Sunday, July 22, 2007

Parasailing in Florida

Disney Orlando and Universal Studios aren't the only reasons to go to Florida.

Next time you visit one of the Florida beaches you might want to give parasailing a try. Not exactly sure what parasailing is? Parasailing gives you the kind of feeling that birds must feel when swooping down over beautiful beaches.

Basically, in parasailing, you just need to attach your chute to a moving high speed vehicle which will pull you up the air. In the case of beach parasailing, that would be a boat. Of course, you will have to go through some training to be able to operate the parasail properly.

Still not sure it's for you? Here's a little YouTube video of parasailing at Cocoa Beach, Florida.



Florida beaches are wonderful spots to parasail. In addition to Cocoa Beach, some of the other more popular parasailing spots include:

Brandenton beach in Anna Maria Island
Daytona Beach
Clearwater Beach
Sunny Isle Beach
Sirata Beach
Saint Pete Beach
Beaches on Marco Island
Key West



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Friday, July 20, 2007

Go Caving on your Next Vacation

Yes, there are great vacations you can have above ground. But, if you want something really unique to do on your next outing, try caving. You'd be amazed how many caves there are in the U.S. you can take tours of. Some people really get hooked on them.

There's just something magical about entering a cave. The feel of the cave air, the smells, the quite, the utter darkness when the lamps are turned off.

In caving you will discover the beauty of nature and marvel at rock formations and crystals that took thousands, and even millions, of years to shape and develop. Caves come in different shapes and sizes. There are caves that are horizontal, dry, hot, humid and sandy, while others are vertical, cold, flooded and muddy. There are even caves that are located under rivers and seas.

Here are a few caves which offer guided and self-guided tours perfect for the whole family:

Kartchner Caverns State Park - Benson, Arizona

Located in the southern part of Arizona, Kartchner Caverns was discovered in 1974 by cavers and purchased as an Arizona State Park in 1988. What's cool about Kartchner is that it's a "living cave," in that the formations inside are still growing. It also contains 13,000 feet of passages, boasts one of the world's longest soda straw stalactites - 21 feet 2 inches, and is in near-pristine condition. Typical of most caves, Kartchner Caverns has its share of bats. In fact, during the summer the Cave's Big Room becomes a nursery roost with over 1,000 female bats.

Jewel Cave National Monument - South Dakota

Located just east of the Wyoming border, Jewel Cave is considered one of the best caves in the National Park system, and number three on the list of longest caves in the world!

Jewel Cave offers three different tour packages, each requiring a different level of experience. The easiest tour is the Basic Tour, which most people should be able to manage. Of course, you have to remember this is a cave, so there will be some steps to climb. On the Basic Tour there are 723 steps to manage, but you don't have to climb them all at once, they are interspersed throughout the 1/2 mile tour.

The next tour in difficulty is the Historic Tour which enters and leaves the cave through an historic entrance and views the cave from an unpaved trail. You will carry lanterns on this tour, which is considered strenuous. Children under 6 are not allowed on the Historic Tour.

For the experienced cavers, Jewel Caves offers a Spelunking Tour, a 4- to 5-hour tour which snakes through 2/3 of a mile of the Cave. You are provided a headlamp by the park service, but you must provide all your other equipment. In addition, you must be over 16 and pass a number of tests before being allowed on the Spelunking Tour, including proving the ability to wriggle through an 18" X 24" passageway. Reservations are required for the Spelunking tour.

Meramec Caverns - Stanton, Missouri

Like your caves on the commercial side? Then you'll love Meramec Caverns, which has a gift shop inside the entrance of the cave. In fact, Meramec Caverns is the largest commercial cave in Missouri, which is known as the "Cave State" due to it containing over 6,000 surveyed caves. In addition to its natural history, Meramec Caverns has some interesting recent history, as legend has it that the cave was used as a part of the "Underground Railroad" to aid escaping slaves. Legend also has it that Jesse James and his gang hid out in the caves after committing train and bank robberies.

Meramec Caverns also has the distinction of having a ballroom inside the caves which hosts many private and public events, such as an Easter Sunrise Service. The ballroom is an interesting combination of chairs, sound system, lighting and, yes, limestone and stalagmites.

Marvel Cave - Branson, Missouri

If you like your caves on the commercial side, then Marvel Cave is for you. Marvel Cave is another "living cave" with formations that are still growing, and is now part of Silver Dollar City, an amusement park with over 30 rides and attractions, the cave being one of them

Mammoth Cave National Park – Kentucky

Since 1816, visitors have toured Mammoth Cave, one of the world’s longest and most famous cave systems. The name Mammoth was coined not from the prehistoric wooly mammoth, but because the cave system is so huge - more than 365 miles of it has been explored so far.

Cave tour prices range from $4 to $45 and include tours for all levels of experience, from a 30-minute, self-guided discovery tour to a 6-1/2 hour "Wild Cave Tour" for more advanced cavers which involves free-climbing cave walls and crawling through areas as low as 9 inches high. Temperature inside the cave usually stays around 54° Fahrenheit year-round.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Visiting Seattle? Check out Some State Parks

If you're visiting Seattle, and are into outdoor beauty and activity, you might want to check out some of the State Parks in the area. Some of my favorites?

Lime Kiln Point State Park

Lime Kiln Point State Park is a 36-acre park that is only for day use. Located on the western side of San Juan Island, the largest island of the archipelago, Lime Kiln State Park is considered the best spot in the world for spotting Orca whales cruising Haro Strait, in addition to viewing bald eagles and more than 200 species of birds. June and July are the best for whale watching, but really any time during the months of May throughout September you'll find the possibility of spotting a whale quite good. In addition to whale watching you can go hiking and tour the Lime Kiln lighthouse, which still serves as a navigational aid for ships in the Haro Strait. Diving is possible here but very dangerous as the currents are pretty strong.

Fort Worden State Park

Along with Fort Flagler and Fort Casey, Fort Worden formed a "triangle of fire" to protect the entrance to Puget Sound at Admiralty Inlet, and became a state park in 1955. Fort Worden, on the Quimper Peninsula at the extreme northeastern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, sits on a bluff near Port Townsend, and anchors the northwest side of the triangle. Fort Worden State Park is a 433-acre multi-use park offering 12 miles of hiking and biking trails, as well as 2 miles of saltwater shoreline. Convention and camping facilities are open year round and there is plenty to do to keep you busy. In addition to the traditional hiking, biking, diving, water skiing, swimming, boating, and animal watching, Fort Worden offers baseball, basketball, softball, and volleyball facilities. And, if you're a photographer, or someone who just enjoys a great view, you definitely need to pay a visit, as the park offers incredible views to keep your shutter-finger happy.

Fort Flagler State Park

One of the anchors in the "triangle of fire," Fort Flagler State Park is now a 784-acre marine camping park surrounded on three sides by 19,100 feet of saltwater shoreline, as well as some of the original military structures that tell the history of this island. Unlike Fort Worden, which allows camping year round, Fort Flagler State Park is only open for campers for part of the year. Day visitors are allowed year round, however. It is the stunning view of the Sound and the surrounding mountains, however that makes this park so spectacular.

Deception Pass State Park

Deception Pass is a narrow body of water separating Whidbey Island from Fidalgo Island, in the northwest corner of Washington State, and is surrounded by Deception Pass State Park, the most-visited park in Washington. Though not officially part of the San Juan Islands, the park shares a geologic history: The cliffs of Deception Pass are made of the same rock that underlies Orcas Island. This park has salt water, fresh water, camping, hiking, boating, spectacular views, and a few areas with playground equipment for the kids. There are many activities available: hiking, horseback riding, boating, fishing, swimming, white water kayaking, diving, clamming, crabbing, bird watching, mountain biking, and simply taking in the beautiful scenery. Again, take a camera.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Best Hotels in La Jolla, California

If you love beach sunsets, you're going to love La Jolla, California, located near San Diego. It's a great place if you want to feel like a million bucks. Yes, you're around the well-heeled, but you don't have to spend like it.

1. La Jolla Village Lodge The La Jolla Village Lodge is a three stories, and offers quite a bargain in price. With 30 rooms,free parking and a free continental breakfast, the La Jolla Village Lodge is a great addition to the La Jolla area.

2. Travelodge La Jolla Beach Located close to the Windandsea Beach, this hotel is in a quiet area. There are 44 rooms here, with a fitness center less than a block away. Travelodge also offers free wireless and internet service, which is great for those who like computers.

3. Redwood Hollow The Redwood Hollow is more of a studio or one and two bedroom cottages, offering full kitchens on 1/2 acre of gardens. Close to the beach, this lodge offers 11 rooms and plenty of views. Located at 256 Prospect Street, you'll be close to what you want to do in La Jolla.

4. Radisson Hotel La Jolla This hotel offers landscaped grounds with waterfalls, gardens, and it's convenient to UCSD and the La Jolla Village Square. The hotel has 252 rooms, with a complimentary airport shuttle. Located at 3299 Holiday Court, this hotel is an excellent choice to stay.

5. Empress Hotel Located in the heart of the town, the Empress Hotel is a well known local favorite. Manhattan's restaurant is located off from the lobby, with a fitness center and sauna onsite as well. The hotel also offers 73 rooms, free local calls, breakfast, and high speed internet. Located at 7766 Fay Avenue, the Empress Hotel is the place to be for those who want to be in the middle of La Jolla.

6. Grande Colonial Located on La Jolla's main street, the Grande Colonial is one of the oldest hotels in the city. With 75 rooms and a European style, Grande Colonial also offers you free ADSL internet and valet parking.

7. Hyatt Regency The Hyatt Regency in La Jolla offers modern design with all the comforts, although it's better for travelers than family vacationers. The Regency is located at 3777 La Jolla Village Drive, offers 394 rooms, and plenty of other perks to keep you entertained and interested.


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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Best Birding Sites Outside U.S.

Where are some of the best places around the globe to go birdwatching?

South America - the jungles of South America are home to thousands of beautiful birds. Bird watching hot spots in South America include the Itatiaia National Park in Brazil, which is home to around 350 different species of birds native to the Amazon. The Iguazu National Park is the leading natural reserve in Argentina, with over 400 types of indigenous birds. Other good places to check in South America are the Hato Pinero and Hato Cedral ranches in Venezuela, which are especially popular for birdwatching.

The Caribbean - the Caribbean Islands, while normally associated with vacations of a different sort, are actually another good place to visit on a bird watching world trip. In the Bahamas, Grand Bahama Island is the most popular place to go for bird watching. Bermuda is another good place to visit, as there are seven major natural reserves there sponsored by the Audubon Society. In Jamaica, the Rocklands Bird Sanctuary is popular because the birds there are so tame they literally perch on the bird watchers and eat out of their hands.

Europe - there are tons of popular spots in Europe for birdwatching. In Britain alone there are actually hundreds of birdwatching spots. If you're considering Britain, one thing to look out for are the annual bird fairs and conventions held in various local districts. Scotland and Ireland are also popular bird watching places, as they have little lakes and isles around these two countries are home to many different forms of bird life that are unique solely to these islands.

Asia - if you're willing to range far afield, Asia is a wonderful place to go for bird watching as a lot of different species live there that have no equivalent counterparts in the west. Japan alone is home to around 600 species of birds. The Lake Utonai and Tateyama Bird sanctuaries in Japan are the most prominent wildlife preserves where you can see them. China's main attraction is not only its indigenous species of birds, but the fact that certain places like Beidaihe are a migratory hub for far-ranging birds from all across Asia. Another good place to visit for bird watching is Thailand's Doi inthanon International Park, which boasts 382 resident species.


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Ocracoke Island - North Carolina Getaway

What makes Ocracoke Island in North Carolina a great getaway? Perhaps because it's one of the few places on the East Coast where the sun sets over the water year-round. Or perhaps because over three quarters of the island is protected Cape Hatteras National Seashore property. Accessible only ferry, private boat, or by air, Ocracoke Island seems to make time stand still on it's 16 mile island.

Within Ocracoke Island North Carolina, there are many different houses, schools, parks, and numerous boat ramps and places for beach access. The community is very friendly here, making it a perfect beach vacation spot for the entire family.

For nearly 12 continuous miles, the dunes and marsh lands of the island are untouched, providing a home for birds, deer, muskrats, rabbits, and other wild animals. The several beaches on the island are some of the last pristine beaches left in America. Fishermen and anglers are allowed to drive on the beach, with surf fishing being truly great here.

If you visit Ocracoke Island in the summer, you'll find that there is always something to do. The island has a happening nightlife as well, which is perfect for those who want more than just the beach on their vacation.

If you live close to North Carolina, Ocracoke Island is possibly closer than you may realize, making it a great weekend vacation getaway.

Attractions on Ocracoke Island

A few attractions not to miss while you're on the island are the 1823 Ocracoke Lighthouse, the British Cemetery and Banker Ponies (descendants from the ponies which came with the Raleigh expeditions) and the quaint village of Ocracoke.

Accommodations

Lodging can be had at Edwards of Ocracoke, located in the heart of Ocracoke Village. Choose from 8 motel rooms, 3 efficiencies, 6 cottage apartments and 2 private cottages. Rates start at $48 in the Spring and Fall and $60 and $69 in the summer and peak seasons (peak season is June 1 to August 20). They offer weekly rental rates as well. Call 252-928-4801 for more information.

Another place for lodging is the Anchorage Inn & Marina, a 35-room, four-story hotel overlooking Ocracoke's scenic harbor, offering sunset views as the sun sinks into the waters of the Pamlico Sound. Choose from smoking or non-smoking rooms, with pet-friendly rooms on the first floor. Off season rates are from $79.00 a night to $209.00 a night. In-season rates are from $125.00 a night to $239.00 a night. For more information call 252-928-1101.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Cheap San Francisco Weekend Getaway

If you’ve ever visited San Francisco, you know it can be a very expensive city. Hotel costs, restaurant tabs, valet fees and cab fares can add up quite quickly. But, if you know where the values are, that weekend getaway to San Francisco can actually fit into your budget quite nicely.

First, let’s start with lodging. Yes, it’s nice to stay at the Grand Hyatt on Union Square or the Mark Hopkins. But, let’s face it, they’re expensive. For budget considerations, I suggest you consider Lombard Street. No, not the crooked part of Lombard Street, but the section of Lombard Street which runs through the Cow Hollow and Marina districts in the northern part of San Francisco, near the Golden Gate Bridge.

You can find a nice room on Lombard Street for just under $100 a night, which is a far cry from the hotels on Union Square. But, what kind of room will your $100 get you? Of course, you’re not going to get the luxury of a fancy hotel, but you’re not paying for luxury. You’re paying to enjoy San Francisco. Your $100 will buy you a comfortable, clean room. Also, you will generally receive free parking. If you drive to San Francisco or rent a car in San Francisco, free parking is a big deal. The luxury hotels usually charge for parking, as well as a in & out fees when you retrieve your car for a day trip or night out.

Lombard Street is also a great location. Just north of Lombard Street is Chestnut Street, with a movie theater, shops and wonderful food. To the south a few blocks you’ll find Union Street, with upscale shops and, again, wonderful food. Lombard Street is also a good location for bus service to all parts of San Francisco, eliminating the need for expensive taxi rides.

You have numerous choices for lodging along Lombard Street. I’ve stayed at the Cow Hollow Motor Inn (415-921-5800) and find it to be good, inexpensive choice, with free parking, with a nice, inexpensive Italian restaurant located just north on Steiner Street (Ristorante Parma). One caveat I have about Cow Hollow, which can probably be applied to any of the motels on Lombard Street, is that you will probably want to request an inside room off the main streets, as they can get quite loud. Another motel you might consider would be La Luna Inn (415-346-4664), a recently renovated inn with some luxuries you wouldn’t expect from a budget motel, such as pillow-top mattresses, flat screen TVs, wireless internet access and complimentary muffins, breads, coffee, tea and juices served every morning. All that for just under $100 per night for a single king or queen bed.

Restaurants can also add up to the cost of a vacation. San Francisco has a large amount of wonderful restaurants at inexpensive prices. Of course, you have to know which ones they are. Those would usually be the ones the locals frequent, so if you want to avoid over-priced restaurants, you’d stay away from restaurants in tourist traps like Fisherman’s Wharf and go for neighborhood restaurants, such as those found in Cow Hollow and the Marina District, 24th Street in Noe Valley, or Potrero Hill. One very inexpensive restaurant I’d recommend in Potrero Hill is San Francisco Bar B Que, 1328 18th St., a wonderful little Thai BBQ restaurant that serves great food at cheap prices. If there’s a wait, just put your name on the list and bop into Bloom’s Saloon a couple doors down for a drink and great views of the downtown skyline.

As for inexpensive things to do in San Francisco, check out the free walking tours offered by San Francisco City Guides, a non-profit organization of more than 200 trained volunteers who lead free walking tours in San Francisco. Their website at sfcityguides.org lists all the many different walking tours of such sites as Chinatown, Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, and even ghost walks of supposedly haunted locations.

San Francisco is truly a great city to visit. It’s even better when you know you can visit and experience all the city has to offer without breaking the bank.



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Friday, July 06, 2007

Southern California Beach Ideas

You cannot visit Southern California without stopping at one of its many wonderful beaches and dipping your toes in the Pacific Ocean. However, if you have a limited time on your visit and can only visit one beach, you may have a difficult time choosing. Which Southern California beach should top your list? Well, it depends on what you're looking for:

Sunbathing and Relaxing:

Zuma/Point Dume: Of course, you can sit in the sand and relax at all the beaches in Southern California, but Point Dume and Zuma beaches, approximately 19 miles west of Malibu on Pacific Coast Highway, are the beaches to go to escape the crowded Los Angeles beaches. When driving west on PCH you'll come to Point Dume first, then Zuma. Point Dume is a little quieter than Zuma, so if you want to lie in the sand and sleep, or read a good book, Point Dume is it. Of course, just because Point Dume and Zuma beaches are great for relaxing, that's not all there is to do. Some consider Zuma beach one of the finest surfing beaches as well.

Surfing:

Huntington Beach: With over 50 surfing competitions held each year in Huntington Beach, plus a Surfing Walk of Fame, Surfers' Hall of Fame and International Surfing Museum, Huntington Beach, or "Surf City" as some call it, is the place you'll want to visit to surf and watch surfers in action. Forget your surfboard or boogie board? No problem, you can also rent one in Huntington Beach. You'll want to visit the pier at Huntington City Beach where you can watch the surfers as well as take in the views, which include Catalina Island, 22 miles away (check out the pay scopes for closer views).

Another reason to go to Huntington Beach is that all three of their beaches (Huntington City Beach, Huntington State Beach and Bolsa Chica State Beach) have concrete fire rings which allow you to have nightly bonfires and cookouts.

Swami's Beach: Located in Encinitas below Seacliff Roadside Park, Swami's Beach is also a great place to watch the surfers, as it is considered one of the best surfing spots along the San Diego County coastline.

Fun Out of the Water:

Santa Monica State Beach: If you get tired of sunbathing or playing in the ocean, Santa Monica State Beach is great because you have Pacific Park at Santa Monica Pier with rides, games and restaurants. You have to really try hard to be bored at Santa Monica State Beach. Rides include a carousel, roller coaster, bumper cars, motion simulator and a nine-story Ferris wheel with spectacular views. You can also roller blade and ride bikes on the bike bath along the beach.

People Watching:

Venice City Beach: Want a quirky beach experience? Then you'll have to visit Venice Beach, at the end of Washington Street in Venice. There you'll find skaters, performers and those you're not quite sure if they're performing or not. On any given weekend you can be treated to musicians, acrobats, mimes, magicians and other assorted entertainers. You'll also find restaurants and all sorts of shops along Ocean Front Walk, as well as Muscle Beach, where you can find bodybuilders pumping iron. If you like crowds, you'll love Venice Beach on the weekend.

These are just a sampling of the great beach experiences you can have in Southern California. Just remember to bring and apply your sunscreen, drink plenty of water throughout the day, and enjoy your visit.


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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Cruise Ship Vs. Private Yacht Charter

For first-timers and seasoned pros alike, most people assume that in order to sail the world's oceans and rivers you have to sign up with one of the major cruise lines. While cruising with one of the majors is the most common way to sail, there are other options available, such as chartering a private yacht.

Before the money alarm bells start going off in your head, it might help to know that in some cases a privately-chartered yacht might make financial sense, particularly if you have a larger group of people who will split the cost of the charter. And, charters vary widely in price. For example, you can charter a yacht cruising Florida and the Bahamas in the winter and New England in the summer from $15,500 per week for 6 people. That comes out to just over $2,500 per person. Of course, there are pricier yachts you can charter for $385,000 per week for 12 guests and a crew of 13. A yacht like that comes equipped with fishing equipment, snorkeling equipment, water skis, 3 waverunners, kneeboards, 2 kayaks, gym and a Jacuzzi. Again, prices vary widely. You may be amazed at what you'd find in your price range. Some private yacht charters also offer cheaper deals if you agree to cook your own food rather than have a chef onboard.

Benefits of Private Yacht Charter over Major Cruise Line

Privacy:

On a major cruise you have lots of company. Over 2,000 passengers on many cruises. With a private yacht charter it can be just you and under a dozen other people, often times just your friends and family. Besides you and the other passengers, the only other individuals onboard would be the yacht crew or staff. This might not only include a captain and other onboard hands, but it may also include a maid or a private chef.

Perfect for Small Gatherings:

Private yachts are ideal for small business parties, casual business meetings, romantic getaways, honeymoons, weddings, and even family vacations. It's hard to hold a business meeting on a large cruise ship with all the noise and activity going on around you. And, a private yacht charter allows you the opportunity to get closer to your loved ones without other people getting in the way.

Activities:

You may be able to go swimming, scuba diving or snorkeling right off the yacht. Jumping off the ship and into the ocean is not something that's encouraged on a major cruise ship. Neither is fishing. But, on your own private chartered yacht, that is also an activity you, your family and friends can enjoy.

Health Considerations:

Every year it seems there's news of some outbreak of something on a major cruise ship. With all the people aboard, it's much easier for infections to be spread around, no matter how hard the crew tries to keep everything clean and disinfected. With the small number of people on a private chartered yacht, you have less chance of coming in contact with pathogens.

Benefits of a Major Cruise Line over a Private Chartered Yacht

Cost:

While you can find a private yacht charter that won't break the bank, a vacation with a major cruise line is still probably cheaper, even for an ocean-view balcony room. And, if you book early enough, you're often offered an upgrade when your cruise date nears.

Activities:

A major cruise ship offers an incredible amount of activities, such as movies, dancing, yoga, exercise classes. Many have onboard casinos and numerous swimming pools. If you're bored reading or watching the scenery, there's always an activity scheduled.

Escape:

While taking a vacation on a yacht with 8 other people sounds nice, you may not be able to escape these same people during the day on a private yacht. On a major cruise there are so many activities that people can go off and do their own thing without always bumping into each other.

When deciding between a major cruise ship and private chartered yacht it helps to sort out what you really want on your vacation. Do you want the opportunity to see beautiful scenery at a minimal cost, or are privacy and being catered to an important consideration for you?

Should you decide to look into chartering a private yacht, you might wish to go through a yacht charter agent who has knowledge of the different companies offering chartered yachts. Choose an agent who is a member of one of the yacht broker's associations, such as the AYCA, the American Yacht Charter Association, or CYBA, the Charter Yacht Brokers Association.

Visit Boating Vacations website, where you can learn more about whitewater rafting vacations and West Virginia rafting.



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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Theme Parks - the Not-So-Usual Suspects

Do you and your family enjoy theme parks? Ok, silly question. What family doesn't enjoy theme parks? Kids love them because there's always something fun to do. Parents love them because they give their kids such joy. And, let's face it, many parents love the roller coasters and other rides as well.

Many families try to visit all the major parks at least once while their kids are young. It's almost like the tradition of putting a sticker on your luggage to show where you've been. You want as many stickers on that suitcase as you can collect. They become badges of honor for your travels. As far as theme parks go, there are the usual suspects:

California

--Disneyland

--California Adventure

--Knott's Berry Farm

--Magic Mountain

--Universal Studios

--Legoland

--SeaWorld


Florida

--Universal Orlando

--SeaWorld Orlando

--Walt Disney World

But what about the Not-So-Usual Suspects? Those are the theme parks you might not know about, but should, particularly if you have younger children. Here are a few not-so-knowns that you might want to consider as well:

Bonfante Gardens - Gilroy, California

Gilroy? Where's Gilroy? Chances are many of you haven't heard of Gilroy, California. Gilroy is the Garlic Capital of the World, located off the 101, approximately 42 miles southeast of Monterey and just over 80 miles south of San Francisco. So, if you're visiting the San Francisco, Monterey or Santa Cruz areas of California, a side trip to the Bonfante Gardens should be on your list.

Bonfante Gardens has the distinction of being California's only horticultural theme park, designed for garden lovers and families of small children. It's like a Legoland, only instead of trees and flowers made of Legos, these trees and flowers are real. Imagine that, a theme park with something real. And, while you won't find the amount of thrill rides you would at the other parks, there are some rides to keep the kids (and ride-loving parents interested). Rides include a sky monorail, a roller coaster billed as a "thrilling mine coaster" surrounded by nearly 600 trees, a carousel which dates back to 1927, and a giant banana which swings back and forth. Okay, maybe not the most thrilling, but definitely appropriate for younger children.

For the garden buffs among you, Bonfante Gardens has several gardens to astound you, such as the Monarch Garden, filled with hundreds of tropical and sub-tropical trees, flowers and shrubs; the Camellia Gardens displaying many different varieties of camellias; and the Holly Garden, which features over 20 different varieties of hollies.

Bonfante Garden's season begins March 31.

Silver Dollar City - Branson, Missouri

Silver Dollar City is an absolute must-see theme park. Why? It has what the other theme parks don't have. An actual living cave. As a matter of fact, Missouri is chock full of caves, and is known as the "Cave State" due to it containing over 6,000 surveyed caves. One of them is Marvel Cave, which is now part of Silver Dollar City amusement park. Admission to Silver Dollar City also gains you admission to the Marvel City Cave tour, a tour which lasts approximately 60 minutes and takes you 500 feet below the surface. You do have to climb 600 stairs down, but will have a cable train to take you the ½-mile trip back up to the surface.

Other rides include a giant swing, which launches you 7 stories into the air; a 20-minute steam train ride; a funhouse called Grandfather's Mansion; an 80-foot tall, high-speed, roller coaster with a great view of the Ozarks; and several water rides.


Dollywood - Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

For those of you not familiar with Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, it’s one of the towns close to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of the most popular National Parks in the United States. So, a vacation to Pigeon Forge will get you close to peaceful vacation cabins and all the outdoor activities you can handle: boating, fishing, hiking, etc. Plus, you can give the kids a day at a fabulous nearby theme park: Dollywood.

Dollywood is a great place for families with children of all ages. The younger children will really like it because of the mix of rides with educational amusements, such as the Dreamland Forest Treehouse full of kid games, an interactive Dreamland Forest playground area, and the Eagle Mountain Sanctuary, which houses the country’s largest collection of non-releasable bald eagles. There are numerous thrill rides as well for parents and older children, including the new coaster ride, Mystery Mine, where you travel on a 1,811-foot track through an abandoned coal mine, and take an 85-foot vertical plunge.

Five of the South's largest festivals occur at Dollywood between March and December, including KidsFest from mid June to early August. Dollywood is open March 31 through the end of December.

While every kid wants to visit Disneyland, Disney World, Universal Studios, and all the other usual suspects, do give some thought to some of the lesser-known, not-so-usual suspects which can delight, educate and thrill you and your family.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Maui Hawaii Vacations

Maui's my favorite of the Hawaiian islands and home to some of the most amazing beaches. Some beaches offer swimming all year round, while others are best for surfing or snorkeling during certain times of the year. Depending on where you choose to stay, there are always some famous beaches nearby.

West Maui beaches If you drive along the west coast of Maui from Lahaina to Kapalua, you'll see many breathtaking beaches along the coast. Kaanapali Beach will offer you over three miles of white sand with a variety of watersports, including surfing, sailboating, and even catamaran rides. On the north end of the beach is Black Rock, which is where you can get in some awesome snorkeling.

Most people like the sandy beach at Napili Bay, because there are no high rise buildings around, and the bay is well protected from waves. The Kapalua Resort in west Maui is home to Kapalua Beach, Oneloa Bay Beach, and the D.T. Fleming Beach.

South Maui Beaches The rule with Hawaii and is that the further south you travel, the less crowded the beaches will be. I've seen that with Kauai and it's certainly true with Maui.

Kihei offers you a series of beaches along the six mile coastline, some even offering lifeguards, restrooms, and picnic areas. Polo Beach and Wailea Beach offer both restrooms and equipment rentals. Or, if you prefer a more secluded beach, you should visit Maluaka Beach at the Maui Prince Hotel - where you may even come across some green sea turtles.

A few miles past the Maui Prince Hotel is the Big Beach of Makena, which, in my opinion, is one of the best beaches on Maui. It's not called Big Beach for nothing! It's big, and, and best of all, empty. It offers white sand, picnic facilities, and even restrooms.

East Maui Beaches The beaches of East Maui are unlike others in Hawaii. Surround by lush scenery, the beaches are secluded, scenic, and very colorful.

You can't leave East Maui without visiting Hamoa Beach. As you approach the beach from the main road, you'll walk past colorful plants and palm trees surrounding Hamoa Beach. Just off Hana Highway is Hana Bay Beach, which offers blackvolcanic sand.

The Red Sand Beach is difficult to get to, you'll need to find a narrow path along the coast. The beach offers plenty of swimming and snorkeling, and you should be the only one there - which is great for those looking for privacy. Even though it is hard to get to, Red Sand Beach is truly one of a kind. Although great for swimming, you'll want to bring a book, sit awhile and relax.

For more Hawaii trip ideas, go to http://hawaiitrips.blogspot.com

Sunday, January 21, 2007

European Vacation Getaway - 7 Travel Tips

Europe has always been a popular travel destination. Whether you're a seasoned traveler or planning your first trip, there are several important things to keep in mind before calling your travel agent and booking your next vacation:

1. Time of year: While "Paris in the Springtime" sounds very romantic, the truth is that you're liable to spend many days indoors, because the weather can be cold and rainy. Why not try the French Riviera instead? The French Riviera in the springtime boasts warm temperatures, sunshine and beautiful places to visit. If you're not sure of weather patterns, check with your travel agent who can advise you on rainy seasons or other weather-related issues for traveling to a specific spot.

2. Your Budget: Decide how much you've got to spend, and don't forget to include extras like tourist attractions, getting around, souvenirs and meals (which are typically more expensive in Europe than in the states -- dinner can cost upwards of 50 Euros per person, especially in metropolitan cities). If your budget is smaller, consider visiting Eastern Europe, looking for packaged tours, or, if you're flexible, book a "last-minute" trip, which can often save you 30% or more. Check out the current exchange rate between your currency and that of the country you'll be visiting, to have a better idea of what your vacation is going to actually cost you. You’ll have more fun if you’ve budgeted for a reasonable amount, rather than run out of money on your trip and have to miss out on some sights.

3. Political Climate: While most countries that rely on tourism make every effort to ensure the safety of tourists, these days it's always a good idea to keep up on the current political climate of the country you're planning to visit, especially if there have been problems in the past.

4. Know our own "internal clock" or level of tolerance for structured travel: If you prefer sleeping in in the mornings, and "doing your own thing" then a guided tour is probably not for you. Most guided tours start early in the morning, and you're on the go until evening. You may visit several cities in a country or countries within a specified amount of time, and you're required to stay with the group. Make sure you don’t spend money on something you’re not really going to enjoy.

5. Use the resources that are available to make your trip special and save money: Today's travelers have numerous options when planning their vacation. You can use the Internet to find out more about the cities or countries you want to visit, check out prices; even book your flight or hotel room. On the other hand, don’t assume the internet has the best rates. Double check with the airlines or a travel agent to make sure you’re getting the best deal.

6. Get organized: You can use trip-planning software, or your own favorite organizing system to organize and plan your trip. Don't forget things like making sure your passport and picture ID are up-to-date, finding out if travel insurance is something you need, and how and where to exchange your money. The more organized you are in the beginning, the better vacation you'll have. While on the topic of passport, give yourself plenty of time to get your passport, especially with the new passport regulations taking place. There’s going to be a flood of people seeking passports, so it may take longer than you expect.

7. Pack lightly: When planning your trip, look at your wardrobe and pack as lightly as you can. Most of us take too much on a vacation, and end up lugging heavy suitcases and other bags along filled with items that we either don't use or don't need. Take only what you'll really need, and remember that if you forget or end up needing something, chances are you can get it once you reach your destination.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Mt. Shasta Vacation

Want a trip that will please anyone in the family? Mt. Shasta, California certainly fits that bill, appealing to almost anyone, from golfers to skiers, and yes, to those seeking a more spiritual path.

Mt. Shasta is home to, well… Mt. Shasta, a 14,179-foot volcano, the second-highest peak in the Cascade Range. Yeah, it’s big. And beautiful. And,home to a vortex which attracts “New Age” types. A drive down Mt. Shasta Blvd. in Mt. Shasta City reveals a vast array of spiritual shops and assorted healers. You can buy singing bowls and tuning forks, divination tools, yoga supplies, vibrational sprays and magical jewelry. You find can all types of spiritual healers, such as those offering psychic hypnotherapy, reflexology, Reiki and energy work, vibrational healing and massage. If you’re into mineral baths, you can drive a few minutes north of Mt. Shasta City to Weed, where you’ll find therapeutic mineral baths at Stewart Mineral Springs (530-938-2222). (They also have some cabins and motel rooms. But, unless you want something truly rustic, you might want to stay elsewhere. The cabins, as of summer of 2006, could use some updating and sprucing up.)

Those of you wishing to take vortex tours are definitely in luck, as there are numerous guided tours to choose from, including Shasta Vortex Adventures, which offers Mt. Shasta Guided Tours all year round. You can choose from guided hikes, healing earth journeys, bus tours and winter outings, such as snowshoe, cross country or telemark ski outings. Call them at 530-926-4326 for more information.

For those seeking outdoor activities and adventure, Mt. Shasta does not disappoint, no matter what season in which you’re visiting. During the warmer months you can hike or visit the many lakes which dot the area, including, of course, Lake Shasta, 10 miles north of Redding, the second largest lake in California, after Lake Tahoe. Shasta Lake is a very popular destination for boating, water-skiing, camping, and fishing. They also claim to be the houseboating and wakeboarding Capital of the World. Lake Shasta is also home to the Lake Shasta Caverns, which is open all year round. In order to view the underground caverns, visitors are taken on a 15-minute catamaran cruise across Lake Shasta, where they then board a bus which carries them up a mountainside, more than 800 feet above the lake, where the caves are accessible. All this for only $20; $12 for those 3 to 15. Call 1-800-795-CAVE for more information.

If the size of Lake Shasta is too overwhelming for you, as it was for me during one visit, you might want to visit a smaller lake near Mt. Shasta City, Lake Siskiyou, a 430 acre recreational and sailing lake, which offers some of the best bass and trout fishing in Northern California. You can purchase a cheap day pass and swim, picnic or rent pedal boats, or you can rent RV or camping space, or a cabin at Lake Siskiyou Resort and Camp (1-888-926-2618). The resort is open April 1st - October 31st and is very family friendly, with a great swimming area, sandy beach, and nightly movies in an outdoor amphitheater. The lake is actually closer to Mt. Shasta than Lake Shasta, and you can swim with the beautiful snow-covered mountain looming in the backdrop.

Close to Lake Siskiyou you’ll find Mount Shasta Resort, home to a championship golf course, as well as luxurious cabins and a day spa.

Skiers will delight in skiing Mt. Shasta at the Mt. Shasta Ski Park, where you’ll find 31 trails on 425 acres of skiable terrain. Night skiing is also provided on 14 trails and 3 lifts. The terrain level of difficulty is 20% beginner, 55% intermediate, and 25% advanced. There is also a cross country ski and snowshoe center for those wishing something other than downhill skiing. And for beginners, the ski park offers ski, snowboarding and telemark lessons.

If you want information on summer vacation spots, visit www.topvacationspots.net .



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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Housing Exchange

House Swapping – the Ultimate in Budget Travel

How would you like to stay in Umbria for two weeks and not have to pay a dime for your accommodations? That would sure save you money on your vacation, wouldn’t it? And, let’s say your accommodation was a 4-bedroom, 3-bath stone building which dates back to the 14th century, with a kitchen with all you need to cook fabulous meals? That would save money on dining out, now, wouldn’t it? Of course, with the house costing nothing, who needs to save money by eating in?

Where can you find such incredible savings? It’s called house exchange or house swap. The recent movie “The Holiday” used the notion of a house swap to help the leading characters find romance. One woman from England swaps houses with a woman from the United States over the Christmas holiday and they both find romance in their new surroundings. Will their new romance become permanent and lasting true love? Who knows, but at least we know they saved money. And, you can too.

Here’s how it works. If you decide you want to exchange homes with someone, you sign up with a house exchange company, which can typically cost around $60 to $80 per year, choose which destination you wish to visit and the dates, and see if there are any potential exchange partners who you match with. If they agree to stay in your house during the time specified, you’re on your way to a vacation in Paris, Florence, San Francisco, or wherever there’s a match. And the cost? Just your membership fees to the exchange company. Your only costs, then, are your airfare, dining out and recreation. Considering that lodging can run about $150 a night and even higher, you stand to save hundreds to thousands on your vacation.

House swapping is nothing new, and many of the exchange companies have been in business for decades, with more popping up all the time.

Aside from the savings, you get the opportunity of living like the locals do. You get the opportunity to try restaurants that aren’t near the tourist hotels, see places you otherwise might pass up.

In addition to the benefits you receive in your “new home,” your old home is being looked after by your exchange partners, which means you don’t have to pay anyone to water your plants or check up on your house. And, if your arrangement with your exchange partner allows for it, your pets will be cared for as well. Some things to consider before posting your request with your chosen company include:

Will you allow for the use of your car? Many times the exchange partners exchange cars as well.

Do you agree to care for the exchange partner’s pets?

How many people do you allow to stay in your house?

Will you allow children?

Will you allow pets?

One question you may have is – is home exchange safe? Obviously there are unscrupulous people out there, so you can increase your safety by making sure you keep your valuables locked up. It’s also a good idea to have your mail held by the post office. Also, you could choose only those homes which have had prior exchanges. If someone’s had 10 successful exchanges you should feel pretty secure. However, if at any time during the process you feel uneasy about the exchange, trust your instincts and stop the process.

House swapping is definitely one option to consider in order to cut down on vacation costs. Who knows, it may open you up to a new way of travel that you’ll return to year after year after year.


Go to http://www.topvacationspots.com/ for vacation destination suggestions. Who know, maybe a Canary Island holiday is in your future.

(One new housing exchange I was just alerted to in my comments is http://www.jewettstreet.com/ . Check it out.)


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