Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Disney cruise tips

Are you considering to take Disney cruise any time soon?
Here are some of the tips when you take Disney cruise. Some of them are relevant to those who depart from Port Canaveral and going to Bahamas, however most of them are applicable to most (if not to all) Disney cruises.

Try to board as early as possible

There are usually quite a few early arrivers, which tends to crowd the terminal. Then things slow down a bit: reportedly if you arrive about 12:30, you may find the terminal nearly empty and be able to walk right on the ship. Then it gets crazy again around 1:30 pm when the Disney buses start arriving from Walt Disney

Bring a watch
There are not a lot of clocks onboard. Since there are many scheduled activities offered throughout the day, you will frequently need to know the time.


When you arrive at Port Canaveral, you’ll hand off your bags to the dock workers. Tip them at least $1-$2 per bag. Keep your carry-on/day bag with you. Get in line to go through security and up the escalators to the terminal. Inside the terminal you’ll get in line on the left side to check in and get your stateroom keys.

Once onboard

Most people will head straight to lunch, and if you’re hungry, that’s a great idea. If you’ve brought your swimsuits in your day bag, this is a perfect time to enjoy the pool, because the ship is still relatively empty and a lot of people will not have thought ahead. If you still need to make spa appointments, change your dinner rotation, or sign up for shore excursions, now is the time to do that. You can also get your kids’ wristbands for the kids’ club. If it’s your first time on the ship, this is a good time to get a map and wander around familiarizing yourself with everything.
At about 1:30, your room should be ready. Your bags will be delivered at some point in the afternoon (up until about 6:00 pm).

Mandatory Drill

A mandatory muster drill is held in the afternoon of embarkation day, usually at 4:00 pm. Everyone must attend in order to learn the location of your lifeboat station and other safety information. The drill takes only 30 minutes or less and you do not have to bring your life jacket with you.
“Wave Phones”
Disney now provides cell-phone-style “Wave Phones” in every stateroom that you can carry with you on the ship to stay in touch with the other members of your party. The Wave Phones have only one charging station per stateroom. If you aren’t careful to rotate them through the charging station, the batteries may become depleted and begin beeping insistently at an inopportune time.

Laundry Rooms

Laundry rooms are available on every floor. You can charge the cost of self-service laundry to your room key by swiping it on the washers and dryers.

During the cruise

Some special activities require advance sign-up at Guest Services. For instance, on cruises near Christmas, there is a build-your-own-gingerbread house activity, but they have a limited number of kits available. Watch for those activities and sign up as soon as you can.

Aqua Duck water slide

The best time to ride it is in the evening (during dinner and/or nightly shows), when the lines are much smaller

What to Bring

Consider bringing your own bottled water if you think you’ll drink a lot of it on shore excursions, Castaway Cay, etc. Bottled water on the ship is expensive. Consider packing a small carry-on suitcase with just bottled water. 

Disney is extremely unusual among cruise lines in allowing you to bring your own alcoholic beverages onto the ship. Bottles must be sealed and they must be in your carry-on luggage. You can take a soft-sided cooler full of beverages onboard, but no hard-sided or wheeled coolers.
Water shoes – Always a good idea if you’ll be snorkeling or wading where there is coral, which can cut your feet.
Clothespins – These have a variety of uses, from weighing down a shower curtain that is blowing around, to anchoring your beach towel to a lounge chair. Oh, and you can use them to hang laundry up to dry, too (there’s a retractable clothesline in the bathtub).

Dine and Play Program

The Dine and Play program is offered for families assigned to second dining, and is open to children ages 3-12. The Dine and Play program allows children to get their meals quicker and adults to check in a child for Youth Activities without leaving the dining room.
Here’s how it works: You arrive in the dining room and inform the server that your child would like to participate in Dine and Play. The dining room team brings the child’s meal first while serving the adults at a more leisurely pace.
About 45 minutes after seating begins, Youth Activities Counselors arrive in the dining room and sign in the child to Disney’s Oceaneer Club or Disney’s Oceaneer Lab, eliminating the need for you to escort the child to Deck 5.
Adults are then able to enjoy the full dining experience with the knowledge that their children are having a great time in a safe, fun and comfortable environment.

Castaway Cay
Get to Castaway Cay early. Use room service to have breakfast in your cabin and then get off the ship as soon after 9:00 am as you can. You’ll have your pick of chairs, no lines for character greetings and photo opportunities, and the snorkeling will be undisturbed by others stirring up the bottom.
You can keep your child signed in to the Oceaneer Club/Lab while at Castaway Cay. They will take the kids off the ship to special play areas for supervised games and activities throughout the day. If you do this, be sure to bring your Wave Phone with you. It will work on the beach. But if you want your kids to join you for some time on the island, make sure you know their schedule of activities. They eat lunch fairly early, and are taken back to the ship before the beach closes.

Other Tips

DO NOT take your passport with you (if it is not necessary) when you leave the ship, unless you plan to rent a car (in which case you’ll need it). If it is stolen, you will have a real problem. Very few countries require you to carry your passport around. Instead, each adult should carry a driver’s license or other photo ID, as you may be required to show ID when coming back on to the ship. If not having your passport with you makes you nervous, make a color photocopy of the identity page of your passport before you leave on the cruise, and carry that with you when you get off the ship.
If you are feeling a bit disoriented, look at the carpet. You can tell whether you’re walking towards the front or the aft by looking at the map that’s depicted. If the map is upside down, you are going towards the back (aft).

Room Service

Take advantage of room service. It’s free. All you have to do is tip the server, so make sure to take dollar bills with you and keep them handy. You can even request Mickey ice cream bars. Before you sail away, it’s nice to order the cheese platter. You can even have a continental breakfast delivered each morning if you wish.

Disney Characters

The lines for character greetings usually start forming about 15 minutes before the scheduled greeting time, so if you can get there 10 minutes beforehand, you won’t have a long wait once the characters arrive.
If your kids would like to get Disney characters’ autographs, you don’t even have to stand in line. Just take a photo mat, white T-shirt, pillowcase or autograph book with permanent markers in a bag to Guest Services and make a request to get your item signed. Just remember to label your bag or include a note with your complete name and cabin number in the bag so they know who to return the signed item to.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Practical Facts: Shopping in China

If everything is made in China, why are some things so much more expensive there? Here’s what to buy and what to avoid.
Tea is easily the number one item to buy in China, both because it is available everywhere and inexpensive, and because it’s such a central part of Chinese culture. You’ll find teashops and teahouses all over Shanghai and Beijing, but a lovely and easy day trip from Shanghai is Hangzhou, where green tea is grown and picked. Away from the chaos of the city, surrounded by rolling green tea fields, our tea scholar teaches you the ins and outs of Chinese tea culture during our three hour workshop. To learn more about buying tea and how to avoid being ripped off, read our Tea 101 primer. In addition to the Shanghai shops listed there, we recommend visiting Maliandao Tea Market in Beijing, just south of Beijing West Railway Station.
Verdict: Buy
We’re not talking about hunting down Ming Dynasty vases, but meandering through Shanghai and Beijing’s antique markets is a fun way to dip a little deeper into local culture and come away with some fun souvenirs. The authenticity of the items at antique markets is questionable, so be sure to have a price in mind and don’t overpay. Shanghai’s most frequented antique market is Dongtai Lu, which is a small pedestrian street near Xintiandi. The shops along Dongtai Lu (lu means road in Mandarin) sell all manner of tchotchkes and curios, from Mao’s Little Red Book to miniature terracotta warriors. Among the most popular items are tin boxes covered in Old Shanghai advertisements. If you’re more keen on furniture than on smaller items and have time to go across the river to Pudong, there’s an enormous warehouse packed to the rafters with trunks, wardrobes, chairs, chests of drawers, mirrors, toys, and the requisite Buddha statues. Most pieces are in need of varying levels of refurbishment; the workers at the warehouse will tackle your project and can have it delivered to your hotel. With moxy and a calculator, you don’t need a Chinese speaker here, but it wouldn’t hurt to have one. In Beijing, the enormous Panjiayuan fills an open lot, with vendors hawking the usual curios, statues, and jewelry as well as carpets, fabric, and even clothing. Panjiayuan is open only Friday through Sunday.
Verdict: Buy, but bargain

You’ll see made-to-measure cashmere shops spotted around Shanghai and Beijing. On the whole, cashmere is more expensive in China than it is in the West. Beyond that, though, the quality of the material varies quite a bit; though a bolt may say 100% cashmere, it likely isn’t. The made-to-measure shops have patterns that they follow, and won’t take on any jobs that seem too difficult. If you want to get something specific made that you haven’t been able to find at home, such as a cape, and you can verify the material, then these shops are a good option.
Verdict: Research before you buy.
The markup on luxury goods in China is extremely high, which is why you’ll see lines of Chinese tourists outside upmarket shops in Paris, London, and New York. The type of jewelry to buy in China is costume jewelry, available quite inexpensively, as well as customized pearl necklaces. These can be made at pearl markets in Shanghai and Beijing, and you’ll get exactly the design and style you want. Oddly, both the pearl market in Beijing and the one in Shanghai are called Hongqiao Pearl Market. At both, you’ll find row after row of stalls selling pearls and custom jewelry. Before you go, set a budget and have a rough idea of what size pearls you want; avoid stalls where the sellers are aggressive. You can find small, simple necklaces for under roughly US$16, but a long necklace of higher quality pearls will run you around US$150. Pearls should be white and round; watch out for yellow undertones. Check each pearl carefully and if you see any with blemishes, certainly ask to have them swapped out.
Verdict: Buy, but stick to items under $200.

Are the rows upon rows of every conceivable gizmo and gadget too good to be true? Yes and no. Markets like those adjacent to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing and at the intersection of Huaihai and Xizang Roads in Shanghai are electronics emporiums, selling everything under the sun, at discounted prices. These items—Apple products galore, portable DVD players, e-readers, audio equipment, headphones, mobile phones, and accessories—are grey-market.  So, while the items aren’t being sold on the black market, they are being made available outside of standard authorized channels. Prices here are not fixed, and you should definitely haggle. Nothing comes with a warranty. Many products are of high quality and work well, but some are not; electronics market headphones, which may be fake, tend to break faster than their real counterparts. Apple products servicing is very popular, and you can get a broken screen replaced for $50, but note that this may void your Apple warranty at home.
Verdict: Buy, but bargain and test goods out before purchasing

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Azul Beach

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As you step up into the lobby of Azul Beach Hotel, the clear blue water of the Caribbean is framed by rows of candles, white flowing fabric, and the scent of aromatherapy that makes you feel as though you've walked into a spa, not a hotel. That is, until you notice all the kids roaming around. This hotel isn't just kid-friendly; it really was designed with families in mind, particularly young families. Azul Beach is very charming and cozy, where you're assured friendly and personal service. If you're so inclined, can easily get to know the other families staying with you, most of whom will have children.

The hotel is located in the quiet town of Puerto Morelos, about 20 minutes from Cancun International airport, and about a half hour from Playa Del Carmen. The architecture is simple and modern, with white two-story buildings facing the sea, and the decor is similarly chic and understated.

Azul Beach is an all-inclusive hotel, though you'd never know it judging by the food. It's what they call a "Gourmet Inclusive" which means there are added amenities and dining options that you wouldn't expect to find at an all-inclusive resort, like a la carte menus in all of the restaurants, an all-lobster menu, an amazing fish fry on the beach, and 24-hour room service, all included. Another unique feature of Azul Beach is its size. While it offers the amenities you'd expect to find at a large resort, it's an intimate place, with a little bit over 90 rooms. The hotel completed a renovation in 2011.


  • Large private beach with quiet lounge areas
  • 3 beautiful outdoor pools, plus a kiddy pool
  • Charming shaded oceanfront cabanas with hanging beds
  • Pristine rooms -- some with swim-up pool access
  • Beautiful grounds
  • 4 on-site restaurants, 2 full bars and a tequila lounge
  • Family-friendly, with a great kids' club
  • Very cute kids club
  • Beach butler brings around drinks and "gourmet bites" ; beach butler is for all room categories

  • Cons

  • All-inclusive plan can feel limiting when dining
  • Expensive compared with other area resorts
  • Internet for a fee
  • All-inclusive plan does not include certain higher-end wines

  • Saturday, October 19, 2013

    Quick tips when traveling to Spain

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    Here are quick tips when traveling to Spain from one Family Travel Concierge Fan. Many of these tips are applicable not only for Spain.

    • Call your bank (if you are going to use ATM) and credit cards and put on a travel alert. otherwise they'll think card is stolen and will block your transactions.
    • Bring Discover card as it has no foreign transaction fees (there are other credit cards that don't charge currency conversion fee as well)
    • Your passport has to be valid for at least 6 months from time of your travel. Keep it locked in a safe in a hotel. Leave some credit cards in a hotel as well.
    • If you have a card with a very large limit, leave it at home
    • If your pin# on your card is longer then 4 digits, it will not work in Spain.... change it now.
    • Some hotels might not be compatible with USA electric devices. Might want to invest in a converter.
    • Call your cell phone provider and buy a plan so it is cheaper for you to call USA. If u have AT&T, call 800 -335-4685
    • Learn how to turn off data roaming on your smart phone
    • Try to weight your luggage... over 50 lbs can cost you $200
    • Don't put anything in your back pockets
    • Bring chargers: phone, camera,
    • Spain's emergency #'s are 091, 092 for police and 061 for medical

    Thursday, October 17, 2013

    Napa Cabbage Salad

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    We continue our recipes around the world. Today we have a recipe with East Asian flavor.

    This blog post is presented by Elaine Paperman, our guest food blogger.
    Visit Elaine's web site to get various restaurants' reviews and very delicious food recipes.

    I found this salad on-line at Allrecipes.com and altered the dressing a bit.
    This salad is always a winner! It is very scrumptious! Please enjoy!

    1 head Napa cabbage*
    1 bunch green onion
    1 package (3 oz) ramen noodles
    2 tablespoons sesame seeds
    1 cup slivered almonds
    1/3 cup butter
    ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
    ½ cup vegetable oil
    ½ cup sugar
    2 tablespoons soy sauce
    Finely shred the head of Napa cabbage. Mince green onion, white and green parts. Combine cabbage and onion in a large bowl. Cover and keep in the refrigerator until ready to use.
    Preheat oven to 350 F.
    Make the crunches: Melt butter in a small sauce pan or in a microwave. (If melting in a microwave, dish with butter has to be covered, otherwise it will splash all over you microwave. I do not use plastic microwave dishes, so I use wet paper towel as a microwave dish cover.) Brake ramen noodles in small parts. Mix broken noodles, almonds, sesame seeds and butter in a bowl. Put the mixture on a baking sheet and bake for about 5 minutes, or until golden brown. Monitor the crunches carefully so they do not burn. Remove from oven and let them cool.
    Make the dressing: heat vinegar, oil, sugar and soy sauce in a small saucepan. Bring the mixture to boil and let it boil for about 1 minute. Remove from heat and let cool a little bit. When mixture is still a little warm, put it in a blender (I use hand held blender) and blend until the dressing is smooth.
    Combine cabbage, dressing and crunches immediately before serving, otherwise the crunches will become soggy.
    * Napa cabbage is a type of Chinese cabbage and is widely used in East Asian cuisine. It so also called “Chinese cabbage”. It has light green color, delicate flavor and crunchy leaves.

    Tuesday, October 15, 2013

    Paradisus La Esmeralda - videos and photos

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    Several months ago I wrote a review for Paradisus La Esmeralda in Riviera Maya, Mexico.
    See HERE

    A couple of weeks ago we visited the resort and shot videos and pictures.


    The biggest controversy about Paradisus La Esmeralda is its beach. Yes, it is not the best, however it is not that bad.
    Look at the video and photos of the beach

    One bedroom master suite is spacious and modern looking


    Jr. Suite

    Pirate ship

    Kids club

    9 places to visit with your kids in London

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    There are so many great places to visit with your kids in London. Here is our list of 9 places to visit. I am sure you can add your own.

    1. London Eye

    At 135 meters, The London Eye is the world’s tallest observation wheel, with 40 kilometers panoramic views on a clear day.
    The gradual flight (ride) in one of the 32 high-tech and fully enclosed glass capsules takes approximately 30 minutes offering spectacular views... MORE

    2. Pollock’s Toy Museum

    Named after Benjamin Pollock, a famous printer of toy theaters at the turn of the century, Pollock’s Toy Museum opened in 1956 and is dedicated to the traditional English toy theatre.
    Toy theater  (or paper theater) was most popular in the 1800s, and consists of paper or wooden theaters, some with an extraordinary level of detail, allowing children to stage their own productions at home, usually with cut-out sheets of figures for the scenery, props and various characters in the play.
    This London tourist attraction has numerous displays of puppets... MORE

    3. Legoland Windsor Hotel

    From the children there is cynicism-free, unadulterated delight. If it’s mildly disappointing to discover that the hotel walls are not actually constructed from millions of tiny plastic bricks, there is a display of (apparently) 5,000 Lego mini-figures to study while parents check in, and the chance to sit on the floor and play in an enormous pit of Lego.
    The entrance looks as if it was designed by an enthusiastic five-year-old... MORE

    4. London Dungeon

    Exciting, scary and fun – the London Dungeon has a new home on the Southbank and lots of new scary stories about London’s history for you to discover.
    We know that when it comes to history – the horrible bits are the best. Experience live actors, dark history, thrilling rides ... MORE

    5. Kensington Gardens

    Princess Diana Memorial Playground
    First and foremost, “the pirate ship park,” as the locals call it, is just a perfect children’s place.  There is a giant, monitored gate around the entire park, you must have a child to enter and children are not allowed to enter unattended.  For the very small, there are baby swings, sand areas with structures to cruise along, tiny houses clustered over wood chips and a lovely grass area to put a blanket down ... MORE

    6. Sea Life London Aquarium

    The SEA LIFE London Aquarium is home to one of Europe’s largest collections of global marine life and the jewel in the crown of the 28 SEA LIFE attractions in the UK and Europe. Situated in the heart of London, the experience takes visitors on an immersive and interactive journey along the Great Oceanic Conveyor.
    Along the journey, a stunning glass tunnel walkway offers guests an unforgettable experience by strolling underneath a Tropical Ocean ... MORE

    7. Natural History Museum

    Hundreds of exciting, interactive exhibits in one of London’s most beautiful landmark buildings. Highlights include the popular Dinosaurs gallery, Mammals with its unforgettable model blue whale and the spectacular Central Hall, home to the Museum’s iconic Diplodocus skeleton ... MORE

    8. British Museum

    The British Museum is one of the best in the world and a great place to take any child to.  Further, the family activities are amazingly resourced and laid out so that children produce some beautiful artifacts.
    The Greek and Egyptian galleries, in particular, have entire facades of temples and tombs, with enormous statues and carvings.  These galleries can be wonderful places to take toddlers to, or just impossible, depending on what kind of day you are having and how busy the museum is ... MORE

    9. London Zoo

    Set in leafy Regent’s Park amid iconic architecture and beautiful gardens, London Zoo is an oasis in the heart of the city.
    With over 760 animal species, exciting and innovative new exhibits and heritage-listed building almost as famous as their inhabitants, a visit to London Zoo is a great day out ... MORE

    Friday, October 4, 2013

    Gem in Mykonos

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    Are you going to Mykonos (in Greece) and wondering where to stay? Here is the gem we found for our clients - Petinos Beach Hotel.

    Read our client's review.

    Petinos Beach hotel was the most amazing place.
    I recommend it sooooo much. Without a doubt one of the best I have ever stayed in on a beach.
    It was in the absolute most perfect location with about 10 restaurants right outside along the beach. There was a bus stop right outside which took 8 min to take you to town (1.60 Euro each way). On the other side there was a water taxi which took you to any of the other south beaches (Paraga, Paradise, Super Paradise,etc) also a water taxi to the Island of Delos. It sat right on a beautiful clean beach. The hotel itself offered amazing hospitality at the front desk. Rooms were cleaned 2x a day. They upgraded us to the executive room. Very comfortable bed, couches, beautiful decor. Breakfast was plentiful w everything you can imagine

    Thursday, October 3, 2013

    10 Money tips while traveling abroad

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    Here are some money tips  while traveling abroad

    1. Use credit card for your purchases.

    2. Try to use your credit card that does not charge currency conversion fee.

    3. Make sure that you withdraw money from legit ATM (there are many fake ATMs in touristy spots). Visa and MasterCard has list of verifiable ATMs.

    4. Make your ATM security code at least 6 numbers. In many countries ATMs don't work with 4 digits security codes.

    5. Tell your credit card company and banks countries you are going to visit. Otherwise they can block your credit and debit card.

    6. Don't leave your money and credit cards in glove compartments of your rental cars (a lot of cases when credit cards are stolen from glove compartments).

    7. Do not carry large bills. Here is one story: We found ourselves in Paris at 9 am with a 500 EURO bill (husband took it out of ATM machine earlier in Moscow) and could not buy anything or get change. We had to find an exchange place and ask them to break it. Another reason not to carry large bills is you are robbed you don't loose all the money. Leave the rest of the money in hotel's safe.

    9. Bring with you the credit card with the smallest credit limit. In case it gets stolen, the damage will be minimal

    10. Use an RFID wallet that has a metal mesh around it so that your credit card info cannot be read and stolen remotely. It works for passports too.
    See this wallet.
    I heard that people got robbed this way. These devices are very common now, especially internationally. You can even download an app for electronic pickpocketing and get credit card numbers using your cell phone, it's unbelievably scary. Most credit cards now come with electronic chips (take a look at yours), as well as passports and drivers licenses.

    Wednesday, October 2, 2013

    Buckwheat Soba Sesame Noodles (Japan)

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    We continue our recipes around the world.

    This blog post is presented by Elaine Paperman, our guest food blogger.
    Visit Elaine's web site to get various restaurants' reviews and very delicious food recipes.

     In a search of healthy pasta I wondered into one of the health food stores, and my attention was driven to the cute packages of brownish and grayish bundles of thin pasta. I started reading labels and suddenly felt a strange nostalgic twitch – the word “Buckwheat” was familiar and comforting, like your Grandma’s hands. But here it was neighboring a foreign word “Soba”. Intrigued, I bought a package of three little neat bundles and decided to play the second word’s party- Asian flavors would be assigned to these babies. Here is the result: judge for yourself. We like it a lot and now my pantry always has these noble like samurai Japanese noodles.

    1/3 package of buckwheat soba noodles (or any other soba noodles)*
    2 tablespoons soy sauce or liquid aminos
    1 tablespoon rice vinegar
    1 teaspoon freshly ground ginger
    1-2 garlic cloves, smashed with a knife and finely chopped
    1 tablespoon sesame oil
    3 tablespoons grapeseed oil
    2-3 scallions, chopped
    1 teaspoon sesame seeds
    Cook noodles according to the instruction on the package until al dente.
    Meanwhile, mix all ingredients, except sesame seeds, in a bowl. Pour mixture over cooked noodles and stir. Sprinkle with sesame seeds. Enjoy!
    * Try also black bean noodles!