owner kept all employees on payroll during the three months they were forced to close last year. These are people who are grateful and happy and it shows it how they interface with guests.
by Andi Cercos | Travel Consultant
I was fortunate to be able to join an Italy familiarization trip to Florence and Viareggio, which is on the coast about an hour from Florence. If I can assist you with an Italy vacation (or anywhere!), please reach out to me.
By the way...a familiarization trip, or "fam", is an educational group trip just for travel advisors. They are hosted by tour operators, hotel owners, local attractions and restaurants. The sightseeing pace is intense, like a cram course, but it allows me to see so much, meet key local people and leave feeling like I really got know a part of the world much better.
Arriving in Italy
I chose to fly into Florence and spend three days exploring the many museums in the city. I love wandering the city admiring the architecture and of course people watching! When I arrived in Florence and claimed my luggage, there was that wonderful sight: a driver with a sign, with MY name on it. This transfer was arranged by TFL and the driver was also a guide which meant my transfer included a mini tour.
The Brunelleschi, Florence
I checked into the Brunelleschi Hotel, The Heart of Florence. The hotel is a sister property to the Grand Hotel in Viareggio where we will stay with the TFL fam. I was shown to my beautifully appointed room by the concierge, Sergio. Great space complete with a bottle of chilled Prosecco. The Brunelleschi is in the center of the historic part of Florence. After a good night sleep I enjoyed an “anything you could ask for” buffet breakfast.
Getting wonderfully lost in Florence
Florence is definitely a walking city and a great city to get lost in! With this in mind, I hit the cobblestones. My adventure started with the intention of visiting the Bargello Museum (closes at 1pm), headed in the opposite direction. Slight itinerary change because I found myself at the Straw Market which led to the Ponte Vecchio, very crowded, only one of two times I saw crowds. Once you cross the bridge the Pitti Palace is only a short walk away. I purchase a ticket (10 Euros) that included the Boboli Gardens. Gorgeous museum and gardens, gorgeous interiors and several galleries of sculpture and paintings by Rueben and Rafael. After an exhausting climb to the top of the Bobili Gardens with beautiful views of Florence, I crossed back over the Ponte Vecchio. Next stop, Uffizi Gallery. (12 Euros) This was the first modern museum created by the Medici family. The main gallery of statues was as long as a football field. It was lined on both sides with statues, paintings, and portraits. Off the main gallery there are rooms containing works by Bottacelli and Da Vinci, just amazing. I returned to the hotel around 630 and enjoyed a wonderful dinner.
Getting wonderfully lost in Florence AGAIN
I left hotel at 830am and (once again) headed for the Bargello Museum. After a fortunate wrong turn, I found myself walking along the Arno River. Back on track, next stop was the Santa Croce Basilica (8 Euros). Gorgeous, with sculptures by Donatello and adjacent courtyard and amazing stonework. Finally reached the Bargello Museum (8 Euros). The entrance opens into and amazing medieval courtyard with exterior stairs. It is the National Museum of Sculpture. It includes works by Donatello, Michelangelo, Ghiberti and Brunelleschi. It also houses exhibits of furniture, gold, silver and ivory.
The rest of the day was spent exploring Piazza Del Duomo and Piazza San Giovanni, (18 Euros). The piazzas include the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore; the Brunelleschi Dome; the Baptistery of San Giovanni with the amazing bronze doors, “The Gates of Paradise”; the Giotto Bell Tower, which some tourists climb the 414 steps (but not this tourist, very tight space, I did try, but a third of the way up, I had to climb down) and the Grande Museum. The entry fee does not include entry to Brunelleschi Dome. A reservation for a specific time must be made when the ticket is purchased. Entry also includes the Grande Museum. It is three floors of works of art, some original and some replicas, removed from the church, Bell Tower and The Baptistery for preservation purposes during restorations. It contains works by all the major artists of the time including materials and documents of Brunelleschi’s soaring Dome.
Since it was off season, I did not purchase the Florence Museum Pass. During the summer and holiday seasons, I would recommend that a pass is purchased to avoid the lines. Private guided Skip the Line tours guide can be arranged through TFL. The city was not crowded at all. It is a friendly and safe city. I knew I could always find my way back to the Brunelleschi because my window looked out over the street with the Disney store. Everyone knew where it was located, and it was the only crowded store that I saw.
Meeting up with the group and heading to Viareggio
I was picked up by the TFL driver at 2pm and I had a chance to peek a the hotel where two other travel advisors were staying. They were at the Grand Hotel Minerva, located on the square in front of the Santa Maria Novella Church, with the Santa Maria Novella train station just behind the church.
Our destination was Viareggio, a beautiful seaside community that reminded me of Santa Barbara. Enormous beach with families and kids playing. The walkway was filled with walkers, skaters, and bikers. We were met at our hotel by Federica Tucci, owner of TFL Tours and our host for this fam. After many hugs, we were shown to our suites at the Grand Hotel Principe di Piemonte. It is directly across from the beach. Before dinner, I enjoyed a long walk along the beach before the entire group met for dinner in the Grand Hotel Tuscan dining room. At this time, I met the other eight Ensemble advisors in our group, as well as several of the TFL staff, and had a scrumptious meal.
Exploring the Cinque Terre
We met outside the hotel the next morning for our excursion to the Cinque Terre. we were divided into two brand new vans that TFL uses for their tours. It was a beautiful drive to and through La Spezia. When we arrived in Riomaggiore, the vans left us at the top of the long street for our stroll to the water. The vans would meet us later in Monterossa. The street that led to the water was extremely narrow and curved around the hillside, but very few people. I think we were the only tourists in the area. The views were amazing. From the beach you could look up the coast and see all the towns along the coastline. The weather was clear with blue skies that made the view just breathtaking. The coastal walkway that connects all the towns is closed in parts due to a landslide. We hiked back up to the train station and took the train to Manarolo. We navigated the narrow street to the coast and the colorful houses along it, right down to the water. There were many small restaurants, but most were closed.
Then we took the train to Vernazza for a tour of that area. After a restful stop along the water, we all met up at the train station and boarded the train for Monterossa. We had plenty of time to explore the town and walk along the beach. Our guide, Titziani arranged for a restaurant that is usually closed on Mondays, to be open for our group. Lots of seafood and pasta with our two-hour lunch. After another stroll along the beach we met up with our vans and drove back to Viareggio. We had a wonderful dinner of seafood and pasta in one of the many restaurants along the boardwalk.
The next morning, we headed out for truffle hunting. This is a tour that TFL can arrange for any of my clients. On our way, we drove by the Leaning Tower of Pisa, even though it was just a glimpse, the outline was clear. When we arrived at the Savini Tartufi store and restaurant, we met the truffle hunters, Luca and Andrea, with the dogs, Giotto Jr and Biroli. We took a jeep to the woods and the dogs were set free to find the truffles. They were successful and found three good size truffles. Just follow the dogs, they do all the work.
When we went back to the restaurant, we dined on everything truffle: cheese, salami, peaches, tomatoes, mortadella and 4 toasts with assorted spreads made with truffles. And, of course another pasta dish with truffles and it was all topped off with truffle ice cream. I didn’t think I would like anything truffle, but I was wrong, everything was delicious. After lunch we boarded our bus and headed to Lucca. Our guide in Lucca was the one and only Stephania. She guided us through the walled city. She made it fun.
Lucca is a wonderful town with very narrow streets and gorgeous bits of architecture. It is a town filled with locals strolling through the narrow streets. We ended our tour of Lucca at a small restaurant in the cellar of an old castle. We were greeted with aprons and chefs hats (right up my alley!). We didn’t actually cook (thank goodness). It was more of a cooking demonstration. It consisted of chicken cacciatore, pasta with red sauce and tiramisu. We all sat down to dinner with those dishes plus one more pasta dish for good measure.
Back to Florence with the Group
After breakfast, we boarded our bus to Florence. We met our guide Luca and walked to the Accademia. We skipped the lines and were treated to an abbreviated tour of the Accademia emphasizing Michelangelo’s David. It is truly beautiful. Luca gave a brief history of Michelangelo’s life. The we walked around Florence and stopped twice for snacks: coffee and sweets, then Prosecco and mini paninis. These stops were made on our way to have lunch at the Hotel Brunellschi.
After a wonderful lunch of pasta and pasta, we had a hotel inspection. The hotel consists of three buildings, including the Pagliazza Tower. The Tower was originally a prison for women believed to be witches. Later it became part of a church. Today the tower is connected on each side by the rooms of Hotel Brunelleschi. The Liberty rooms are classic rooms with city or Duomo views. The rooms on the other side of the tower are mainly suites with many, many stairs. The hotel has 2 restaurants and a large breakfast room with beautiful hand painted windows. Private tours can be arranged to visit the remains of the prison and even older Roman ruins that were found during renovations.
After our hotel inspection we walked about a mile and a half to our bus for our farewell dinner and last night in Viareggio. Our dinner was on the enclosed terrace of the hotel. We enjoyed a wonderful meal which included a crusted sirloin steak with fried artichokes. It was sad to say goodbye to new friends and the wonderful region of Tuscany. TFL pulled out all the stops and we were treated like royalty. Federica and her staff are just outstanding.
The next morning we had a small breakfast and were transferred to the Florence airport. Arrivederci Firenze!