One of the biggest destination's on my grandmother's bucket list has always been to see Mount Rushmore in person, so this year we decided to let her check this off her list (and mine!) and finally make a trip up to South Dakota. I also wanted to see this destination however I was not prepared for how gorgeous the surrounding area would be. I expected it to be similar to the Midwest - flat farmlands with just one random mountain for the monument. As we started the 14-hour drive my perception quickly changed because it was absolutely breathtaking! On our itinerary we visited Badlands National Park, Devils Tower in Wyoming, Spearfish Canyon, Black Hills National Forest and Mount Rushmore.
Once we finished our drive through the National Park we headed up to Wyoming to see the first ever National monument Devils Tower (as seen in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"). It was such a unique thing to see in person. The surrounding landscapes were large rolling hills with a few small mountains and then all of a sudden there's this tall figure! We took the drive up to the top and then walked around the base of the Tower. Experienced rock climbers are able to climb up to the top but that was a hard pass for me!
On our second day we drove through several areas before making our way to Mount Rushmore. We took the scenic route to Keystone (where Mount Rushmore is located) and we started north and made our way south thru Spearfish Canyon and Black Hills National Forest. Even though it adds about an hour and a half on to your commute it's absolutely worth it! While driving through this area I felt like I was in Colorado with the winding roads, tall pine trees and rapid rivers off to the side of the road. One of the most breathtaking parts was seeing Bridal Veil Falls just right off the side of the road. We pulled over for a quick photo op and to take in its beauty.
When we finally reached the small tourist town of Keystone we decided to go for a unique lunch opportunity instead of just dining in a regular restaurant. Instead we went to Rushmore Tramway Adventures and took a chairlift to Mountaintop Grill for a scenic view of Mount Rushmore! I was terrified to be on the chairlift on the way up and down, but it was totally worth it to have a view of Mount Rushmore for a simple lunch of burgers, fries and sodas.
With a full belly and being very thankful to be on flat land we finally made our way to our final destination - Mount Rushmore! It seemed so surreal to stand at the base and look up and this incredible piece of artwork. I couldn't help but just stare at it and think "wow!". It also was a great feeling to know my grandmother was finally able to check this off her list and to share the moment with my family.
My husband Alan and I are fortunate to have been to Italy a couple of times and I could go back over and over again. We had seen Rome, Florence, Venice, Pisa, Lake Como, Milan, Siena and San Gimignano. I asked Stephanie Turner, President of Brentwood Travel, if she could go back to Italy and had to pick one town to stay in for a week, where would she choose to go? Without missing a beat, she replied “Sorrento”! Little did I know that within the next couple of days I would be booking our trip to this dazzling place.
Sunday, May 13, 2018
We arrived in Naples, Italy around noon after layovers in Minneapolis and Paris. Our luggage arrived with us which always makes me happy. I arranged to have a driver waiting in the arrivals hall. To me there are few things more stressful than showing up in a foreign country after a long overnight journey and not knowing which taxi to trust. He called the hotel to let them know we were on our way and after a fairly short ride we arrived at Hotel Correra 241.
The hotel is located is in the heart of the city so it doesn’t take us long to find a big city square, a couple of churches, and an outdoor café where we sit to enjoy our lunch. We spent a couple of hours wandering around the National Archeological Museum. The main focus here is some of the best pieces from the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The two cities were buried in ash or debris when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. Many of the pieces here were discovered when Pompeii was excavated in the late 1700’s.
We met up with our tour guide, Elisa, and the rest of the group for a meeting on the hotel patio. We took a short walk around the city, past the Archaeological Museum, before stopping at a nice little place for dinner.
Monday, May 14
Today we headed for Pompeii. After a quick lunch we met up with our official guide for Pompeii. Lino. He is very knowledgeable and told some great stories that helped bring the city to life for us. Pompeii is located about 6 km from Mt Vesuvius. They said that the wind carried ash to Pompeii for days. Not everyone escaped. They estimate the population at the time to have been 6,000-20,000 people. About 2,000 people died. When they were excavating, they discovered food still on tables left behind as people tried to run.
We then made our way to Sorrento which is only about one hour away. We arrived at the Agriturismo di Vigliano – our home for the next 5 days. We were met by the son of our host family, Luigi and his sister Valentina. This place is beautiful! Lemon trees in every direction. The original house was built in the 16th century and has been passed down from generation to generation and remains within the family. All of the rooms are different. There are a few little cottages (Alan and I stayed in one of them) and there are rooms in the house. We took a few minutes to get settled and then met in the dining room for dinner. The family will make our breakfasts and dinners each day.
Our tour guide, Elisa is great. She has meals with us, has fun stories to tell about the places we are seeing, and keeps us organized. She brought a deck of cards with questions for everyone to answer to get everyone talking after dinner (If you could be a Disney character, which one would you be? If you could only choose one, health or love, which one would you choose?) Of course the night isn’t over until we have one last glass of wine and a limoncello (made by the family).
Tuesday, May 15
After breakfast, we were taken on a tour of the farm. They have one cow (which Luigi milks twice each day), 3 pigs, chickens (for the eggs), rabbits, several cats and a dog named Lucky. Valentina showed us how to make cheese from the cow’s milk (of course she makes it look so easy). Luigi showed us how to make limoncello. They made a “light” lunch consisting of homemade cheeses, salami, pasta with light tomato sauce. Valentina serenaded us on the violin while we ate. Perfecto!
The group went into Sorrento for a tour of the town. It has been raining off and on so we grabbed our umbrellas. Elisa took us to David’s Gelateria for a gelato making class. He makes all kinds of crazy flavors (chefs from local restaurants will ask him to make flavors like truffle or salmon or basil to go along with a dish they are serving). I had the ricotta and it was amazing! Again, we were told we can make this at home but somehow I don’t think it will taste the same. We stopped at one of Elisa’s favorite food shops for a little lesson on balsamic vinegar and I bought a bottle of an amazing 12 year old balsamic vinegar…let the shopping begin :)
Back at the farm, Luigi fired up the outdoor pizza oven and they tried to teach us how to work the dough and we made our own pizzas for dinner. Natasha (Luigi’s wife) and Ida (his mom) helped us put them together, Luigi did the cooking. Delish!
Wednesday, May 16
Sunny today. Feels warmer already. Taking a boat ride to Amalfi then visiting Positano. Thankfully the rain has stopped. Luigi and his mom drove us to the marina in Massa Lubrense where we found our boat and captains for the day. Liberto is our driver and Giovanni seems to be the first mate. It was a little chilly and the water was a little choppy but it was still a beautiful ride. They stopped along the way to show us different caves and grottos on the islands and along the coast. The Mediterranean Sea is the most beautiful shade of blue you can imagine.
Our first stop was Amalfi. I have heard many people tell me how beautiful it is and the view is breathtaking! Our second stop was Positano. The climb is steep but was a fun stroll. There are several restaurants along the sea where you can relax with a drink or a bite to eat.
The best part of the day was being on the boat. On the ride back, Giovanni served us some bruschetta and a bread (more like a quiche) that had ham and cheese both he made himself along with some Prosecco and limoncello. He was a lot of fun!
Another wonderful dinner by the family and wine and limoncello and more questions made for a fun evening :)
Thursday, May 17
Today was a free day. Elisa helped everyone come up with a plan and sent us on our way. Alan and I took the bus into Sorrento (thank you to the nice people at the bus stop for telling us we were on the wrong side of the street to catch the bus to Sorrento!). Then we bought tickets for the train to Erculano which was about an hour by train. We were happy to find a private tour guide, Francesca, inside Erculano. She spent about an hour and fifteen minutes walking us around and describing the families who lived here and the homes that have been uncovered. Erculano was a resort town for the wealthy, buried under 16 meters of pyroclastic rock from the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 AD. Only about 1/5 of the town has been excavated so far.
Friday, May 18
The weather has been perfect so we spent today out on Giovanni’s boat again. On our way to Capri we stopped at several grottos for a close up view. He prepared a picnic lunch of Caprese Sandwiches for everyone. We passed through Lovers Arch and he played Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” and made all of the married couples kiss as we rode through. We were all cracking up. A little awkward for the singles in the group…LOL.
Elisa arranged for a van to take all of us up to Anacapri. We walked around for about an hour. A few brave souls in the group took the chair lift to the very top just as a cloud moved in. It was not like the chair lifts we have in the U.S. We decided to keep our feet on the ground.
Afterwards we drove down about halfway and stopped in the town of Capri. This was a lot of fun. Lots of high end shopping and beautiful people watching. The Rolex Cup sailing competition is in town and the sailboats are beautiful!
After a full day, Giovanni (and Elisa) drove us back to Massa Lubrense at a nice slow pace. The water was calm and beautiful. We didn’t’ want it to end so I asked if he would take us on down to Sorrento so we could see it from the water. He was happy to oblige and I’m so glad I asked…it was gorgeous! We ended the afternoon with some more of his homemade appetizers and limoncello. Our last dinner at the farm was lovely. The group really enjoyed one another and I think there were a few tears shed at the thought of saying goodbye
Contact Julie at 314-580-4554 or send her an email to begin planning an immersive travel experience.
Then check out Julie's blog for her best tips on keeping a travel journal for your next adventure!
Hawaii has been at the top of my bucket list for years! When I decided to make this trip happen in 2018 I invited a few friends along and made it the ultimate girls trip; Jenn, Rachel, and Abby joined me on this adventure. Hawaii had everything we wanted in a vacation- perfect weather, beaches, hiking, water activities, and city life. The choice of which two islands to visit was a hard one, but for this trip we landed on Oahu and Kauai.
Oahu was the perfect start to our vacation! Our first few nights were along the famous Waikiki Beach. Here we were able to walk all around our hotel to restaurants, shops, and different sections of the beach. We really enjoyed the beach and the hustle of the Waikiki strip.
Oahu has so much more to offer than just Waikiki. It’s a must to get out of that area whether you rent a car or take a guided tour of the island. Some of our highlights from around the island are below.
Any visit to Oahu isn’t complete without a stop here. It was a very humbling experience to learn about the attacks in such detail and see how much it affected the people of Hawaii personally.
We love to hike, so a trip up Diamond Head was an easy choice for an activity. Even if you are a light to moderate hiker this trip is worth it for the view. The path is paved, but it is mostly uphill so be sure to take your time and bring water.
This private nature reserve is home to the filming location of many favorite movies and TV shows. I enjoyed fangirling over the sites from “Jurassic Park” and “Lost”. Here you can zipline, take ATV tours, horseback rides, or a film bus tour. We decided to go for the 2-hour ATV tour and I’m so glad that we chose that. It was a highlight for our time on Oahu.
These botanical gardens blew away our expectations! The variety of flowers and historical sites leading up to the waterfall was so impressive. Rachel majored in Conservation Biology, so this stop was especially exciting for her.
Polynesian Culture Center
We decided to stay two nights on the North Shore so that we could really enjoy the quieter pace of Oahu and enjoy a full day experience at the Polynesian Culture Center. Our tickets were for the Ambassador Luau Package, which included visiting the villages from noon to 6pm, a dinner buffet show, and the “Ha: Breath of Life” performance. Each village had exhibits on their island and gave special little shows throughout the day. Have the guide was so beneficial because she was able to take us on the best route to maximize our time. My favorite was the Samoa act! I truly recommend spending the full day here from noon until the “Breath of Life” performance!
Kauai was our second island choice because of the amount of natural beauty on the garden island! About 80% of Kauai can’t been seen by car. It can only be accessed by water, air, or hiking—so we decided to do all three!
We really chose to live it up in Kauai and stay at the Grand Hyatt Kauai. This hotel was gorgeous! Having Club access, we also enjoyed the spa access and use of the club lounge for breakfast.
Na Pali Coast Catamaran Cruise
I love to be out on the water, so the catamaran cruise was the activity I was most excited about and it did not disappoint! We woke up bright and early and made it to the ship in time to sail away just after sunrise. Breakfast was served as we enjoyed the salt water breeze! We had an amazing sighting of dolphins swimming and even a whale tale! First, we stopped in a cove to snorkel. We had a blast seeing the variety of fish and a sea turtle swimming. After snorkeling we set out to get our first glimpse of the Na Pali Coast. I can’t even put into words how stunning the landscape is in person. Captain Jeff and his crew shared stories and facts about Kauai along the way. Our deli lunch and beverages really hit the spot for our scenic ride back to Port Allen.
Since so much of Kauai can only been seen from above we decided to spring for a helicopter tour. We saw some amazing waterfalls and the Na Pali Coast again! Our pilot gave some great commentary and played some touring music. If there is any place to take a helicopter tour, Kauai must be at the top of the list.
Another item at the top of our list was hiking. We decided to visit the lookouts of Waimea Canyon and choose a trail there. We ended up on the Canyon Rim trail. This gave us some fantastic, unspoiled views and a few bonus waterfalls. The trails are not very well marked so be sure to read the signs on how long the hike is and bring plenty of water.
This was such a truly spectacular trip and I was so lucky to share it with three friends. Hawaii is perfect for friends, romance, and family! It’s all about the islands and places you choose. I’m happy to share more details about my accommodation, activities, or trip planning!
Start planning your next trip by giving Stacey
a call at 314-439-5700 ext. 128 or send her an email.
Most of the time when people mention they're traveling to Iowa people question "why?". No, it's not the most popular state, but hidden in each state of our county is a gem and Iowa's is the small Dutch town of Pella.
Pella is located right outside of Des Moines, IA that Hollanders claimed as their new home in 1847. They named it Pella, otherwise meaning "city of refuge". This Dutch community has grown since it was first founded and it still holds on to its founding roots of traditions, food, customs and more. One of the most popular traditions that they celebrate like their European ancestors is the famed Tulip Time Festival. When I heard about the Festival (and it only being 4 hours away from St. Louis) I knew I had to go and I'm so glad I did!
As we walked around this city we couldn't believe how much it actually felt like we could be in Europe. All of the buildings in the city had similar architecture to that of the Netherlands with bricks, towers, colorful shutters and of course, windmills! Pella actually has an authentic windmill that was built in Hoogmade, the Netherlands, and was de-assembled and then re-assembled in Pella in 2002. Visitors are able to take a tour and go up the windmill however we were unable to during our visit (we'll save it for next time!).
The streets were alive with dancing in wooden shoes, Dutch food trucks, beautiful Dutch clothing, presentations and parades. I honestly didn't anticipate for there to be as many people at this small festival, but it turns out Pella usually has around 150,000 visitors for the Tulip Time Festival each year. It made it fun and exciting to be around so many people who were interested in learning about and celebrating a different culture.
Pella is a destination I fully plan to visit again with my family. It offers something fun and unique to a large audience and it's great for a quick weekend getaway. This town also has local wineries and a lake for even more activities outside of the Festival. If you're interested in visiting the next Tulip Time Festival in Pella then mark your calendar for the first weekend of May in 2019 - we'll see you there!
To book your Tulip Time Festival vacation contact the staff at Brentwood Travel today! Call us at 314-439-5700!
Even if you are not a writer, keeping a travel journal is a great way to bring insight and understanding of the world as you journey through it. During any trip, you have so many incredible experiences that they may blur together. By keeping a journal, it will be much easier to recall all those unique individual memories later. Travel Consultants Julie Skrainka and Carrie Fry frequently keep travel journals and we asked them for their best tips.
When and why did you start keeping a journal?
Julie: I started writing in a travel journal on my first international trip in 1990. My husband, Alan, and I went to Ireland (with a group) and England (on our own) for almost two weeks and I knew I would never be able to remember everything we did and all of the fun people we traveled with without writing it down!
Carrie: I started doing journals after my first ‘real’ international trip. My previous domestic travels and a Caribbean cruise were more like, “yeah, vacation!” but my first international trip was to Ireland and Rome. That’s when I had my the world is huge, and complicated, and fantastic moment. And I purchased a blank journal at Dublin’s airport before my flight home.
What are the benefits of keeping a travel journal?
Julie: Writing everything down helps me reflect on the amazing experiences we have had. Each day that we are on a trip usually goes by so fast that stopping every other day or so to write in my journal helps me remember the adventures much more clearly. Now, having nearly 30 years of journals to look back on is invaluable to me!
Carrie: One reason I really like keeping a journal is for the little moments that happen on a trip that seem to get overshadowed by the trip itself. In Kyoto, we were walking past a group of school kids (maybe 8-10 years old), and they were staring at us. My husband was completely oblivious, but I made eye-contact with one of the kids and she got a huge smile on her face and said “hello”, I smiled back, waived, and told her “hi”. Then the group of kids covered their mouths, giggled, and ran away. I’d like to think these kids probably wanted to practice their English and it was a cute fleeting instant where I felt like I got to connect a little with the locals.
Do you write during your trip or afterwards? Do you keep notes in a book, computer, or an app?
Julie: 99% of the time, I write during our trip. For some of the shorter, 3 or 4 day trips, I will sometimes wait until the flight home to “catch up”. Every time I see a pretty journal, I start writing in it. Then I would pick grab an old journal for the next trip and write in there.
Carrie: I really try to write something any time I get home from a trip. I do really think it’s important, because even after my husband read what I wrote about Japan, he told me that he had already forgot about some of the trip-and we’re not that old to have our memories slip like that.
Do you use any techniques to organize your notes ?
Julie: My journals are far from organized! I am trying to make time to transfer all of my journals to the computer to make something sensible out of them. For the last couple of trips, I have actually been writing on my iPad.
Carrie: Typically, I just get on the computer and do it when I get home, but hand writing notes along the way helps a lot. Before I start, I will also compile both the pictures from each of our phones and get the itinerary out. That way I know where we were at and when and have the pictures handy to jog my memory.
What is your best tip for keep a travel journal?
Julie: For shorter, weekend trips, I have stopped keeping track of those. But for longer, more adventurous trips, I always write about those. Hopefully, my future grandchildren will enjoy hearing about all of the amazing places we have been! You now have me thinking…we just spent a fun two weeks in California seeing our kids, visiting extended family, playing a little golf, doing a little sightseeing that I didn’t even think to write about. I think I’ll get out that journal now!
Carrie: My best tip is to write during the trip. This doesn’t mean sitting down at your hotel with your laptop. The best way I journal is to buy a postcard or two before dinner, and as your having your aperitif, jot down your thoughts on that day. Postcards are super easy to find and really inexpensive. At the end of your trip, you now have a easily packable stack of postcards that you can use to compose your journal, or just keep it as is. Personally, these postcards aren’t so much about what you saw, but how it made you feel.
Do you have a travel journal from a recent trip that you took through Brentwood Travel? We want to hear from you! We love to share the insights, stories, and images of our travelers and will add this to our Blog page. It's a great way to inspire others to get out and write about their adventures. Contact Allison or Missi from our Marketing Team to learn more!
Japan has been on “the list” for years. We wanted to experience a society that feels mysterious, and the juxtaposing of modern and ancient drew us in. When we decided to do a big trip, Japan was it. We would finally get to see this amazing country first hand.
Now what to do with 8 days in a country that offers a tourist so much to experience? From Sapporo in the north down to Yonaguni in the south, each city, each island, each prefecture, has its own personality and attractions. Eight days didn’t feel like enough, but we wanted to see as much as we could while setting our own schedule. Narrowing down what to do was difficult, but for our first (because there will be a next time!) trip to Japan, we focused on Tokyo, Hakone, and Kyoto.
We landed in Tokyo in the early evening, our driver-in full suit and white gloves (we would soon find this was standard for taxi and transfers) was waiting for us with our name on a sign board. The journey to the hotel was about an hour and a half, we flew into Narita Airport, which is further from the city than Haneda, but our flight
options were better into Narita. When we arrived at the Hilton Tokyo, in Shinjuku we decided to take a nap then go to dinner. We didn’t wake up until the next day.
We woke up obnoxiously early the next day and went to visit the Tsukiji Fish Market (it opens at 5AM and you should go before 9AM to see the bustling of the market). It was overwhelming how perfectly the chaos was organized. There were people on carts taking the morning catches to the vendors, locals doing their shopping, and wares and fish I didn’t recognize. We wandered and watched and then had sushi for breakfast, although we passed on having a beer with our breakfast like many of locals were doing.
From the Fish Market, we hopped on the subway and ambled down Takeshita Street. This street is full of Japan’s latest fashions. Young adults and tourists were popping in and out of the many clothing shops and themed cafes. The street is famous for their crepes-we had to stop and have one.
Just a few blocks from Takeshita is the Meji Shrine. As the path to the shrine rambled on, we stopped in our tracks upon seeing the first tori gate welcoming us, and it hit us-we were in Japan. Hours ago, we meandered through a district that is a pop-culture bellwether and crossed the street to a shrine that was built in 1920. At the Shrine, we sauntered through the grounds and the gardens. The gardens were so tranquil, we had no inkling we were in the middle of a metropolis larger than New York City.
From the Shrine, we ventured to one of Tokyo’s most photographed areas- Shibuya Crossing. Even though we were there before evening rush hour, it was packed. We observed this perfectly orchestrated bedlam before doing a few crossings ourselves. There is a Starbucks that overlooks the crossing for an elevated view.
Our last day in Tokyo, we started our sightseeing at Hamarikyo Garden. This is well planned garden, where the flower species are staggered so there are blooms all year long. The garden is full of lakes and teahouses and even a duck-hunting blinds built in the late 1700s. After admiring the gardens and having a bit of serenity before getting back into the city, we boarding a boat to take us north to Asakusa. The hour-long boat ride was a great way to see Tokyo from a different perspective. You could see how the neighborhoods changed from sky-rise buildings to smaller homes. We even got to see where the ships dock at the fish market.
A few blocks from the dock is the Sensoji Temple. The complex is huge, with building and shopping everywhere you turn. Walking into the main hall feels otherworldly and the five storied pagoda looms over you. After taking in all we could at the Temple, we took a short subway ride to Skytree. Although very touristy, I’m glad we fit this into our itinerary. Skytree is hard to miss, it’s 2,080 feet high and you can go to the top observation deck, overlooking Tokyo at 1,480 feet. On a clear day, you can see Mt Fuji. This could be an all-day experience, there is tons of shopping from chopsticks to Pokémon and the views are absolutely stunning. It’s hard to imagine how massive Tokyo really is until you’re at the top seeing nothing but urban landscape.
Hakone is a onsen (hot spring) town about an hour and a half from Tokyo for locals and tourists alike. It feels very rural compared to Tokyo and while it would take three days to see everything, but we only had one. On our way to Hakone, we stopped at Odawara Castle. This was one of my favorite stops in Japan. It’s beautiful and the town feels sleepy. The museum at the Castle was full of ancient armor and relics. After touring the castle, we walked back to the train station and after a short ride, we were in Hakone.
Trains and gondolas are the way to get around in Hakone. At each stop, there’s a little village with shopping, restaurants, and hotels. We only had time to explore one and we chose the Owakudani Station. What’s interesting about this stop, is that you go over a volcanic area with sulfur vents. The smell is overwhelming and the landscape is eerie. There is hiking you can do in the area and even eat a hard-boiled egg that cooked in the steam of the vents that turn the egg shells black. After exploring, we got back on the gondola and took it to our ryokan.
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn dating back to the 8th century. There are all kinds you can book, but this was our splurge. Upon arrival, we left our shoes at the door as the floors were covered in tatami mats. We were seated in the bar and given a welcome drink as were checked in. When we arrived to our room, our hostess showed us how to dress in the provided yukata (bathing clothes). Then we were left to relax in our private onsen on the balcony of our room overlooking the mountains until dinner. This was a welcomed treat as were averaging 12 miles a day on foot. We would soak until we were too hot, cool down with a beer, then get back into the onsen until dinner time. If you would like to experience a public onsen there are a lot of etiquette rules that I’d be ecstatic to share.
Dinner was served in our room, and each of the 9 courses were better than the last-even if we didn’t recognize what we were eating. After dinner and another soak, we slept on traditional futons. The next morning, we were served a traditional Japanese breakfast in our room, then said goodbye to Hakone and the wonderful ryokan. Our stay marked one of the best cultural experiences we’ve had to date. We were off to Kyoto by bullet train. We spent the evening in Kyoto and had the best tonkotsu I’ve ever tried.
It was an early morning as met our driver at our hotel to take us to Miyajima Island Hiroshima. We arrived via bullet train to Hiroshima, then ferried to Miyajima Island where the Tori Gate in the water welcomed us. This is another place I wish we had all day to explore, as the water receded, you could walk right up to the gate. The town had so many specialties restaurants-we had oysters-and there was so much more to explore and so many deer to pet.
After our time on the Island, we went to the A-Bomb Dome and began our tour of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. The A-Bomb Dome is sobering. As our guide let us take in the magnitude of which were seeing, she led us to the Children's Peace Monument, then the Museum. This day was certainly thought provoking and was wholeheartedly different then the wide-eyed days had already spent in Japan, I am fortunate we were able to absorb part of the history.
The next day, back in Kyoto, we took the train to Fushimi Inari. Stone foxes dominated the shrine, and everywhere you looked, there were orange tori gates-one after another- leading you to another part of the shrine. As we climbed up the mountain, there were offshoots of smaller shrines. The tori gates and shrines went all the way up the mountain. That evening, we were picked up from the hotel and taken to a restaurant across the city in the mountain foothills. The opened-air restaurant was situated next to the river, and after we were served another multi course meal, met two Maikos and watched them preform.
On our last full day, we ventured to Ryōan-ji Temple, dating back to 1450. We were there early-before the other tourists and school children, and it was so serine. You can wander the temple grounds, which takes you to a perfectly manicured rock garden. There are 15 rocks in this garden, and only 14 are viewable at any angle.
From Ryōan-ji Temple, we taxied to Arashiyama, which is just west of Kyoto. Arashiyama is an outdoor district where bicycling is popular. We began this part of our journey walking the paths of the bamboo forest and popping into the local shops that line the entrance and exists. From there, we found an amazing, small sushi restaurant for lunch. When my husband ordered the fatty tuna, the chef held the fish us for us to admire before slicing it. This was the best sushi we have ever tried and it took us months to have sushi after we came home-we were ruined.
It’s a good thing we had a solid lunch, because we then ventured to Monkey Park. You literally have to climb a mountain to get there. But when we made it to the summit, over 100 Japanese macaques were there to greet us. You can feed them from a building in the middle of the park but keep your distance when wondering the grounds! This is their home and they take no issue with running in front of you. Between being fascinated by the monkeys and the stunning views of Kyoto from the top of the mountain, the hike was worth it. We relaxed by the Togetsu-kyō Bridge taking in the gorgeous scenery until we made our way back to the hotel.
That evening, we wanted Kobe beef for dinner, and wanted to do it right. The hotel made us reservations (and delivered a package to our room with our reservation time, the address of the restaurant, and the best way to get there) at one of the best Kobe restaurants in Kyoto. The restaurant itself was very small-only seating about 15 guests. As the chef prepared our meal at the teppanyaki grill in front of us, he joked that he doesn’t catch eggs in his hat like the chefs in America.
The next morning was our last, and since our transfer wasn’t until the afternoon, we had time to explore Nijō Castle. We saw the shogun’s receiving rooms and gardens, then climbed the defense towers to get one last look at Kyoto before our flight home.
Our visit to Japan was one of our best trips yet. The culture, the people, the food, has left us wanting more. This didn’t feel like a vacation, it felt like we were transported to another world. We were able to come into contact with the ancient and modern of this country-happening all within the same day. Japan-we will see you again!
Carrie has many more stories to share of her journey to Japan! Contact her to learn more and begin planning your next bucket-list trip:
Send Carrie an email
This past October, Ensemble Travel Group and Carnival Cruise Line announced a new multi-year preferred supplier partnership. Ensemble Travel Group is a member-owned and member-run organization of approximately 850 top-tier, independent travel agencies including Brentwood Travel.
Carnival joins its North American sister brands Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, Cunard and Seabourn as part of the World’s Leading Cruise Lines preferred supplier team with Ensemble Travel Group.
Missi Wilson, Marketing Associate, believes that a Carnival cruise is a perfect introduction to the world of cruising. ‘I had never cruised before or had even been out of the country until I sailed with Carnival when I was 18. They showed me just how fun cruising can be because it's such a unique form of travel. You're vacationing on the ship while you're going to your vacation spot. I'm definitely addicted to cruising after sailing with them"
Travel Consultant Maggie Groene absolutely agrees! When she was a young traveler, Maggie enjoyed three Carnival cruises with her family. "We chose Carnival because they have New Orleans as a cruise port. We have family in New Orleans, so before each cruise we would drive down and visit them. Each cruise we did an excursion in Cozumel, which is a great place for snorkeling. Because I was super young, the things that stood out to me were the towel animals in the room and the 24hr free ice cream machine."
Contact Maggie at 314-439-5700 ext. 120 or send her an email to book your next family cruise.
Benefits of Using an Ensemble-Member Travel Agent:
Imagine if you had the opportunity to speak with a globetrotter whose profession is wanderlust? Well, you can! Booking with an Ensemble-member Travel Agents can make your experience come to life with more travel experiences, promotions, and preferred suppliers.
Working with an Ensemble-member travel agent means access to a large selection of travel experiences catered to your unique style and preferences.
When you work in the travel industry your resolution list doesn't always include just diet and exercise; instead, it's where to travel next! Some of our staff members shared where they hope to travel in 2018 that they had not visited before. We wish everyone a happy 2018 and we hope you complete your travel resolutions, too!
Allison Harper - Walt Disney World
Ashley Curry - Road trip to another state with a stop in Walt Disney's hometown, Marceline, MO
Cathy Robinson - Singapore and Italy
Cheryl Hegger - Adriatic and Baltic
Emily Medina - Galapagos Central Islands & Inca Discovery tour to see Machu Picchu
Jennifer Wilmes - Alaskan tour
Joanie Ramey - Napa, CA by way of Sacramento, CA; Phoenix, AZ; Destin, FL; Ocho Rios, Jamaica
Maggie Groene - Alaska and Punta Cana
Mickey Gaona - Portugal
Missi Wilson - Anywhere on a cruise
Stacey Hoehne - Hawaii
Susan Hakenjos - Meditation and wellness trip in India
To book your 2018 resolution trip contact one of our excellent specialists at 314-439-5700, or visit our Contact Us page.
This past October, my boyfriend Scott and I went on a trip to Negril, Jamaica to experience the pure luxury of Couples Swept Away. This is my second trip to this magical island and my boyfriend’s 14th time and we were spoiled and pampered at this all-inclusive resort perfectly located on Seven Mile Beach.
Traveling with Apple Vacations to Jamaica made our journey easy and relaxing. We were able to take a non-stop chartered flight from St. Louis to Montego Bay with XTRA airways. The flight was 3.5 hours and we landed around 12:30pm, right on time to make the most of our first day in Jamaica.
We decided to use Club Mobay which is a fast-track service and is something we highly recommend. Our meet and greet representative, Wayne, met us right at the entrance to the airport with a warm smile and our names easily visible on a large sign. He then guided us through the lines of people waiting through immigration, customs, and the baggage claim and straight to a private lounge where we waited for our van.
The lounge also had a kid friendly area for families complete with toys and electronics which I know I would I would have used if we had our kiddos along for the trip. We had enough time to enjoy a cool drink and some yummy snacks when we were told our van was ready to take us straight to our resort.
The ride to Negril only took about 45 minutes and we listened to reggea music and watched the beauty of the island unfold before our eyes. Once we arrived at Couples Swept Away, I knew right away it was a place designed to please the eye and soul. The colors of the lobby were soft and serene and the sound of palm trees blowing in the breeze was hypnotic.
We were invited into an open air room with comfy chairs and given glasses of champaign which made us feel very VIP. A representative of the resort gave us an overview of the property including the location of their six restaurants and how the resort worked on a cashless system. In other words, we were encouraged to lock up our wallets in the safe provided in our room as they would not be needed during our stay.
We were then given the key to our garden verandah room and took one of many lush paths to discover our new home for the next week.
Our room was very tranquil and featured high ceilings, ceiling fans, and a large covered porch that had an amazing jungle view. It was just a quick one minute walk to the beach were we were always greeted with the turquois water of the Caribbean. There were plenty of beach chairs available as well as large rafts that could be brought straight out to the water to float on the waves. As much as Scott loves being on the beach, the sun is not always very kind back to him and he was relieved to find several shady areas with straw-covered umbrellas.
The food at Couples Swept Away was a major highlight during our stay. We loved the options at the full buffet for breakfast which included omelet stations as well as traditional Jamaican dishes such as fried plantains. A real treat was Seagrapes Cafe which served vegetarian options and was located beach side. The sweet potato chips were addictive and we also discovered delicious coco bread which is stuffed with cheese and peppers and served with a ginger chutney sauce.
For dinner, we tried two of the specialty restaurants: Lemongrass and Patois Patio which served delicious Meditterrian entrees. Lemongrass was our favorite and required a reservation which was easy to schedule with a quick visit to the front desk. The food was ala cart and Thai inspired and the flavors and portions were all spot on. The view was just as equally incredibly as it looked over the pool and was lit with lanterns and tiki torches.
Even though we never left the resort, there were plenty of activities for us to try. Excursion schedules are posted daily and you just need to sign-up one ahead to take part. Scuba diving has been on my travel to do list and the resort offered a FREE class to get a taste. We started out getting suited up and had a lesson of essential skills in their pool. Once we completed that and felt comfortable, we were led to a shallow area near the beach where we saw starfish. It was a huge thrill!
We also enjoyed a glass bottom boat ride out to the reef. Our guide was very entertaining and informative on the types of sea life we were able to see including all types of coral, sting rays, and even a sea turtle which can be rare to view. During the day there was a menu of classes offered throughout the resort including basket weaving, wood carving, jewelry making, and morning yoga.
We also enjoyed the martini bar which always had a fun crowd watching the bartenders make a variety of mixed drinks. The martini bar also had a perfect view of the dance floor where different entertainment groups including reggae bands, dancers, and steel drummers would perform nightly.
One evening, we enjoyed a bonfire on the beach which included wine tasting and live guitar music. It was a perfect and romantic way to end a day in paradise.
I would highly recommend Couples Swept Away as a place for couples to unwind and reconnect. The people were incredible friendly and we enjoyed making instant friendships with other guests and the staff at the resort. No matter where you were, you could hear singing and laughter and I felt like it was a place where I belonged and wanted to stay for a long time.
Call one of our expert travel consultants at 314-439-5700 and be swept away to Jamaica with Apple Vacations.
My husband, Alan, and I had traveled to Northern and Western Europe, but have always had Eastern Europe on our bucket list. I know that my heritage is rooted in Germany, while his family tree extends to Czechoslovakia and Hungary from as early as the 16th century. Last August, we took a river cruise in the Bordeaux region of France and met a wonderful group of seasoned travelers, who all told us that the Danube River cruise was one of their favorite trips. I was excited to begin planning our next adventure and knew Avalon Waterways had what we were looking for.
August 19-20, 2017
On Saturday, we boarded a Lufthansa flight to Munich and had a short layover before reaching Budapest on Sunday, where our cruise would be departing from on Tuesday. Upon our arrival, we were greeted outside the baggage claim by an Avalon Waterways representative, who guided us to the shuttle that would be taking us to our hotel. Little did we know, we were arriving on the most celebrated holiday in Hungary, St. Stephen’s Day (similar to our 4th of July)! Traffic was a little crazy but eventually we arrived.
We stayed at the Sofitel Chain Bridge, which was located on the Pest side of Budapest, right on the Danube River. We had a gorgeous view from the room and would absolutely stay there again if we find ourselves in Budapest.
After a quick meeting with our Avalon tour director, Roos (pronounced “Rose”), we walked just a few blocks from our hotel and found a pedestrian area that was filled with restaurants and outdoor seating. We watched a wonderful parade that ended at St. Stephen’s Basilica. We decided to grab a seat for dinner before the crowd dispersed and made our way to the restaurant Aszu, which had a great selection of traditional Hungarian fare and a few more familiar dishes. Both of us ordered the Paprika Chicken and it was delicious.
After dinner, we strolled down the street that followed the river and watched a spectacular fireworks show over the Chain Bridge in celebration of St. Stephen’s Day.
August 21, 2017
Monday morning began with a guided City Tour that touched on Heroes Square and the Dohany Street Synagogue on the Pest side then Buda Castle and Matthias Church on the Buda side. In the afternoon, we went on a culinary tour with 6 other couples. We walked for a total of about three hours, and stopped at a traditional butcher, a wine and cheese shop, and an ice cream parlor.
After the tour we split off from the group and walked across the Chain Bridge back to the “Buda” side to do some more exploring. We walked around the Buda Castle before finding dinner. I was excited to try the traditional Hungarian Goulash (beef stew), which lived up to my expectations. It was a beautiful evening with the “Pest” side of Budapest as the backdrop. It was certainly a photo opportunity!
August 22-23, 2017
Before leaving Budapest later in the afternoon, we took some time to visit the House of Terror. One of the saddest museums and memorials I have ever seen. It is full of exhibits related to the fascist and communist regimes of 20th century Hungary. Certainly something to make you think. What seems so foreign to us is still so fresh in the minds of the people of Hungary.
We met up with 10 other couples for a tour of the countryside that included stops and wine tastings at two different vineyards as well as a gourmet lunch prepared by the owner of the second vineyard. Everything was delicious and everyone in the group was becoming fast friends.
Our home for the next seven days was the Avalon Visionary, a small ship carrying 115 guests on board. Avalon is the only cruise line with beds facing a wall of windows, so we were eager to take advantage of the scenic experience. We sailed all night and through the next day. We took advantage of the outstanding weather and had lunch on the top deck of the ship, while watching the small towns of Hungary and Slovakia pass by. We have already met so many nice people from every corner of the world: Australia, Belize, Canada, Chicago, England, New York, New Zealand, and Texas.
Our day aboard the ship consisted of eating, napping, and learning to waltz! We enjoyed an early dinner before disembarking in Vienna. We went into town for a concert at what used to be the beautiful palace/home of a prominent local family…a perfect evening.
August 24, 2017
The day began with a guided City Tour of Vienna. We drove along the Ring Road, the road that surrounds the Old Town and is built where medieval city fortifications once stood. It has been designated by UNESCO as part of Vienna’s World Heritage Site. The road is lined with some of the most beautiful buildings I think I have ever seen. Among them are the Vienna State Opera, Academy of Fine Arts, Palace of Justice, Parliament, University of Vienna, Vienna Stock Exchange, just to name a few. I wish we had more time to explore here…we will just have to come back!
We took a short walking tour through a quiet part of Old Town and were given about an hour to explore on our own. Not nearly enough time to see it all. The afternoon consisted of a tour of Schonbrunn Palace, the former imperial summer residence, as well as a great history lesson on the life of Queen Maria-Teresa, who ruled Austria for over 40 years and gave birth to 16 children (one of them was Marie Antoinette).
Our ship was docked in port until 10:45 pm so we went into town for dinner. Our tour guide recommended Griechensbeisl (please don’t ask me to pronounce it). We each ordered the filet mignon and a nice glass of Zweigelt. Afterwards we agreed we should probably try to walk off some of that dinner so we made our way back to the ship on foot. After about 30 minutes I realized we must have made a wrong turn…thank goodness for Uber!
Avalon brought a musical duo from Slovakia on board to entertain us tonight. They were fantastic! One is the conductor and the other is the principal violinist for the symphony orchestra in Bratislava. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the performance.
August 25, 2017
Today we woke up in Durnstein. A tiny little town in the Wachau Valley where King Richard I the Lionheart was once held prisoner. One of the gentlemen in our group from England has traced his family tree all the way back to the 12th century and discovered that he is a direct descendent of King Henry II and King Richard I the Lionheart so he was quite excited to see Durnstein.
At 11:00 we set sail for Melk. We found a couple of lounge chairs on the top deck and enjoyed the scenery for the next couple of hours as Roos talked about each of the sites and villages we passed along the way. We docked in Melk at 2:00. We then went on a guided tour of the Melk Abbey. This is another UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a must see. It is a working Benedictine abbey. It contains a private secondary school for 900 children. Next to the Sagrada Famila in Barcelona, the church at the Melk Abbey is one of the most beautiful that I have ever seen.
August 26, 2017
We woke up in a tiny town called Aschach. The only reason for stopping here was to let off the passengers going on optional excursions to Salzburg or Cesky Krumlov. The “Sound of Music” is one of my favorite movies of all time so I lightly twisted Alan’s arm to visit Salzburg and see some of the spots where the movie was filmed. The first stop was in a gorgeous town called Mondsee. There is a lake at the base of the mountains where people were paddle boarding and sailing.
It is a popular holiday spot for locals.
In Mondsee is the famous St. Michael’s church where the wedding scene in the movie was filmed. We then drove to Salzburg. Our guide gave us a short orientation tour and then turned us loose. We took the funicular up to the fortress for an incredible view of the city. Coming back down, we wandered the streets in search of lunch and our souvenir Christmas ornaments before having to return to the bus.
August 27, 2017
Today we woke up in Regensburg, Germany. It is the fourth largest city in Bavaria. Besides the fact that it is the oldest city on the Danube, the three highlights were:
Before dinner, Avalon brought two local ladies on board for a tasting of the local beers. They did a great job but it was a little hard to take them seriously given their cute local costumes and pigtails. The beer was delicious and they made it really fun.
August 28, 2017
Today we are sailing along the part of the Main-Danube canal that has 16 locks in a 106 mile stretch of the waterway. A local university professor came on board to explain to us the whole canal/lock engineering masterpiece. Because of the lock system, we were actually 1000 feet above sea level at our highest point, before we started to gradually descend. He was super interesting.
We arrived in Nuremberg in the afternoon and opted for the City Tour. It is the second largest city in Bavaria and dates back to the 11th century, is notorious as the birth place of the Nazi Party and was the location of many Nazi propaganda rallies. In 1945-1946, after WWII ended, German officials accused of war crimes were brought to trial here in the Nuremberg Trials.
After that, we stopped for a tour of Nuremberg Castle and Old Town. It is storybook pretty. They hold a huge Christmas market here every year that draws over two million visitors!
August 29, 2017
We arrived by bus at the Prague Marriott at noon. The hotel is in a fabulous location…a 5 minute walk to Republic Square where you will find a farmers market, subway stop, shops and restaurants.
At 2:00 we met up with a few others for a guided “Secrets of Prague” tour. Our tour guide was Helena and she was wonderful. She has been giving tours for forty years and has seen much in her lifetime. After a short bus ride, we walked to the Charles Bridge. This city is simply gorgeous. Both sides of the river are full of beautiful architecture and history. She really covered a lot of ground with us so we were comfortable exploring on our own later.
We had dinner at a restaurant on the river. The food was okay but the view was spectacular! The highlight of the evening was walking along the Charles Bridge at night while it was full of pedestrians, musicians and artists.
August 30, 2017
Back on the bus at 8:15 for the Prague City Tour. We saw the castle and the church. We saw the Lennon Wall (a tribute to John Lennon). We went back to Old Town to see the Astronomical Clock.
This afternoon we signed up for the optional tour of Terezin. Helena was our tour guide again today. Terezin is a former military fortress an hour or so outside of Prague. During WWII over 32,000 prisoners (5,000 of them women) passed through here. Many were tortured, executed or sent to concentration camps. A distant relative of Alan’s, Anna Skrainka, was here for 18 months 1944-1945. When the prison was liberated by the allies, Anna walked 700 miles from Terezin to Hamburg. Her granddaughter, Angie Littlefield, has researched the story and is writing a book, Walking With Oma. Helena did such an amazing job of describing the conditions that it just left us with a haunting feeling and overwhelming sadness for those who were held there.
Later in the evening, at the recommendation of our tour director, Heinrich, we had an amazing dinner at a little Italian restaurant about 5 blocks from our hotel. We wandered aimlessly around the busy streets of Old Town until our feet just couldn’t take any more.
August 31, 2017
Today was the first day we could sleep in. Heaven. We grabbed sausages and beer for lunch from a vendor at the farmer’s market before boarding the bus for our last excursion. Helena was our guide once again. She really is wonderful. We drove for about 45 minutes to Melnik to see the castle and do a wine tasting. The village is very pretty and quaint. The castle has been in the Lobkowiczs family for hundreds of years (except for a brief period when it was confiscated by the communist party). The wine was very good and it was the perfect way to end our vacation.
I thought Avalon did a wonderful job. We really liked the hotels in Budapest and Prague. The ship was wonderful. The staff on the ship and the tour guides on the ground were very good. I would encourage anyone thinking about a river cruise to go on this adventure!
Email Julie or give her a call at 314-580-4554
to begin planning your Avalon Waterways cruise and discover the best of Eastern Europe.
Brentwood Travel Vacation Experts
In the 60 years since Brentwood Travel was founded in 1957, we've grown into the largest, full-service travel agency in the Greater St. Louis area. No matter what your travel needs may be, our consultants will be able to assist you.