LATIN AMERICA JOURNEY END: CHILE CASA BLANCA VALLEY AND PATAGONIA (PART 3 OF 3)

We arrived in Chile from Cusco at midnight but the local agency partner mistook the flight number and though we missed our flight so left us at the airport! We waited a two whole hours before arriving at the hotel in the dead of night freezing and hungry! Well no trip is perfect and Chilean leg was off to a rough start…..

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Fortunately things got much better when we reached the hotel, delicious albeit cold sandwiches were waiting on the table (the little things really matter!).  Upon hearing what happened to us the night before, upgraded us to the largest room with soft light streaming in and a huge bathroom. Ahh heaven indeed! You truly appreciate the good after the bad.

The meals and the resort itself was lovely. A warm breakfast awaited us full of cold cuts and cheese.

A set lunch was prepared for us with the highlight being the Syrah braised lamb and delectable Abalone and Asparagus risotto pared with the local vineyard wines. I recommend their award winning “Riesling

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We took a bike ride along the fields surrounding the vineyard and we came upon two “hermanos” or brothers who are local cowboys called “Huaso” (Note: Do NOT call them guachos that is chilean and they do not like it! haha). It is so nice see the older brother teaching the younger one how to ride (Passing on the tradition)

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My husband busted our the drone for a quick shot of the countryside… note the Black beauty in the background
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Black beauty! Well he was actually the stallion
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Farewell to Casalanca Valley!

It was a nice trip with Luciano as our guide and we learned about the sad yet proud history of the local Chilean people called Mapuche who were never conquered by the Spanish yet sadly died off overtime.

We end this part with our mascot for the trip: LUCHO! Who was the most active and funniest Llama we ever saw…. he acted more like a dog jumping around with bright inquisitive eyes!

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Patagonia 

As they say we saved the best for last, which is why it took so long to make this last post

Torres Del Paine is a national park located at the southern tip of Chile almost 5 hours by car from the nearest airport. It felt like discovering an untouched valley for the first time.

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Hiking was the order of the day with half day and full day hikes at your very doorstep!

img_3177I really meant literally at your doorstep… this pathway leads to the Condor hike which goes up steeply but gives you a chance at seeing the largest flying bird in the world.

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The Explora hotel is truly unique being situated right in the heart of the national park and offering the luxuries of a five star resort yet blending naturally with its surroundings. Every room has a stunning view right out of a postcard.

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Our guides were exceptional with their blend of good nature and in depth knowledge. Do have a drink with them after a long trek and learn more about them (For example they need to spend a 6 month stay at the resort since it is so remote…. almost like being on a cruise ship)

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The next day was horseback riding with the Gauchos. This is what Patagonia pictures always seem to feature and with good reason. The majestic back drop combined with beautiful horses while breathing in the cool crisp chilean air make for a fantastic experience.

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Gauchos!

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Hikes

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Our first hike was the Condor hike that was short but steeply uphill with a portion of high winds that make you feel like flying. In fact in really high winds they cancel this hike as it is dangerous.

The puma hike was unfortunately a “no show” for the puma  but hikes make up the majority of the experience.

Travel tip: Always look out for the impala that suddenly rear their head and face on direction as it may mean a puma is nearby. If the clouds at the top of the mountain are swirling around in a circle that means that the winds are high and the hikes will likely be closed.

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I am so proud of myself for hiking the signature “Torres Del Paine” to the base of the Towers. A 22k hike that took a grueling 8 hours with many portions  going up steep trails, creeks and mountain ledges.  The view on the top of the granite Towers is just spectacular with snow covered cliffs and a frozen lake in the middle.

Travel tip: Bring layered thermals as going up may be warm as you exert yourself but once you get to the top it gets very chilly.

When we finally walked back to where we were dropped off before the ascent, I thought the coaster would be waiting for us. In fact it was another 30 minute walk to get to the parking lot! When your feet are so numb already you just have to keep going no matter what. Truly one of my most challenging hikes. My hubby said it was the first time I was too tired to talk after a hike and my body was so tired the next day… luckily there was a hot bath in the room awaiting me.

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With a toast of a Strawberry Margarita, I say farewell to the beautiful Torres Del Paine Park and the wonderful Explora hotel. Truly one of the best trips of our lives and a discovery of the “active” vacation which combines hiking and fine food. My husband and I did not gain a any weight for once! We will be back one day and hopefully they have a nearer airport by then.

Travel tip: Go soon as there are more and more people discovering the area which will spoil the untouched beauty of the place. It almost felt like Iceland was more than 5 years ago but is now so packed and prices at double what they used to be.

 

Latin America Journey: PERU Machu Picchu and Sacred Valley (Part 2 of 3)

Machu Picchu

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My husband had a good Pisco sour to speed the time up… albeit with a little extra cost but well worth the show and arm strength of the mixer)

From Cusco we boarded the VISTADOME train which we were pleasantly surprised to be very modern with clear glass ceilings looking up to the jungle canopy above and very friendly staff  with excellent english. It was as clean and comfortable as any train.

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On the first day we did a light tour of the Machu Picchu taking a bus up from the town while our luggage was sent ahead to the resort. We met again with our excellent guide Jorge provided by Coltur Peru Agency (partner of A2A)  who was our guide in Cusco.

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Upon reaching Machu Picchu we had a decent buffet lunch which had alpaca beef at the top and proceeded with the tour. It was as breathtaking as we had imagined and the weather while cloudy (which we were told was most of the year – hence the name Cloud forest) was cool and pleasant despite a slight drizzle.

Travel Tip: It rains most of the year due to humidity so wear a light waterproof  jacket and on top of thermal on the cooler months (You can always store it in your backpack after once you start warming up with the climb).

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The tight paths that crisscross the site make for some tight areas so just be patient and follow your guide while they navigate the crowds.

Travel Tip: If you are traveling on your own go earlier so it is not so crowded with the day tours from Cusco

Look out for little picture spots all along the route. It pays to have your own guide so you can go on your own pace.

InkaTerra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel

After a light afternoon trek, we checked into our hotel InkaTerra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel located conveniently minutes away from the bus terminal. Ahhh… The simple elegant cottage was lovely to just hang up your feet and stare out the window at the lunch gardens all around. The resort prides itself in being GREEN certified and in harmony with nature.

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Nice breakfast overlooking the train and river

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We elected to dine in the room since we had a lovely living room. My husband loved eating in his pajamas next to the fireplace. The food was amazing! It was so cozy!

Hike up Huayna Picchu

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All for this Final shot! Worth it!

Only 200 people a day are allowed to hike up the mountain overlooking Macchu Pichu plus extra pay for a very challenging uphill climb…. but it is SO WORTH IT!

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Travel tip: Use a walking stick to make the hike easier. Learn to use it properly as well

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Classic train (very bumpy!) – Husband got motion sickness. He stayed in front by the bar and got a drink to pass the time

 

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Elegant interiors of a bygone era

Sacred Valley

Finally after getting off the Bingham train we reached our destination: Sacred Valley

Our lovely hotel was the Sol Y Luna nestled in the valley. It is rated as one of the top resorts and we quickly discovered why. The rooms are very colorful and surrounded by lush vegetation amidst beautiful mountains.

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Pool reflecting the beautiful sky
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Stables housing the well bred horses
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Our horseman guide: PASO is what they are called

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A lovely ride back and forth amidst the beautiful area was so romantic and a must do for couples. Just be sure to stretch if you are rusty at horseback.

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Macchu Pichu was truly amazing place as it may be the few places that was spared from the Spanish influence. You can really see their advances used in empire building with roads like the Inca trail as well as reflecting pools that allowed them to observe the stars and plot the harvest seasons. We can learn a lot by discovering the past and applying their age old lesson to the here and now.

So we end our Peru leg of the trip…. Our last post will cover the even more amazing Chile – Matetic Vineyard and Patagonia!

Latin America Journey Start: PERU, Lima to Cusco (Part 1 of 3)

We started my hubby’s 40th birthday trip in Peru. It was a long way to get to from the Philippines given that we first flew to Los Angeles (16 hrs) then stayed a few days before flying to Peru (10 hours). Since this was our first time going to South America I decided to go through an agency that was more familiar with this continent. So I contacted A2A Safaris who are a specialist in not just South African Safari but also Latin America. My husband said he would set aside his OCD on planning trips and would sit back and enjoy the pisco sours (I will let you see how much he got to do it as we go along).

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Our first tour stop as in most Cities is in the town square: Plaza Mayor which was declared a historic center by UNESCO. My husband who is always enthralled by military history was fascinated to learn how 160 + Spaniards were able to conquer a whole empire. It being perhaps too long to explain here, the one significant turning point was how the last Incan emperor Atahualpa was ambushed by the Spanish and used as a puppet to control the empire. What an amazing stroke of luck indeed that he was away from his main forces and had underestimated how powerful the modern weapons were (artillery and horsemen).

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Iglesia de San Francisco

Restaurant LA MER

Nothing captures the imagination of Peru than a Cebiche (Yes they use a b in the middle) and Pisco Sour. Located amidst the posh Miraflores district is La Mer a seafood restaurant and bar which we had a delightful lunch.

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We got the sampler of Cebiche – From right to left: Nikei (tuna in a sweet soy sauce – 9/10!), Mixto (Tuna and Octopus 6/10) and Traditional (Catch of the day 10/10 –  just lime)
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Lobster in a Lemon butter sauce – sooo amazing and great presentation!
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Picarones! Let’s bring this over to the Philippines! 

 

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PISCO SOUR – Iconic drink of Peru and totally worth the hype!
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Grab a night cap (or a day cap it’s alright we won’t judge…. much) at the Hotel B bar in its classic style

HOTEL B

Rarely do we say that the highlight of a certain place is the hotel we stay in but in Lima we must say our Hotel B blew us away. It is a boutique hotel that is exquisitely redeveloped from an old house. The owners in  keeping the old facade but renovating all the interiors to fit in rooms left the character of the building intact and provided for a cozy boutique feel that made us forget about your typical 5 star large modern hotel.

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My husband’s favorite reading corner looking over the street with natural light drifting in to fill the comfy space with warm feelings

 

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Art and decor adorn the walls of Hotel B which also serves as a museum as well

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I loved how they always had a fresh amount of avocados served everyday.

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Enter Breakfast is served! An amazing spread awaited us every morning with real care in getting the freshest produce. It put most hotel breakfasts to shame!a caption

 

Not to be outdone… Dinner was just as amazing! We had delightfully fresh baked scallops to open with and my husband enjoyed his duck which was soft (not chewy finally!) and had a light sweet orange sauce with a squash mash with pomegranate seeds as a perfect balance. The potato confit squares were a tad bit too crunchy. Our server was also named Carlos provided excellent service and great conversation so look for him if you ever stop by.

CUSCO

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Flanked by the two cathedrals of Cusco: Basilica Cathedral Iglesia (left) and De Compana (right)  

A hours and a half flight and we landed at Cusco, the first thing you will notice is the shortness of breath. That happens when you go up to 3,000 M instantly…. even armed with Coca pills we still found it hard to breathe and had to take it easy

Travel Tip: Fly into Cusco then take a bus immediately to Sacred Valley or Macchu Pichu so you can acclimatize first at lower elevation 2,000 M or so THEN go to Cusco on your way OUT and it will be much easier (Or take the 21 hour bus ride up — ouch!)

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Hotel Monestario

We arrived late at night and it was super cold but lo and behold a beautiful garden awaited us. A restored Monastary connected to a church, this hotel was enchanting yet a little unnerving with all the religous paintings on the walls (Jesus was literally looking over our bed…. luckily we are married!)

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Best Breakfast view ever!

Breakfast was delightful as well with a wide range and excellent service. We always woke up at crack of dawn due to the high pressure made it hard to sleep but luckily coca tea was always there to help a bit.

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Fortress Sacsayhuaman and Ollantaytambo Tour

 

PISAC

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Pottery with Inca Design
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A disapearing art… very few next generation artisans are taking up the craft

We honestly have not heard much about Lima other than it is by the sea and is the capital which we had to fly into. Therefore we did not expect much but was pleasantly surprised how warm and clean the city was given all the warnings we got before coming over.

It is amazing to discover such a good hotel matched with great food set against such beautiful Spanish architecture (Sorry if you are looking for Incan then you have to wait for the next part of the blog – Cusco).

Lima while a bit traffic and messy reminded us of Manila and how it could have been if Old Manila had been preserved better. It is a great stop after a long trip and has much to discover now that it has come out of the shadows of it’s turbulent past.

Cusco with its high altitude took a bit of getting used to but it’s historical center was amazing!

My birthday boy was really impressed how amazingly organized things were (actually it was A2A don’t tell him!) and how similar the cultural heritage was to the Philippines. Our shared family values and warm smiles mixed with the rich Spanish heritage created an atmosphere that felt like home yet not quite the same.

We could not wait to see what came next… (Part 2 to be uploaded end of October so stay tuned!)

One Month Europe Trip with the kids, Part 1: Paris

The summer months are here and we all know the feeling of anxiety mixed with excitement of traveling with young children. Multiply that by a factor of 10 when thinking about taking a train, plane and car across all of Europe from Spain to France then to England and back and you will have an idea of what my husband and I felt before our trip.

Taking the Eurostar with our luggage. No they do not help you. No those containers at the back are not for our luggage. No you cannot use the lift to the train as these are only for Seniors. Yes please take a plane from Paris to London instead!

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My husband almost had a heart attack when I told him we had to bring 5 full size luggages, 3 hand carries and 5 small bags (kids backpacks included) oh… almost forgot a stroller as well….

Travel tip #1: Multidirectional wheels are a MUST! You cannot push two large suitcases per hand. In the Paris CDG the horror is there are very few luggage carts by the airport shuttle drop off area at Terminal 2. Once you are inside though you can find some as well. The stroller is also extremely important to keep your little one in place and to hold your baby bag.

Ah Paris!

Bringing your girls to Paris is truly worth all the hard work like sleepless flight and tons of baggage. Just seeing them absorbing all the beautiful sights (after putting away their Ipads of course!) such as the Eiffel Tower

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Travel tip #3: Go to the Trocadero to take pictures of the Eiffel as the back drop with your loved one. Of course if you can wake up early and go when there are less people would make it even better.

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Louvre

Nothing is quite like the Louvre with its exotic modern exterior pyramid welcoming the millions of visitors each year to the magnificent classic french buildings containing some of the most priceless art pieces in the world it is just the center of art and culture in the world. We wanted our girls to enjoy it the first time they came but were worried they may not enjoy art. The first time was exploratory just to see if they would be interested and lo and behold they were! Especially the story of the Mona Lisa going missing. There were simply too many people though and seemingly few elevators given our stroller. We decided to come back another day.

We came back another day but this time we booked with a private tour guide on Viator named Anna. WHAT A DIFFERENCE! She brought a story book and was very engaging with the girls. They were immediately captured in the history of the art and the museum. She had access to hidden entrances and knew where all the elevators were located so we whisked away quickly through all the exhibits. She told us that they have to take a course and know each room and the art inside.

ANGELINA’S Best Hot Chocolate

After a long day of touring the Louvre (or before!), there is nothing like a good cup of hot chocolate to perk you up. Just a couple of minutes away through the Tuileries gardens is the famous Angelina’s.

Travel tip #4: Go in the morning to avoid the lines. It is rather large so one order is enough for two and two orders enough for three people. A nice croissant is also a good offset to the dark rich flavour of the african cocoa beans.

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If you still haven’t had enough sweets or would like to take home something then Laduree is only around the corner with an amazing window display.

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We took the hop on hop off bus for the girls to get a sample of the town and they absolutely loved it. My husband told them little stories from place to place as they had a hard time listening to the onboard commentary (Bring your own headset!)

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Disneyland Paris

We ended our Paris days with a visit to Disneyland to reward the kids for all the museums we had to go to. It was a picture perfect moment in front of the castle before it started pouring down. Oh well always make the most of it! Luckily we were staying at the nearby Mariott Vacation club.

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The most unique aspect of Disneyland Paris is in the Ratatouille ride which is so adorable but breaks down quite often.  Get a fast pass in the morning and just hope you get in if not you may need to wait awhile but it is worth it.

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Versailles

A short 30 mins away by car is the magnificent Palace of Versailles. We actually did not even bother going inside with all the crowds and decided to enjoy the rare beautiful day to take a stroll in the park to the Queen’s Hamlet which has been recently restored (Take a map so you do not get lost….. or get lost its worth it!)

Travel tip #5: Avoid the crowded cafes in the palace and instead grab a hot jacket potato in the Greater Trianon then finish it with Angelina’s hot chocolate. There is a lovely train to take (we were 5 with a toddler so couldn’t fit in the golf cart you can also rent….. next time!)

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The garden is lovely this time of the year.. this tree looks like its part of the Monet painting doesn’t it? What a great way to cap off this part. We will post the rest of the trip in part 2!

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Next part: Our trip to London and Barcelona! Road trip around France!

 

 

 

 

Budapest to Bucharest: A review of a River Cruise on Amawaterways Amacerto

Reputed to be the best river cruise operator by Berlitz and numerous travel sites, we ventured on our first river cruise on the Amawaterways Amarcerto boat from Budapest down to Bucharest via the Eastern Danube. The founders Rudi Schreiner (The father of river cruises) had come over to Manila to officially launch Amawaterways several weeks earlier to an overflowing elderly crowd in the Conservatory in Peninsula Makati and had convinced us to try it out for my father-in-law’s birthday. The cruise we selected was the “Gems of Eastern Europe”.

It seemed interest was high and other past traveler’s experiences were well rated so let’s take a look into what the cruise is really all about..

THE LOBBY

Photos courtesy of Amawaterways

THE STATE ROOM

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The most important part of a cruise is actually the room itself. Each room came with an ample size balcony and was clean and very compact.

My cousin-in-law Caren Grey who just started a Philippine travel agency called mylocalite worked with Intas who is the official registered agent to plan our trip.

Travel Tip: The greatest part of cruises is NOT HAVING TO PACK AND UNPACK! Just put your clothes in the closets, use the rubber mat on the bed to keep things clean as you unpack your suitcase and place your luggage under the bed to save space. Voila! Stress free travel especially for the elderly or those with handicap.

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As mentioned in my earlier post, we started with a river cruise at night along Budapest and then proceeded down the Danube.

Travel Tip: The best part of this river cruise is the boat as it is a shallow hull therefore quite stable so if you get motion sickness this is the option for you! Lastly if you are like my husband and constantly do risk assessments he already as asked what happens should the boat sink… the answer was take a cocktail at the roof deck as the boat is actually taller than the riverbed.

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After the room, the second most important thing is the FOOD! It is all included as with most cruises but what sets this apart from the rest is that you can book the “fine dining” restaurant called “chef’s table” for one night and do not pay extra for it. There is a personal waiter for your table and your own chef. I must say we were very impressed with the food in general which did may not have lobster or Angus rib eye steaks but had very good local delicacies and fresh ingredients like tomatoes (Mostly agricultural business in this region).

Travel tip (Healthy Option): I asked the head waiter if they could make me oatmeal chocolate chip cookies as a healthier alternative. The first few tries were pretty dry but they got it eventually (with enough coaching)! I really appreciate the extra effort! A baker comes on board every morning to make the baked goods by the way so you may be able to ask for other items next time.

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Lastly, the final component is entertainment. There is not much entertainment on board as our onboard musician while nice did not seem to have any songs past the closing of the Iron Curtain. Luckily my family always likes to improvise so we had a name that tune game on the first night and found similarly spirited group in the tour who took up the songs with a very talented singer of their own (Sadly our family have no singers but my aunt’s could dance I tell you!)

My husband enjoyed the massive chess board on the deck and had a thrilling match with his brother. He also swam at the roof deck pool (Ok more like waded as it is quite small).

On the last few nights we hooked up our Iphones to play some songs to start the party off with the same group who actually out partied us on a nightly basis.

Travel Tip: There is a free cocktail hour before dinner with FREE drinks. My husband liked the Whiskey Sour although it was premixed. Wine is free flowing during dinner as well so make sure to make space. The local wines are quite good although not well known.

 

 

I will end this with our tour of Vukovar which pretty much encapsulates Eastern Europe which is a land frozen in time trying to rebuild itself once step at a time after a harrowing period. I recommend this tour to those who have done most of Western Europe has to offer and are looking for something off the beaten track and a little rougher (Yes cheaper as well) than the main tourist photos of Eiffel Tower and London Bridge. It is also a great way for them to provide jobs to the locals in a very tough economy. My husband calls it “Charity tourism” every time we are faced with a somber faced waiter telling us we can’t split the bill or order a meal with something slightly different on the menu (Me: Can you remove the olives from the salad and dressing on the side……. waiter: No not possible!)

Thank you Amawaterways for the great service from the warm waiters to the hard working housekeeping. The hotel manager Pascal was great at making things run smoothly and our cruise director Florentine was always there to send us off on our tours and keep us informed of the days events.