Posted by: vacationdesigners | September 28, 2015

A Day in Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Isla Mujeres is a fun and easy day trip from the Cancun area.

10:00A – Boarded ferry to Isla Mujeres – $19 roundtrip

10:30A – Rented Golf Cart – $40 for the day

1:00P – Time for Lunch – 3 Fish Tacos and 2 beers – $5

1:30P – Shopped and enjoyed the downtown area

5:30P – Last ferry back to Cancun

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Posted by: vacationdesigners | February 17, 2013

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Puerto Vallarta

February 9-12, 2013

Secrets Vallarta Bay & Now Amber Resort

Seaside Grill at Secrets Vallarta Bay

Seaside Grill at Secrets Vallarta Bay

It had been several years since I last visited Puerto Vallarta.  While I know things have changed I also found that much of what I remembered was the same.  Situated on a bay, with the mountains a perfect backdrop, makes this a unique resort destination.  The quaint streets of the downtown area are fun to roam.  The Malecon is a pedestrian street between the ocean and the downtown with different sculptures every so many feet. In the shops along the Malecon you can find lots of Mexican handicrafts that you won’t see  on the Caribbean side of Mexico.  Hand tooled leather goods, scarves, pottery and jewelry are handcrafted in Guadalajara, which is just a few hours away.

My home for 3 nights was the new Secrets Vallarta Bay (adult only) and its sister resort The Now Amber (family friendly). Each are separate resorts but share their speciality dining restaurants. The resorts are located in the “Hotel Zone” and are an easy 20 minute stroll into downtown.  The transfer time from the airport is 10-20 minutes, depending on traffic.

Sculpture along the Malecon

Sculpture along the Malecon


The room layouts are similar but the color and decor is different.  Both resorts are owned by AMResorts.  What sets them apart from most all inclusive resorts is the services and amenities they offer.  They do not use wristbands, do not require you to make reservations for dinner and, one of my favorites:  you can use as many pool towels at a time as you want.  Most resorts allow you to use one pool towel and you have to turn in your towel card at the end of your stay or pay $25.  These nice touches along with 24 hour room service makes for a real vacation.

A few other nice touches about these two resorts are the dining options.  Breakfast is served buffet style with a choice of indoor or outdoor seating.  With the sun rising in the east and coming over the mountain, this area is shaded in the morning allowing for a nice breakfast outside.  The buffet options were plentiful with fresh juices, cheese station, waffle station, omelet station, cereal, fruits, meats…..  Lunch options include the buffet, outdoor restaurant by the beach with wait service or the poolside grill.  Dinner options included the buffet and several speciality restaurants.  I found the food and service to be top notch.

Room at Secrets Vallarta Bay

Room at Secrets Vallarta Bay


The rooms are all Jr Suites with comfortable beds and plenty of space to spread out.  Each room has a Jacuzzi tub in the bathroom, walk-in rain shower and double vanities.  Garden view rooms are located on floors 1-3 with most having a partial ocean view.  Swim-out rooms are an option at both resorts, along with a Preferred Club section.  Preferred Club rooms are slightly larger with an upgraded mini-bar, special lounge with a concierge desk, bar, snacks and computers.  All rooms come with free Wi-Fi (although slow) and free calls to the states.  They also have an App that allows you to make spa reservations, contact each other via cell phone and many other features while a guest of the resort.

Both resorts offer many activities each day and night including yoga on the beach, kayak tour, beach volleyball, scuba diving clinic, water aerobics, ping pong, kitchen tour, dance lessons and many more.  Both resorts have 3 pools. Secrets offers two quiet pools and one with a swim-up bar.  The music is low key.  The Now Amber has a baby pool, sports pool and main pool with a swim-up bar.  The music at the main pool is more lively.  Guests of Secrets have full exchange privileges of the Now Amber but Now Amber guests can only use the speciality dining restaurants at Secrets.

My time here was short so I did not take an excursion but there is much to do and see.  To name a few:  ATV adventure, swim with dolphins, zip-lining, whale watching, rock climbing, horseback riding,  golf, and visiting quaint colonial cities.

While the beaches on the Pacific coast are not sparkling white and the water is not that amazing shade of turquoise like the Caribbean side, it has its own special beauty and you cannot beat the sunsets.  To view my pictures of the resorts and downtown Puerto Vallarta click on the link to our Facebook page.


Posted by: vacationdesigners | October 22, 2012

The River Cruise Experience

I have always thought that a river cruise would be the perfect way to experience Europe.  A blend of big cities at the beginning and end with smaller towns in between.  My expectations were exceeded this past week when I was able to experience one first hand.

I sailed on the Avalon Tapestry for 4 days between Budapest and Vienna.  Both cities are amazing and I recommend at least two days in each in order to take in the main sights.


The trip began with 2 days in Budapest.  This is a beautiful city encompassing Buda on one side of the Danube and Pest on the other.  Buda is hilly with great views of Pest while Pest has more shops and restaurants.  My favorite meal was dinner at a restaurant in Pest, situated along the Danube.  While we dined the lights came on and  we had a perfect view of the Chain Bridge as it became illuminated.  The cafes and restaurants have plenty of outdoor seating.  A fleece blanket is draped over each chair making it very cozy and comfortable to dine outside in October.


Checking in and boarding a river cruise is painless and stress free compared to big ship cruising.  All we had to do was walk on and were handed our stateroom key.  No paperwork, no ship photographers, no security. Getting on and off the ship in port was that seamless.  Our boat held 150 guests and had a dining room, bar/lounge and open upper deck.  At first I thought this may be a little too confining but found that it was just perfect.  During the days you are either in port or cruising down the river.  Most nights there was entertainment after dinner until 10 p.m. or so.  The bar was open even later for those that weren’t ready for bed.  Our ship included soda, beer and wine with dinner.  Some lines also include this with lunch.  Complimentary coffee, tea and hot chocolate were available 24 hours a day.

The food was plentiful and flavorful, the staff amazing and everything was extremely organized.  In most every port an excursion was included with the cost of the cruise.  Additional options were offered in a some ports.  You could sightsee all day or choose to spend part or all of a day exploring the small towns.  Because we docked right in the city center – usually in the old town – we could walk right into the heart of it all.  One thing to note is that these boats are not handicapped friendly.  Neither is walking around the old towns with cobblestone streets and steep sidewalks.


My trip ended with a one night stay in Vienna.  This is a beautiful city and not to be missed.  It’s hard to walk 10 feet without seeing a cafe with delicious sweets in the window.  They love their coffee and strudel in this city!




The name of my cruise was called “The Taste of the Danube.”  Now that I’ve had this taste I feel like going back for more; either to finish the Danube, or the Rhine, or the Moselle, or the Seine……  The hardest part will be picking which river to experience!

To see pictures of my trip, check out Vacation Designer’s Facebook page.

Review-Now Jade Resort & Spa


The Now Jade resort is located just 25 minutes south of the Cancun airport, close to the little town of Puerto Morales. To the north of the resort is a marina and the El Cid Resort. There is a walking path to the El Cid and beyond that you can walk into town. To the south of the resort the land has been cleared and fenced off. The three people I asked at the resort did not know what was being built there. Although I found this strange I did remember that I was in Mexico.

The beach is wide, beautiful and uncrowded plus you can walk quite a distance in both directions. The sand is a fine powder and the water is very clear but tends to get a little rocky on the Preferred Club side (north side) of the resort.

The 550 guest rooms at the Now Jade are located in blocks of buildings that are 4 stories; all are Junior suites. Bedding choices are either king or two doubles. Each suite has a balcony or terrace and large sitting area. The bathrooms have double sinks, jetted tub and walk-in shower. Room service is 24 hours.

Our room was in the far back corner of the resort but it was only a 2-3 minute walk to the beach, lobby or restaurants. The view isnʼt the best, mostly vegetation, but the resort does offer ocean view and ocean front rooms. It was very quiet back in our little corner and I think I took the best nap of my life in that room. The Preferred Club section has its own pool and access to another restaurant for breakfast. More details on Preferred Club services and amenities can be found on the website.

The service at the resort was amazing and the grounds were kept very clean. The resort offer both beach and pool wait service. One brave waiter even traversed the edge of the infinity pool to take our order. The breakfast and lunch buffets offered lots of choices that were changed daily. You could either sit inside or on the terrace overlooking the ocean. The poolside restaurant is open for lunch and afternoon snacks. For dinner you can choose between 5 speciality restaurants plus most nights a themed outdoor buffet was also set up followed by a show or musical entertainment.

I think our favorite spot was the Coco Cafe where you could order smoothies, specialty coffees and dessert. Guests can use the 3 computers in the cafe ($4 for 15 minutes).

The resort caters to guests of all ages and the activity staff did a great job in providing entertainment around the pool and beach. The resort had a limited number of rafts you could use in the pool. We enjoyed watching beach volleyball from the infinity pool and taking a yoga class in the poolside gazebo.

The spa offered daily specials and packages so we had to try it out. The service was very good and the ambiance of the spa was very peaceful.

Some of the things that set this resort apart from other chains: no wristband or dinner reservations required, no restriction on how many pool towels you can use at one time and unlimited bottled water.

All in all it was a very relaxing resort with plenty to do for those that wanted activity but also plenty of space to plop in a lounge chair for those that wanted to chill out.

Dreams Puerto Aventuras Resort


This quaint resort is located one hour south of the Cancun airport in the gated community of the Puerto Aventuras Marina. Itʼs the smallest of the three Dreams Resorts in the Riviera Maya with 305 rooms. The resort is one building with 7 floors. The marina is on one side and the ocean on the other. Both sides offer an expansive view, especially if you are on a higher floor. The first floor rooms are categorized as garden view and have a terrace. The garden view on the ocean side are very close to the main pool. For those seeking quiet, consider upgrading to a Marina View category.

The main pool is just steps from the rooms with the beach just beyond it making it very easy to sit at the pool and keep track of kids on the beach. The beach area sits on a small cove and the water breaks out a bit making the waves fairly calm by the time they reach sand. On the marina side of the resort is an adult-only pool with bar service.

The rooms are spacious with either a king or two double beds, balcony or terrance and bathroom with walk in shower. The floor in the bathroom can get very slippery when wet so I recommend always wearing the slippers the hotel provides when walking around the room.

Dining choices are many with buffets, speciality restaurants, poolside snacks and a terrace restaurant situated between the beach and pool. Wait service is also available at the pool and beach. We ate dinner at two of the four speciality restaurants and the food and service were outstanding.  24 hour room service is also offered.

The hotel does have two computers for guests to use. The cost is $15 for one hour with free internet on Fridays. Although its a smaller resort there is no lack of activities being offered. Everyday a board of scheduled events was posted by the pool.

We walked to the marina area one afternoon (10-15 minutes with sidewalks the whole way) to see the dolphins and do a little shopping. We took a little siesta at Cafe Ole to enjoy some guacamole and chips. You can also rent a golf cart to explore the area.

Some of the things that set this resort apart from other chains: no wristbands or dinner reservations required, no restriction on how many pool towels you can use at one time and unlimited bottled water.

Dreams Puerto Aventuras is the perfect for those seeking out a smaller resort where service is the main focus.



Every time I visit the Riviera Maya I try a different excursion. This trip is was to Xcaret. Its heavily advertised and I always wondered if it would be a little too touristy. I was pleasantly surprised by what it had to offer. The list of activities is too long to mention here but some of the things we really enjoyed were swimming in the underground rivers (cenotes). The water is clear and pristine. There are three rivers and I recommend you try them all because they all have unique things throughout. We also enjoyed a visit to the aviary where you could see newly hatched birds, the sea turtle pools and the aquarium. We purchased Plus tickets which included locker rental, towel and lunch. Transportation from all the major resorts is available. Itʼs a great place to experience the culture of the area.

Posted by: vacationdesigners | December 6, 2011

Disney World Tips

By Carla Johnston

My husband, two children (ages 6 and 8), and I just returned from a whirlwind adventure in Orlando’s Disney World.  I would describe our time there as an exhausting, but enchanting whirlwind voyage filled with more than a little magic!  Here’s what you need to know:

• Buy the book:  You NEED to know the “ins-and-outs” of the parks.  What rides might be scary or cause motion sickness, maps, dining etc.  Make a loose plan for each park, but be willing to “go with the flow.”  A friend suggested I photocopy the maps in the guide book and get them laminated.  This was a great suggestion!  We highlighted the rides we didn’t want to miss and the lamination prevented it from getting squished or wet from rides.

• Redefine “Vacation”:  A Disney “vacation” cannot be defined in the traditional sense of the word.  Mom and Dad, you will NOT be on vacation.  You will still be prepping, planning, coercing, and using every last morsel of your patience.  There are no hammocks or Mai Tai’s at the Magic Kingdom.  (However, if you don’t mind spending $9 a beer, Epcot’s Germany serves up some fine brew.)  Accepting that this vacation comes with a work-load will put you in the right mindset.

• Wear “The Pack of Fanny”:  This is how my husband lovingly referred to my smokin’ fanny pack, which I imported directly from 1992.  They are big enough to fit most all your necessities, they fit easily on all rides without having to be stowed (and likely forgotten), and us mothers can avoid a dented shoulder from lugging a purse all day.

• Are you of age?  Well, yeah YOU are, but are you taking your kids at the right age?  Toddlers don’t have the stamina, nor will they remember much of Disney.  If you can hold out until your youngest is 5, you’ll be doing yourself a great favor.

• Embarrass your children:  Squeal when you see Mickey, volunteer for every stage show by jumping up and down, and sing Disney tunes at random times.  You’re already wearing the “Pack of Fanny”, so does it really matter?

• Budget for the “little” things: Strollers are $15 a day, depending on the park and the age of the child you may find them to be a necessity.  Our 6 and 8 year olds did fine without a stroller at the Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios, but they were totally necessary at Epcot, a park that is very spread out.  Not staying at the resort?  Then parking is another $15 a day.  $2.50 will get you a bottled water, and you should buy several (keep hydrated!).  Then there are the $4 popsicles, $7 rain ponchos, and this is only the beginning.  Plan for it, it is less painful that way.

• Appreciate the detail and the enormity:  Disney must be about the cleanest, most well-run theme park I’ve ever experienced.  You are never more than 25 feet from a bathroom or a garbage can.   “Did that garbage can just start talking to me?”  Why, yes it did, because at Disney you can even have fun throwing out your gum.  I actually witnessed a janitor squeegee off the top of a garbage can.  Immaculate.  If only Walt Disney had designed the airports we flew through on our way to Disney (but that’s another blog).

• The “Fast” Pass:  Good for popular rides with long waits.  You go to a kiosk and insert your park ticket and voila’ a ticket shoots out telling you when to come back (which could be anywhere from 1 to 6 hours later).  What you need to know: if you have a fast-pass in your hand, you will not be able to get one for another ride until 2 hours later… so prioritize.  Also, the most popular rides actually “sell out” of fast passes by 10am.  If you want to ride Toy Story Mania at Hollywood studios, bring your running shoes and send your fastest group member straight to the fast pass distribution area.   They can work AWESOME if you know the rules.

So remember, preparing for Disney is like planning a mountain-climbing expedition.  If you are prepared mentally and physically, are willing to go with the flow and make a fool of yourself… Disney will be the most magical vacation you’ve ever taken with your family.Image

Posted by: vacationdesigners | August 7, 2011

St Lucia Trip, July 2011

St Lucia – “The Hawaii of the Caribbean”

This phrase accurately compares the beauty of these two island destinations.  St. Lucia is located in the Lesser Antilles.  While its a less travel time than a trip to Hawaii its still a committment, but well worth it.  The actual flying time is 7.5 hours plus  layovers.  Depending on the airport you fly into, it could be another 1.5 hour journey to your resort.


Sometimes its hard to differentiate one Caribbean island from another but St. Lucia does have its own look and feel.  The people are friendly and efficient but with a quiet way about them.  At first I mistook their quiet efficiency for aloofness but soon realized that they are kind and caring while not being “in your face.”


The island is small but with windy roads so that its hard to drive fast, although the locals certainly try!  The drive time from the capitol city of Castries, located on the northwest shore, to the international airport on the south shore is 90 minutes.  This is a scenic journey you along the Atlantic coast and through the rain forest.


Day One


Our hotel, Coconut Bay, is located on the southern shore and a 5 minute drive from the international airport.  Coconut Bay has two sides:  Family friendly and adult only.  While they did many things right;  clean rooms and public areas, beautiful views, helpful staff, the food wasn’t impressive, except in the 2 specialty restaurants.  The beach is located on the Atlantic side and really very hard to swim in but you can walk the beach for a long distance.  If you ever wanted to try kite surfing, its the perfect place to do it.


Day Two


The hotel excursion desk set us up with a private drive/guide for 8 hours.  Ian was not only a great driver he was so good about explaining things as we went.  We drove through the town of Vieux Fort where it happened to be market day.  For a $5 permitt you could sell vegetables, fruit and spices right on the side walk.  Many vendors set up shop by spreading out a blanket and sitting on the ground.  Some shoppers didn’t even get out of their cars to make a purchase.  We passed a meat shop which consisted of a skinned pig hung on a tree limb.  The head was cut off and laying on the ground.  You told the shopkeeper which cut of meat you wanted and he hacked it off for you.  It’s a far cry from walking into the grocery store’s frozen section!


We started our tour with a stop at the drive in volcano to see the gurgling earth letting out steam from just a few miles below.  The warm water created by the volcano lead us to our next stop which was the Sulphur Springs.  Here we covered ourself in volacanic mud, soaked in the sun for 10 minutes and then washed it off in the natural spring.  Ian said some resorts come to the springs daily to gather mud and charge $200 for this treatment.


We finished out the day at Jaouliuse Plantation, snorkeling in the calm bay with a view of famous Pitons.  You can actually hike these mamouth peaks if you are so inclined.


Day 3


We relaxed at the resort before heading out to our afternoon horseback riding adventure.  The stable was located a few minutes from the hotel and the trail took us along the Atlantic coast.  The scenery was amazing, with the trail along rugged cliffs and undeveloped beaches.


Day 4


Today was all work and no play.  We inspected 3 resorts:


Windjammer Landing – located 15 minutes north of Castries.  This amazing resort offers a range of accommodations from small suites tucked up in the hill to a 1-4 bedroom villas, some of which have their own private plunge pool.


Rendezvous Resort – locaed just outside of Castries next to the small domestic airport.  This resort is adult only and has a quiet, understated feel.  Several room categories are available but my favorite where the oceanfront rooms situated direclty along the beach.


Anse Chasenet/Jade Mountain – There are no words to describe this hotel.  Most of the rooms do not have a fourh wall so you are one with nature.  Jade Mountain is the adult only side and each room has a bridge from the walkway to the room.  Upon arrival at the hotel your butler is waiting for you at the beginning of the bridge and escorts you to your room where check-in is completed.  Every room has a view of the two Pitons.  If you are looking for an amazing place to celebrate a special occasion this resort won’t dissapoint.


Day 5


Time to say goodbye to St. Lucia.  While I generally recommend a longer stay on this island due to the travel time, it was still a marvelous getaway and we were able to see the main sights.  Of course, a few extra days to relax would be recommended.


My faithful companions on this trip were my two teenage children.  We all learned a lot, such as there are 62 varieties of mangos on the island and that the road from Castries to Soufriere is more adventure then we typically like. Next time we’ll take the Catamaran down the coast!

Posted by: vacationdesigners | June 7, 2011

Falling in love with Wine Country

By Carla Johnston

This trip was a romantic getaway for me and my husband, Glenn.  We actually started our vacation in SanFrancisco, but that’s a separate blog.  Our tour went like this: SanFran, then north to horseback riding in the hills of Point Reyes, north again to Healdsburg in northern Sonoma County, east to Calistoga, then south to St. Helena, Yountville, and Napa.


No Fairytale Here

Our adventure began with a huge misconception on my part, which is that horseback riding is a romantic adventure; an ideal way to take in the picturesque countryside; becoming one with the majestic beast. As it turns out, it was more of a terrifying adventure in which I was too busy trying to remain in the saddle to notice the picturesque countryside and I realized my majestic beast may possibly have suicidal tendencies as I peered down the 1,200 foot ravine only inches from his hooves.  I learned an important lesson this day.  Some people are horse people; some are not.  If you are not a horse person, rent a bicycle and spare yourself the softball sized bruises on your legs.


Beautiful Country; Beautiful Cuisine

This being my first trip to the Sonoma and Napa regions, I was not prepared for the staggering number of wineries.  Hundreds.  Driving through the countryside, in the towns, on the hills; vineyards as far as the eye can see.  They are so beautiful set against the backdrop of the Sonoma Mountains topped with an ethereal haze.  The towns all have their own flavor.  St. Helena and Yountville are the biggest with endless restaurants and shopping.  Many renowned chefs migrate to this area, including Michael Chiarello (Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello on The Food Network).  We ate at his restaurant, Bottega, and were not disappointed.  We found out afterward that he prepared our wood grilled lamb chops personally!  How cool is that?!  Yountville is also home to the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) and Greystone Restaurant.  Foodies, eat your heart out;  Napa Valley cuisine is exquisite.  Fresh local foods made to pair with local wines, famous chefs, and a rich cultural history combine to make the eats in Napa Valley truly significant.  On this trip, I found myself taking as many pictures of the food as I did the vineyards!


I expected wine on this trip… and lots of it.  I expected vineyards and tastings and glass swirling and sniffing.  But it’s what I didn’t expect from the wineries that ended up being my favorite part.  Each vineyard has a history, a story to share.  Take Pat Kuleto for example.  Pat is a restaurateur who purchased a parcel of land in the Napa Valley.  When a scientist came to the land and told Pat there was no water to be had, Pat took the advice of his neighboring vintners and hired a Water Witch to come find water on his land.  She did.  Then he spent 3 million dollars to put in a switchback driveway to his Kuleto Estate, which is at an elevation of 1, 400 feet.  The impressive winery boasts the most beautiful buildings, beefy outdoor bars, fountains, flowers and terraces tiered on the hillside.  The breathtaking view of the surrounding vineyards is the best in all of Napa and we had a first-hand look at the “Napa lawnmowers:” sheep!  Or how about the Jacuzzis, an extended family who came from Italy in the early 1900’s.  They were a family of innovators who invented the “Toothpick Propeller” used in WWI and the Jacuzzi bath before they became vintners.  If you go to wine country, I would highly recommend getting a full tour in addition to your tasting.  It makes the experience more personal.



In addition to stories, each winery has its own essence.  The stone winery at Jacuzzi, for example, was reminiscent of the original family homestead in Italy.  Artesa, a modern-looking winery atop a hill, felt like a gallery with glass, fountains, contemporary furnishings and Spanish influence.

Bits and Pieces

Try a Bed and Breakfast.  If you haven’t done this before, Napa is a beautiful place to find a quaint, romantic B&B.  While they don’t always offer all the amenities of a hotel, the experience is personal and many times the homes are historical.  We loved the Camellia Inn in Healdsburg.

In Calistoga you can get an authentic mudbath.  Thanks to a volcano that erupted 8 million years ago leaving a layer of volcanic ash to mix with the hot springs, Calistoga is the mudbath capital of the state.  While I didn’t try the mudbath I am seriously considering adding it to my bucket list.  FYI: the Calistoga Inn makes a serious sandwich, the best I’ve ever eaten.

Posted by: vacationdesigners | May 31, 2011


by Lori Derauf

This trip was an intense 5-day tour and education of Kauai; 12-hour days consisted of hotel inspections, excursions, and class taught by the Kauai Tourist Board.  As a result I am one of the hand-full of travel agents in the US who are certified as a destination specialist for this beautiful island.


The nature of the island

Every Hawaiian island has its own flavor; Kauai’s flavor is organic and fresh.  Kauai is not a commercialized island; it is lush, tropical, and wild.  If you like exploring rugged nature, wildlife and landforms then this is the island for you.  Kauai, known as the “garden island” is all about relaxation, adventures in nature and the true Hawaiian spirit.  (If you enjoy nightlife and entertainment, I would recommend Oahu or Maui.)


Lori the Explorer

This trip proved to be a true adventure!  Our catamaran tour up the Napali Coast (which is not accessible by road, only via helicopter or water craft) was spectacular.  We were dwarfed by high cliffs and lush vegetation.  From our boat we saw whales, dolphins, flying fish, and turtles!


Johnny on the Spot!

Our next adventure was exhilarating (and a bit exhausting); stand-up paddle boarding down a river for 2 miles followed by a 3-mile guided hike through the wilderness.  Now it was pretty tiring, but totally worth it when we arrived at the very pond where Johnny Depp shot scenes for the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie.  I dipped my toe into the very same pond as Johnny, “sigh.”  I appear to be following Mr. Depp across the world (in Venice I happened into a café that Johnny frequented when he was filming “The Tourist” there.)  I always felt we had some cosmic connection.  Oh, and by the way, Kauai is known for the number of famous movies that have been filmed there: Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, and Avatar are just a few of the dozens of movies that were made in Kauai!


Three Tasty Treats

Hawaii’s Kona coffee is famous, but did you know that the largest, most fertile coffee plantation is in Koloa, Kauai?  Koloa is nestled beneath the mountains on Kauai’s south shore and produces what some believe is the BEST coffee in Hawaii.

Before you take a bite of that tangy, juicy pineapple, take a moment to appreciate it.  Every pineapple takes a whopping 2-years to mature and ripen for eating (and I thought it took a long time to make lasagna)!

The third tasty treat… was me.  The mosquito population in wet tropical climates is always in excess and Kauai was no exception.


Posted by: vacationdesigners | April 13, 2011

Italy, March 2011

Italy Trip March 1-9, 2011

After a long international flight into Milan (cheaper airfare, longer trip) and ground transport to our first hotel in Lucca, Italy, we can finally rest after 27 hours of travel.  My travel partner and cohort in the travel  biz, Paula, has accompanied me on my second adventure in Italy.  My first trip to Italy, 7 years ago, I guided a group of woman around Florence and Rome.  I’d never quite forgiven myself for not going to Venice and over the years my desire to visit this dream-like city has never subsided.  Now, here I am, back in Italy with my close friend and our end target is the beautiful Venice.

Pisa in the Rain

A visit to the iconic leaning tower will not be hindered by a little rain… or even a lot!  Note to future self: climbing leaning towers is difficult dry and slightly alarming when wet.  It is definitely a little tricky climbing slippery, slanted stairs, but it is totally worth experiencing this historic bell tower and surrounding buildings.

The Five Lands

Cinque Terre; five sleepy picturesque villages built into the hillsides overlooking the sea.  Paula and I marvel at these old world villages that are connected by ferry, train, or on foot.  Cinque Terre cannot be reached by car, its quaint authenticity is stunning.  The colorful buildings climb vertically up the hillside, it is a feat of engineering and a spectacle for the imagination.

When in Roma

This is my second time in the ancient city of Rome.  Can you blog one paragraph about Rome?  No.  Rome’s treasures are endless; historic architecture, fountains, museums, monuments, ruins, frescos, and home to one of the wonders of the world, the Colosseum.  While the city is large, it is highly walk-able (with good shoes) and relatively easy to maneuver between the subway, bus, and taxis.  The food here is excellent, but I was surprised to find that according to the Italians you need to leave Rome to experience real Italian cuisine.  We are fortunate to have been invited to dinner by Paula’s friend who lives outside Rome.  We are taken to a restaurant in her local neighborhood and LOVED the experience!  Tables upon tables of extended families from grandparents to young children talking loudly (and with their hands); fresh pasta; vino; and waiters who don’t speak a lick of English.  We are fortunate to experience the authenticity of Italy outside the tourist areas.

Venice: La Dolce Vita  “The beautiful life”

We arrive in Venice by train and encounter the city via water taxi as we head down the Grand Canal.  This experience is just so hard to articulate.  It is stunning; building after building in beautiful colors and magnificent Gothic architecture.  We are floating in a dream world and I am in awe.  This place is pure magic, an outdoor museum.  The idyllic gondoliers in their striped shirts seem to have stepped right out of a fairy tale and I am reminded of how impossible this city is.  The buildings are constructed over wood pilings that have petrified, the city slowly sinks into watery decay and the eerie beauty gives me the chills.  It is easy to get lost in Venice, both figuratively and literally.  It seems the map’s streets and canals don’t match up to the actuality and we are constantly lost.

A random note: there is little grass on Venice Island.  This might seem obvious, since the city is built on sand and water, but its absence is so strange especially after seeing so much of Italy’s beautiful countryside.

A place to skip: A friend of mine told me I had to go to Harry’s Bar while in Venice.  Paula and I were underwhelmed by the bar, but ordered the signature drink, the Bellini, just as we were advised.  As we looked around the bar we noted that every person was carrying a guide book.  Uh oh.  The Bellini was lovely, but after receiving the $50 bill for 2 drinks, we congratulated each other for falling right into this tourist trap.  Yep, even the travel agents get suckered every once in awhile.

Ways to travel Italy

Prepackaged: These escorted (guided) tours are prearranged with hotel, some meals, and excursions.  Just pick your itinerary and dates.  This is the easiest way to travel if you don’t like thinking about the details.

Custom: A privately guided custom itinerary made just for you.  This is the most expensive, but has the highest satisfaction.

Wing it: I wouldn’t recommend this to folks who aren’t travel savvy and adventurous, but if you’re the type who likes a guide book and a backpack over your shoulder, this is an exciting way to go.

Combination: Take a short guided trip followed by a few days on your own.  Anything is possible.

Note on train travel: This is a great way to get around Italy but you are responsible for getting your luggage on and off the train.  Often this is done with other people trying to do the same or impatient Italians pushing past you.  Some trains require a reservation, some don’t.  They can run late, especially the local trains.  Once on board you can relax, enjoy the scenery or take a nap.

Euro Kidding Me!

When you travel in Italy, plan to either exchange your dollars for Euros or use a credit card, accepted almost everywhere, but beware of credit card companies that charge exchange fees for foreign currency.  Italy can be quite expensive if you are looking for luxury.  While 3-star hotels range from $140 to $250 a night, 5-stars are $800 and up.  I have learned some strategies to make Italy more economical, like choosing a hotel with breakfast included, sharing meals, and having lunch at a deli rather than sit down service.  I have planned Italy itinerary from frugal to luxurious and in between.

*Remember: Pack light, bring good shoes, and include some time in your itinerary to enjoy “la dolce vita.”

Posted by: vacationdesigners | January 10, 2011

Review of the world’s biggest cruise ship – Allure of the Seas

By Lori Derauf

Vacation Designers just returned from the largest cruise ship IN THE WORLD.   Carla, was not able to join me on this trip, I traveled with a fellow travel agent, not to mention one of my favorite travel companions, Paula.  Over-all we were very impressed by the ship.  I can’t help but feel that after years of building cruise ships, they’ve gotten it perfectly right for the market they are attracting.  I equate this ship to a floating resort, there really isn’t anything this ship doesn’t have that a resort would except a beach.  However, in a week’s time on the Allure, you will stop at 3 ports of call.   There is no way I could cover all we saw on the Allure,  but below I’ll do my best to sum up our adventure and how we felt about the Allure.

For more pictures visit our Facebook page:

Livin Large! Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas is a seriously big ship, carrying 5,400 passengers.  The ship has 16 decks, 7 “neighborhoods”, two rock climbing walls, two Flowriders,  zip line, ice skating rink,  AquaTheater, (hold on, I need to take a breath here),  4 pools and 10 whirlpools, mini golf, sports court, spa, fitness center, youth zone, and I haven’t even mentioned to bistros, bars, café’s, restaurants, and shopping.

Happily Familiar: Although the ship holds a population that outnumbers some of the towns I’ve lived in, Paula and I both felt it had a familiar feel.  Royal Caribbean portioned off the ship into “neighborhoods” that remind us of places at home.  Central Park, with its live trees, shops, and café’s is likened to a town square.  The Boardwalk is just that, an amusement area complete with a Carousel and games.  The Royal Promenade, down the center of the ship had enough shops and restaurants to make me feel like I could be at the local mall.

Favorite Places: Everyone has a different idea of bliss, but for me it is finding a relaxing space where I can rest, rejuvenate, and read.  I found such a place on Allure, the Solarium.  My zen spot for relaxation was a quiet, green space where I could relax on a wicker chaise and even take a nap.  The food offered at the Solarium Café tended to be on the healthier side and that suited me perfectly.  Although Carla wasn’t with me, she has chosen her favorite place should she ever get the opportunity to sail on Allure, the Rising Tide Bar.  This levitating bar ascends and descends (thankfully slowly) over three decks; very cool.

Teens and Tots: Both young children and teenagers have their own space on Allure.  The Youth Zone for children and two teen-designed facilities means that the whole family has a favorite place.   Royal Caribbean has recently partnered with Dreamworks pictures (character sightings are common).

Rooms and Entertainment: With 7 neighborhoods, 24 stateroom/suite options, and choice of 5 different views, there is no shortage of choices when it comes to accommodations.  The staterooms are range from typical cruise size (149 square feet) to amazing suites (1,524 square feet).  The beds were extremely comfortable and there are plenty of nooks to store things.  The one thing I would change would be the safe size.  It wasn’t large enough to hold a netbook.  I may have to invest in an iPad after all!   With well over a dozen dining options, several shows, and shore excursions it is definitely worth the work to plan your activities ahead of time.  Royal Caribbean allows you to book activities 90 days in advance, which I think is a great way to assure reservations.  Plus, with so many fun things to do onboard the last thing you want to is spend time doing this on vacation.

Both the Allure and her sister ship, the Oasis of the Seas, sail from Ft. Lauderdale on 7-night cruises alternating between an Eastern & Western Caribbean itinerary.  Occasionally, they offer a 5-night itinerary.  I recently had a small group return from the Oasis of the Seas and here are their comments:

We had a great time and check in was a breeze!  We didn’t stand in a single

line and check-in took about 15 minutes.  My dad made a comment on how

organized they were both with checking in and with checking out and

retrieving your luggage.

As first timers we were not sure what to expect. However we are sure we could have not picked a better ship to travel on.

We had such a great time on the Oasis! The Oasis was an amazing ship. Looking at the pictures I took, it is hard to tell that it is even on a ship, especially the central park. I loved the many restaurant options available onboard. I think this is a perfect cruise to go on during the winter months.

Trip was fabulous. We had such a great time. So many positive things to say about the cruise ship but at the top of that list was the employees. All so wonderful and friendly. The food was wonderful, the events that we scheduled were so good. This cruise ship is amazing and oh so Big.

Posted by: vacationdesigners | November 7, 2010

Lori & Carla’s Trip to Jamaica, Oct 2010

Visit to Jamaica

For more pictures visit our Facebook page:

Posted by Carla Johnston,

The purpose of this trip is for Lori and I (both sisters and co-workers) to check out (and stay at) a new Secrets resort in Montego Bay and take a day trip to Negril to tour two Couples resorts… my secret purpose is test several rum punches to ensure quality control.

Welcome to Jamaica!

We arrive in Montego Bay after 9pm, we have been traveling since 6:00 this morning.  We are quite travel weary.  Upon arriving at our resort, the beautiful Secrets Wild Orchid, we are greeted warmly by a concierge.  He takes our bags, hands us a cool towel and sets us down on comfy armchairs with a glass of champagne.   Ahhh what a grand entrance, mind you we are not special guests getting special treatment, this is how all guests are welcomed.  The resort is lovely; I would describe it as warm modern with an understated elegance.  The dark woods and marble against white backdrops make the décor feel spa-like.  Our room boasts (in our case) two four-post beds of dark wood, white crisp sheets, and draped in a dark fringe for romance (in your case).  Warning: the bed posts are dark wood… try not to run into the post on your way back from the bathroom in the middle of the night.  Yes this did happen to one of us, I can’t say who (but it wasn’t me).

Oh! de Toilet

Here is where I must share the one negative we found at Secrets… the bathroom.  Don’t get us wrong, it was well appointed with a Jacuzzi tub, marble shower with rain head, and double sink all done in modern finishes.  Here is the kicker; the bathroom has no wall to separate it from the room… just a mesh curtain!  This means when you are in the tub and your partner is in bed… you could hold hands.  It sounds romantic enough, unless your partner wants to watch TV and you want to turn on the tub jets (too loud), or you need to use the restroom at night, but can’t turn on the light because it will illuminate the entire room.  While the “throne” has its own stall with frosted glass door (and weirdly enough, a telephone) there is no noise barrier.

Day at the beach… bar

Here we are next morning just LOVING this zen-like resort.  Our room overlooks the beach and a gorgeous wedding gazebo built over the water.   We head to the breakfast buffet which is very inclusive and delish.  Have a made-to-order omelet, choose from fresh fruits, yogurts, pastry, and Jamaican dishes.  Lori and I love the coffee, strong brewed Jamaican Blue Mountain.  Heaven!  A tough day of “research” at the pool beckons.


The BEST food in Jamaica: jerk chicken of course!  Today we had a special treat when the Jamaican jerk chicken cart made its way through the resort.  A wood-fired grill and the best spices around, this chicken was savory and spicy (without making me cry) and is so tender it melts in my mouth.  Want authentic?  How about a Jamaican man with a machete who chops the top off a coconut, inserts a straw (rum if you like) and you drink the coconut milk straight from the nut!  (for those who are wondering it tastes like skim milk)

Day Trip

Today we drive from Montego Bay to Negril, just over an hour’s drive.  I’ve been to Negril before and was not looking forward to the harrowing drive, (usually a crazy taxi driver passing cars while careening around corners and narrowly missing the wandering goats.)  Happily, new highway infrastructure has made this drive far less exciting (terrifying), while still allowing us to get an inside glimpse at the Jamaican towns.  The drive to Negril: no problem, mon!

Couples Resorts (Negril)

We tour two Couples resorts today and I am thinking, how can they even compare to the serenely stunning resort we are staying at?  Will they look dated?  I am walking in with a bit of pessimism.  I LOVE that I have been proven wrong!  Upon entering Couples Negril, I am swept up in its Jamaican charm.  From the art and décor, to the wash on the walls, to the glorious lush grounds, and the attitude of the employees, the Couples resorts exemplify what it is to be Jamaican.  Local artists handcrafted many of the items from light fixtures, baskets, rugs, and even a chandelier of shells hand-beaded by a local Rastafarian.  The entertainment will feature local vocalists and a steel drum band, I wish I could stay!  Both Couples resorts offer an all-inclusive program the likes of which you don’t often see.  In addition to meals and drinks, they include several day-trips and water sports and instruction.  The two Couples resorts we visited have some differences, while the over-all feel was similar.  Couples Negril had hotel-style rooms and a focus on entertainment.  Couples Swept Away features bungalow rooms (with huge verandas) and a 10 acre sports and wellness complex.  When it really comes down to it, choosing the resort depends on the person, in this case whether you prefer Zen-like luxury (Secrets) or Jamaican Charm (Couples)… but I would recommend ANY of these resorts.


Posted by: vacationdesigners | August 25, 2010

Lori’s Bucket List – Venice

The other day I was looking at my travel bucket list.  This list has been ongoing and ever-changing since I started in this business 23 years ago.  I keep trading it in for larger buckets in order to keep if from overflowing.

Sometimes I ask myself why I need to travel so much.  Yes, I have to do a certain amount of travel for my job.  Who wants to work with a travel agent that doesn’t travel? But traveling to foreign lands and experiencing different cultures is just something I have to do.  I’d rather drive my car one car for one more year and hold off on new carpeting in order to take off on another jet plane.  I figure when I’m old and wrinkled I’d rather have the travel memories.

One place that’s been on my list for a long time is Venice, Italy.  I’ve been to Florence and Rome but not Venice.  How have I managed to elude this wonderful city for so long?  After reading yet another article on Venice I decided last week that I just couldn’t take it anymore and I booked a ticket to Italy.  Now the fun part comes in, planning my week in this fabulous country.  The possibilities are endless but I know that I’ll end my adventure in Venice.

Posted by: vacationdesigners | July 20, 2010

Flying with kids

Lori’s 8 “kid travel” tips:

Traveling from Madison may be the most convenient for those of us in the Dane County area, but many destinations require a plane change en route.  Flying nonstop out of Milwaukee or Chicago can be more convenient in the end and may save you money with the competition of low-cost carries.  When making a connection it is best to have a good amount of time, at least an hour at most major airports.  If you have the choice of 39 minutes or 105 minutes, go for the 105 minutes.  Roaming around an airport for too long can cost money, at least with my kids.  Hunger starts to make its self shown and we end up buying food at airport prices.  Boredom can lead us into airport shops.  Next time you travel at least consider all your options.

Travel at a time of day that works best with your child’s schedule, especially with little ones.  If you are making a connection avoid the last flight of the day in case you get delayed.

Be sure to bring enough supplies.  For babies this means diapers and food.  For young children coloring books, hand-held games and sticker books work well.  Teenagers can keep themselves occupied pretty well with an iPod or similar device.  We play a card game with our kids that we usually just play when traveling.  Not only does the time pass quickly, it’s great bonding time.

Bring a small pillow or blanket along for each child so that they can sleep comfortably on the plane.  Many airlines have done away with this free service.

Dress for comfort and be sure to layer.  One minute it can be freezing and the next very warm.

Have each child bring a reusable water bottle in their carry-on.  Once you pass through security you can fill it up at the bubbler and have access to water anytime during your flight.  Make sure to pack some snacks as well.

Ear pain – my kids sometimes have a tough time with the pressure during landing.  I’ve found that giving them Afrin prior to take off and Motrin or Tylenol 1 hour before landing really helps ease the pain.  Before you do this please seek the advice of your child’s physician to make sure they approve.

The last thing is pack your patience and sense of humor.  Travel can be trying for anyone but its all worth it when you arrive and the vacation begins!

    If you have tips that work well for you we’d love to hear them.

    Posted by: vacationdesigners | March 30, 2010

    Review of the Iberostar Grand Hotel Bavaro, Punta Cana

    Golf Lesson from JuanEnjoying a Drink before Dinner
    Iberostar Grand Hotel Bavaro Lobby

    Bavaro Beach

    Room with queen beds. Kings also available.

    My last visit to Punta Cana was about 7 years ago and I was curious to see how the area has evolved.  At that time of my first visit very few people, with the exception of the front desk staff, spoke more than a few words of English.  The majority of vacationers were from Europe and the ride from the airport was a bit bumpy and seemed to take forever.  It felt more like Mexico 20 years ago and you knew you were in a foreign country.

     A few weeks ago my sister-in-law, Carla, and  I visited the island again.  Although our time there was short, just 3 nights, it was enough to get a feel for the area and witness the changes. Most notably, almost all the staff spoke English, the exception being the maids and cooks who have little guest interaction.  In fact, those whose jobs were customer care related spoke nearly perfect English. On this visit, there were just as many, if not more, visitors from North America as from across the pond.  The road from the airport was very smooth and it was only 25 minutes before we reached the resort.  I should also mention that I had a direct flight from Milwaukee of about 4.5 hours, which really cut down on travel time.  These charters are offered during the winter travel season.  Otherwise, travel to Punta Cana requires a plane change.

     The one thing that hasn’t changed in Punta Cana is the shockingly beautiful sugar-white beach.  The water is so brightly blue, it doesn’t seem real. While Punta Cana is on the Atlantic Ocean, the sand and beach are reminiscent of the Caribbean Sea.  The Punta Cana area is often referred to as the “coconut coast” due to its hundreds of swaying coconut palms scattered along the 30 miles of super fine white sand.  If you love to spend time on the beach and be able to walk for miles it’s the perfect destination.  The local tour operators offer a handful of day trips around the area but it is mostly known as a beach destination with very few towns to visit and explore.

     We had the pleasure of staying at the beautiful Iberostar Grand Punta Cana –  The Iberostar Grand Hotel Bavaro opened in October of 2008 and is an adult only property.  Most of the guests were couples but a fair percentage were golf groups and friends on vacation together. The resort has 260 suites and every room has butler service.  The rooms have a casual elegance that is extended throughout the resort.  Five restaurant choices and 24 hour room service ensure that you’ll never go hungry.  Reservations are required at the restaurants and can be made upon your arrival for the entire stay.

     The resort includes golf at its own 18-hole P.B. Dye Golf Course.  The number of complimentary rounds is dependent on how many nights you stay. I don’t golf but wanted to see the course.  The staff at the golf course was very gracious and picked us up to give us a tour of the course.  We even got to take a few swings.  If you are a golfer this course and the Punta Cana area is well known for its golf courses.  

     I do “spa” however. The two-story oceanfront spa is one you won’t want to miss.  You also have the option to get a massage on the beach in a thatched-roof semi private terrace, where you can hear the ocean waves.  I choose the beachside massage and was not disappointed.  The sound of the waves blended with the general beach noise and I had no trouble relaxing.

     The entertainment staff did an outstanding job.  Several staffers, all of whom would know you by name within the first day, are employed for the sole purpose of making sure you are entertained and enjoying your stay. The pool was active and there were some contests and games you could partake in, but it was all done with a touch of class and you were never hassled to join in.  I can attest that the mojitos at the swim up pool bar are very delicious.

     The entertainment continued into the evening, sometimes with music outside or karaoke in the nightclub.  I was just getting up my courage to sign up for karaoke and they closed it down for the night.  Whew, I just escaped that one!

     The Iberostar Grand Hotel Bavaro is situated next to 3 other Iberostar resorts.  The Grand Bavaro is the most luxurious of the resorts, and it offers use of all three adjoining resorts.  You can walk for miles and miles in either direction.  For those that want to do a little shopping for souvenirs, there is a little market just down the beach.

     I would recommend this resort to anyone looking for an upscale experience that isn’t stuffy or formal. 

     Lori Derauf

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