Wine Tour of New Zeland

(this article recently appeared in a travel agent site)

I have been all over the world and one of my favorite countries is New Zealand.

It reminds me of home – Western Scotland – plus has Switzerland, Norway, and Austria’s spectacular scenery all rolled into one small island.

Even if you are not a wine buff, this is a lovely route to take. It has more than 100 cellar doors along the North Island journey, memorable tasting experiences which bring the trail to life.

The people you meet have an intense passion for wine, matched by an immense knowledge of how it’s made. This is a wonderful mild maritime climate (75 degrees is a heat wave), and with just over 3 million people and 66 million sheep, you are never in a traffic jam.

Encompassing Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa, Wellington (the capital) and Marlborough, the journey takes you on a drive through regions accounting for more than 80 percent of New Zealand’s wine production. Combined with farmers’ markets, great little restaurants, and artisan food producers you encounter along the way, you will experience a great food and wine adventure. You can rent a bike to wander around the wineries, have fantastic picnics, take wine and cooking classes, and play golf on some outstanding courses.

The route starts at Napier on the North Island, along State Highway 2 which is easy to follow since it is signposted as the Classic Wine Trail, going to Masterton, 3 hours 20 minutes, then Martinborough, Wellington, 3 hours 15 minutes, then over to the South Island by air, 30 minutes, or ferry to Picton, which takes just over three hours, then pick up a car and drive 25 minutes to Blenheim, which is the region where the famous Sauvignon Blanc is made. My favorite wine is Cloudy Bay. I bought a special padded wine carrier so I can always bring a bottle home in the middle of my suitcase. I would leave your car in Wellington, and pick up one when you get to Picton. Cheaper to do it this way and I love the ferry ride through the Marlborough Sound.

If you want to take side trips not related to wine, I can recommend Napier to Rotorua, the Maori area of New Zealand. It’s a 3 hour drive, and well worth going to a Hangi (a Maori feast and concert) and seeing the bubbling steaming ponds with fantastic color.

Lake Taupo is another good destination, 2 hours from Napier. Great trout fishing.

Once you are on the South Island, Nelson is a lovely little town, full of art galleries and unique shops. Abel Tasman National Park is a lovely place to take hikes, or rent a kayak or canoe. You can also take a guided hiking walk for several days.

Head south along the coast from Blenheim to Kaikoura, 1.hour 35 minutes which is a spot to stop and take a whale tour which are there all year. From Kaikoura to Christchurch is only a 2.hour 30 minute drive.

Some important tips for sightseeing along the route: In Hawke’s Bay, take a walking tour around Napier and see the Art Deco architecture. Take a safari to Cape Kidnappers, home to the world’s largest gannet colony; this is also a wonderful golf course to play on.

Wairarapa has Cape Palliser lighthouse for spectacular views and eat at the Lake Ferry Hotel. Pukaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre is home to endangered species, including the Kiwi. Take a tour of the Tui Brewery at Mangatainoka.

Some of the Maori words and names of places are awful to get your tongue around.

In Wellington, my number one favorite is Te Papa National Museum. I could spend a day there and usually always do Christmas shopping in the lovely museum shop full of New Zealand crafts. Take a cable car ride from Lambton Quay up to the Botanical Gardens.

In the South Island, Marlborough put New Zealand on the map with its medal winning Sauvignon Blanc white wine. It is home to 142 wineries, mostly small boutique family producers.

Take a tour of the Greenshell Mussel farm.

A must-see for men is the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, where the stories of pioneer aviation heroes of WWI are brought to life.

Bike, hike, or kayak the Queen Charlotte Track, which is one of the easiest of the 200 hiking trails.

It’s a very special place – you will enjoy New Zealand. It has air that only the angels breathe.

River Cruising is Hot

River cruising is probably the most relaxing way to travel, according to Mary Jean Thompson of TravelDesigns by Campbell, a Virtuoso agency in Dallas, TX,. “The pace of ‘rolling down the river’ is good for the soul and the heart,” she say. Perhaps that’s one reason why a new AAA survey indicates that four in 10 Americans say they would consider a river cruise for their upcoming vacation. Travel Agent asked Thompson and other travel advisors for their intel on top trends for the segment heading into 2017. Here are the highlights.

Slight Europe Uptick Driven by Value: “We have seen an uptick in river cruise bookings over the last few months, but still not the strength in bookings of two to three years ago,” observes Alan Rosen, president, Sand & C Travel, Boynton Beach, FL. But demand is heading in the right direction. His agency is seeing more interest in European rivers compared to a year ago when most of his retiree clients would not even consider it after the events in France and Belgium. So “if things stay relatively quiet in central Europe, I am cautiously optimistic that it will continue to improve, particularly if the lines continue with the strong promotions such as free or drastically reduced air pricing,” he believes.

For Mark Comfort, owner, Cruise Holidays of Kansas City, KS, “the value for river cruising in 2017 is driving in new customers who have not tried river cruising due to what they perceive as [it being] too expensive in years past.” Similarly, Michael Consoli, franchise owner, Cruise Planners, Roswell, GA, says river lines are helping his business by offering more value-adds or incentives such as a choice of gratuities, onboard credits, beverage packages and significantly reduced air fare.

For bookings made by March 31, Emerald Waterways is offering free roundtrip airfare from major U.S. and Canadian gateways for those booking a Balcony Suite (including Panorama Balcony Suite, Riverview Suite, Grand Balcony Suite and Owner’s One-Bedroom Suite), on any 2017 Europe voyage. Those booking a stateroom cabin category on a Europe itinerary can receive a reduced airfare of $795 US / CAD per person. Guests booking their own air flights will receive air credits of $1,000 (for Balcony Suite guests) and $600 (for stateroom guests).

Looking for Rooms with a View: Clients are increasingly seeking out “the view.” Candie Steinman, franchise owner, Dream Vacations, Fort Myers, FL, says, “The trend I am seeing is requests for ‘rooms with a view’ on river cruises.” Her returning passengers want the large windows of Avalon Waterways, French balcony and veranda staterooms on Viking River Cruises’ Longships, or AmaWaterways’ balconies. “Customers are requesting the newer ships with these features,” she adds.

Broader Demographic, More Active Psychographic: Agents report that more families and active cruisers are now sailing global rivers. Tauck has family sailings, while AmaWaterways has expanded its European biking and hiking tours. “Health, wellness and active travel is a trend that we first embraced in 2006 when we decided to carry 25 bicycles onboard our European ships. We are seeing this trend continue in 2017 throughout the river cruise industry,” remarks Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-owner of AmaWaterways.

And yes, there is an indication that even Millennials are now more seriously considering river cruising, and lines are working to make them feel welcome. Earlier this year, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection announced its new “U By Uniworld” sailings, designed to appeal to youthful adventure seekers; sales begin next month with the first sailings sometime early next year.

The boutique American Duchess will be the first all-suite paddlewheeler on U.S. rivers. Seen here is the lobby of the vessel.

Ellen Bettridge, Uniworld’s president and CEO, says her line is “targeting active travelers between the ages of 18 and 40, with everything from the decor, dining and cocktail service to the land activities curated to appeal to, and meet the needs of, this audience.”

River Baroness and River Ambassador will undergo extensive renovations and design changes tailoring the ships to be completely dedicated to the U by Uniworld experiences starting in early 2018. Ships will feature a more contemporary look in public areas and open spaces.

Other highlights include communal tables, a new culinary program, creative mixologists and international DJs. In such cities as Amsterdam or Budapest, younger travelers will head out to meet locals, enjoy restaurants and bars ashore, and set out on independent or adventurous excursions. Check out the social media campaign, #AllAboutU on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Spending More Time in Port: Now seeing river cruise clients who want to spend more time in ports along the rivers — a trend similar to what has happened in the past several years for ocean voyages — Rodney George, franchise owner, Cruise Planners, Naples, FL, observes: “Look for the river cruise industry to slow down the pace of port hopping and give their passengers more time to explore the historic cities and towns along the way.”

More Repeaters, More Referrals: “What I’m seeing are repeat river cruisers and river cruise referrals,” Jim Carey of Cruise Holidays in Kennewick, WA, notes. “I’m finding that first-time river cruisers are coming home after a great experience and telling all of their friends and family about river cruising.” Thus, most of his new river bookings are referrals from guests who have already done a river cruise.

“Additionally, I’m getting repeat river cruisers,” Carey continues. “A few years ago everyone was on their first river cruise, and now those people are coming back to try a different river.”

Layering within the Portfolio: Repeat cruisers are seeking something fresh on the continent. “We see our clients looking for more than the typical Danube river cruise,” Consoli says. River lines are enticing guests with new itineraries that are a bit different. Consoli points to Viking River Cruises’ “Paris to the Swiss Alps” itinerary, a Rhine river cruise experience with hotel stays and tours in Paris and Zurich or “Rhineland Discovery,” which lets the guest explore Bruges and Ghent on a Rhine river cruise.

The lines have also added sailings on other rivers, such as the Elbe. CroisiEurope just began construction on the MS Elbe Princesse II, its third paddle-wheel riverboat. Like the MS Elbe Princesse I, it will cruise roundtrip between Berlin, Germany and Prague, Czech Republic, with opportunities to explore Sanssouci Palace’s gardens in Pottsdam; Lutherstadt Wittenberg; Meissen and its famous porcelain; and Litomerice.

In North America too, lines are “layering” their portfolios to entice repeaters and new-to-cruise guests.“I am seeing rising interest in cruising American rivers for 2017 and beyond, as some of my clients want to stay closer to home,” Muffett Grubb, owner, Cruise Holidays in Knoxville, TN, notes. American Queen Steamboat Company will launch the boutique, all-suite American Duchess this summer; the 166-passenger vessel will sail the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Itineraries will include overnight Nashville stays, shorter roundtrip sailings from Memphis and New Orleans, and, for the first time in company history, departures from Chicago (Ottawa, IL).

Expanding Globally: Mary Jean Thompson emphasizes, “My clients who have experienced river cruises in Europe are now wanting to explore the exotic itineraries like the Amazon and the Mekong.” Concurring on repeat guests’ shift to the exotic is Michael Graham, franchise owner, Cruise Planners, Myrtle Beach, SC: “We are seeing past guests from European river cruises moving to more adventurous itineraries such as Russia, Portugal and Asia.”

A recent CruiseCompete.com booking trends survey also found that exotic options are gaining in popularity. It cited Pandaw’s new Borneo cruises this year; new African voyages by Croisi-Europe; and a focus on India with AmaWaterways building a new ship to sail in fall 2018 on the Ganges between Patna and Kolkata.

Several Viking River Cruises itineraries were cited by one agent as examples of fulfilling clients’ desires for something “more than the typical Danube River cruise.”

Inclusiveness Is Expanding: For 2017, American Cruise Lines is offering all guests traveling on its Mississippi River and Columbia River a complimentary pre-cruise package, which includes a premium hotel stay and transportation to the ship. Packages are offered, for example, in New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, St. Paul, Nashville and Pittsburgh. Other lines too are adding inclusions.

“We are seeing increased interest in the all-inclusive product, including open bars and gratuities,” notes Margarita Navarrete, franchise owner, Cruise Planners, Fort Lauderdale, FL, adding that she is seeing more triple and quad bookings.

For 2017 and beyond, “the biggest trend I see is that river cruises are actually getting to be a true luxury cruise possibility,” asserts Ruth Turpin, owner, Cruises Etc., a Virtuoso agency in Fort Worth, TX. Crystal River Cruises launched a luxury experience last year on the Danube, as Crystal Mozart began sailing as the largest vessel on European rivers. Two new vessels, Crystal Bach and Crystal Mahler will also debut in Europe this summer, and steel was just cut for two additional Rhine Class luxury river yachts, Crystal Debussy and Crystal Ravel, launching in 2018.

“With Uniworld, Tauck and Crystal being all-inclusive, this is going to bring a lot of interest from our ‘true luxury traveler,’” Turpin explains, adding that some new luxury products are bigger boats with larger cabins and more amenities. “I think this market is going to be big, because the true luxury cruiser will love to explore a different part of the world when they can go in the style they are used to,” Turpin reports.

More Customization & Smaller Groups: According to Consoli, his clients are increasingly asking his agency to add private tours, personalized pre- or post-cruise packages, or customized experiences. With the growth of European river cruising and the burgeoning portfolio of guest choices, A&K USA is seeing demand for a much more personal, intimate experience, stresses Liam Dunch, that firm’s Europe product manager. Its river experience is a small-group cruising option with a maximum of 24 guests.

And the ships themselves are also becoming more intimate. For example, Scenic Cruises’ new Scenic Spirit, launched in 2016, sails the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. Offering a boutique experience, the vessel has just 34 balcony suites and nearly a 1:1 guest-to-staff ratio.

Themes, Themes, Themes: Dunch also says A&K’s small-group experiences are coupled with themes such as art, music, flowers, Christmas markets and New Year celebrations. Theming has blossomed over the past several years. AmaWaterways will offer more than 50 wine cruise itineraries in 2017, while Uniworld’s “The Monarch Collection” focuses on highlighting Europe’s royal heritage.

Avalon Waterways’ World War II-themed cruises include the 11-day “Paris to Normandy with London,” itinerary, which departs on July 11. For classical music buffs, a 12-day “Musical Magic along the Blue Danube” cruise by Tauck includes a seven-night cruise, exploration of such cities as Prague, Vienna, Salzburg, Bratislava and Budapest, plus a chance to visit the former homes of Mozart, Beethoven, Bartók or Liszt, and concert halls and palaces where these classical music legends performed.

Shift from Ocean Travel: “We are seeing a rather dramatic shift from ocean to river cruises with seasoned travelers,” Rodney George emphasizes. “Seems as though clients who have been traveling for [years] have seen the majority of the seaports around the world and are now in search of new destinations, especially the historic destinations lying along European rivers.”

Read more on

Taylor Swift Exhibit at Grammy Museum

 

 

There is a new major exhibit at the Grammy Museum in Cleveland, Ms.  It will be there until the end of August.

The GRAMMY Museum’s most popular exhibit to date, The Taylor Swift ExperienceTM gives visitors and fans an in-depth look at the 10-time GRAMMY®-winning artist as a singer, songwriter, musician and producer through personal photographs and home videos, interactive experiences, handwritten lyrics of Taylor’s top-charting hits, and iconic performance outfits including her custom-made Atelier Versace romper worn at the DIRECTV NOW Super Saturday Night concert in Houston, Texas.

Curated by the GRAMMY Museum at L.A. LIVE, The Taylor Swift Experience opens at GRAMMY Museum Mississippi in Cleveland, Miss. on March 3, 2017.  The exhibit will be on display through August 13, 2017.   AT&T is the official sponsor of The Taylor Swift Experience in Mississippi.  Most recently, AT&T unveiled Taylor Swift NOW, a new video experience created exclusively by AT&T and Taylor.

“We couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate our one-year anniversary than by hosting this incredible exhibit paying tribute to one of the most legendary artists of today.  After showings in Los Angeles and New York we are thrilled to bring her story to Cleveland, Mississippi, only a few hours away from her hometown of Nashville, where Taylor began her recording career.” – Emily Havens, Executive Director, GRAMMY Museum Mississippi

Where to see the Solar Eclipse

 

(This article was recently in USA Today about the best places to see the total eclipse of the sun this August)

On Aug. 21, a swath of the USA will plunge into darkness during a continent-wide total solar eclipse. The zone of totality, where stars could briefly come out in the middle of the day, crosses 12 states from Oregon to South Carolina, and already hotel rooms are selling out. A lot of people will have a chance to see a spectacular sight,” says George Moromisato, author of 101 Amazing Sights in the Night Sky (Adventure Publications, $14.95). He shares some promising places, tracking from west to east, for the celestial event with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY. For more info, see eclipse2017.nasa.gov.

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Ore.

The National Park Service is already planning for crowds in what’s usually a quiet corner of Oregon. The monument’s three units, known for an abundance of plant and animal fossils, will all plunge into darkness for up to two minutes. “It’s a wonderful setting with a great chance of clear skies,” Moromisato says. The monument bookstore will carry eclipse-viewing glasses and filters, but suggests visitors bring their own in case they sell out. nps.gov/joda

Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, Idaho

Moromisato says there’s a certain symmetry to watching an eclipse involving the moon on a landscape named after the moon. It’s an otherworldly place right at the edge of the path.” Total darkness will last about a minute. nps.gov/crmo

Grand Teton National Park, Wyo.

The famed Rockies park sits in the middle of the eclipse path and will experience up to two minutes and 20 seconds of darkness. Moromisato says rangers will likely provide programming for the event. “It’s another great reason to see it in a national park as opposed to the middle of a highway somewhere.” nps.gov/grte

Homestead National Monument of America, Neb.

This park plans a full weekend celebration leading up to the Monday eclipse, promising “Darkness over the Prairie.” Events including a photography workshop, music and stargazing. The park gift shop’s already selling a range of souvenir merchandise. nps.gov/home

St. Joseph, Mo.

The town north of Kansas City sits near the center of the path and has five planned viewing areas, including an historic mansion overlooking the Missouri River bluffs. The chamber of commerce says some national hotel reservations websites and reservations centers are incorrectly indicating the city’s hotels are sold out, and urges visitors to call local hotels directly to book rooms. StJoMoEclipse.com

Carbondale, Ill.

The home of Southern Illinois University is promoting itself as the “Eclipse Crossroads of America.” Not only is it at the center of the excitement this year, but seven years later, on April 8, 2024, it will experience a similar event again when another North American eclipse crosses the country from Texas to Maine. carbondaleeclipse.com

Hopkinsville, Ky.

If you want to eke every second out of the eclipse, this western Kentucky town is one of your best bets. It will experience a full two minutes and 41 seconds of darkness, plus the event coincides with the town’s fifth annual Little Green Men Festival, inspired by a UFO incident from the 1950s.It’s a small little local town celebrating. They will have a lot of little cool activities,” Moromisato says. visithopkinsville.com

Nashville

Tennessee’s capital will be the biggest city to completely go dark. “Anyone can just walk out the door and see a total eclipse. It’s going to be a shared experience. Everyone will be talking about this for the next 10 years,” Moromisato says. And it just might inspire a new country music classic. visitmusiccity.com

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tenn. and N.C.

The western section of the nation’s most visited national park will experience up to two minutes and 20 seconds of totality. The park has organized three viewing areas, including Cades Cove, Oconaluftee and Clingmans Dome. Viewing from the latter, the highest peak in the park, will be by ticket only. “You’ll have the full view around you and will be able to see the shadow of the moon below,” Moromisato says. nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/2017-solar-eclipse.htm

Charleston, S.C.

The historic coastal city has rolled out an array of packages for the event, from hotel rooftop viewing with a College of Charleston astronomy instructor, to a blues-and-barbecue harbor cruise on a paddlewheeler. “This is essentially the last place in the United States that will see the eclipse,” Moromisato says. charlestoncvb.com/special-offers/packages/eclipse

Condor Adds non-stop service to Germany

As part of Condor’s expansion, the airline will add non-stop service routes from San Diego, Pittsburgh and New Orleans to Frankfurt and beyond. It will also add non-stop service to Munich from existing gateways in Seattle and Las Vegas. Condor is currently the only discount operator in the U.S. with full-service, inclusive fairs in three classes of service, the airline said.

For bookings made from February 27 through March 5 for summer travel, the airline offers discount fares for flights from the U.S. to Europe. For example: flights from New Orleans to Frankfurt starting at $249.99 (one-way) in economy, $499.99 (one-way) in premium and $799.99 (one-way) in business class. After March 5, flights from Pittsburgh to Frankfurt start as low as $329.99 (one-way) in economy, $429.99 (one-way) in premium and $799.99(one-way) in business class.

This is the first time the carrier has flown from San Diego, Pittsburgh and New Orleans. The carrier currently serves the U.S. from Anchorage, Austin, Baltimore, Fairbanks, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Portland and Seattle.

The Condor route network includes more than 75 destinations with connections to more than 230 global destinations through partnerships with other carriers. All Condor passengers receive: complimentary checked baggage, complimentary beverages and meals along with complimentary entertainment.

Business class includes:

  •     Reclining seats
  •     A personal in-seat, touch screen entertainment system,
  •     Power and USB ports at every seat
  •     Five-course meals with complimentary wine, beer and cocktails
  •     In-flight, well-being amenity kit

Premium class includes:

  •     Added legroom
  •     Leg rests and adjustable headrests
  •     An in-seat entertainment system with an extended program
  •     USB ports at every seat
  •     Premium meals and complimentary beverages
  •     In-flight, well-being amenity kit

Visit www.condor.com

Krakow Poland

by Tribune Content Agency and Rick Steves, Rick Steves Travel – PBS, February 21, 2017

Krakow is easily Poland‘s most popular destination, located in the southern region of perhaps Europe‘s most underappreciated country. It’s a charming, old-fashioned city buzzing with quirky history, unforgettable sights, and fun-loving college students. Even though the country’s capital moved to Warsaw 400 years ago, Krakow remains Poland’s cultural and intellectual center.

While Krakow seems made for aimless strolling, those with a smart sightseeing plan are well-rewarded. Its historic walls and former moat corral a full range of attractions: thought-provoking museums; breathtaking churches that evoke a powerful faith (including many sights relating to Poland’s favorite son, St. John Paul II); sprawling parks; vivid Jewish heritage sights; and a burgeoning foodie and nightlife scene. The city also makes a good base for a compelling side-trip to the most notorious Holocaust site of the Third Reich (Auschwitz-Birkenau).

Within its medieval walls, Krakow’s Old Town converges on one of the most charismatic squares in Europe: the Main Market Square. Anytime of the day, I enjoy choosing a cafe, sinking deep into my chair, and absorbing the gorgeously intact buildings around me.

Vast as it is, the square has a folksy intimacy. It bustles with street musicians, cotton-candy vendors, and the lusty coos of pigeons. A folk band — swaggering in their colorful peasant costumes — gives me a private concert. Feeling flush, I tip them royally. (Perhaps too royally. Be warned: A big tip gets you “The Star-Spangled Banner.”)

I suddenly hear a bugle call. Glancing around, I pan up to see its source: a trumpet poking out of the tallest tower of the hulking, red-brick St. Mary’s Church. Just as I spot the sun glinting off of the trumpet’s bell, the song stops abruptly, causing the crowd below to chuckle and applaud appreciatively. This tune — performed every hour on the hour — comes with a legend: During the 1241 Tatar invasion, a watchman saw the enemy approaching and sounded the alarm. Before he could finish, an arrow pierced his throat — which is why even today, the music stops “subito,” partway through.

Ready to move on, I toss a few coins on the table to cover my tab — and head into the Rynek Underground Museum. When the square was excavated about a decade ago, workers found so many coins, tools, and artifacts of archaeological value that the city opened this excellent museum. Here, at 12 feet below street level, I get an intimate look at medieval life in Krakow.

Back on the street, I linger as I find my way through town. Curiosity leads me into Staropolskie Trunki (“Old Polish Drinks“), a friendly little place with a long bar and countless local vodkas and liquors — each one open and ready to be sampled. For about $3, I get a complete vodka education with a cheery local bartender who talks me through five different tastes.

After my private vodka tour (which makes me uncharacteristically giddy for so early in the day), I keep walking and end up in Wawel Hill. The most visited sight in Poland, this is considered sacred ground, a symbol of Polish royalty and independence. Though a castle has stood here since the 11th century, the highlight is Wawel Cathedral, which houses the tombs of the country’s greatest rulers and historic figures. A stony jungle of memorials, it’s the Westminster Abbey of Poland.

Eventually, my stroll takes me to Kazimierz, the city’s historic Jewish Quarter. Once upon a time, most of Europe’s Jews lived in Poland. And Krakow was their social and political base. This is where the big events of World War II intersected with ordinary, everyday lives. The businessman Oskar Schindler ran his factory here, saving the lives of more than a thousand of his Jewish workers. Now, one of Europe’s best museums about the Nazi occupation fills Schindler’s building. The museum tells more than the story of Schindler and his workers, it explains the full experience of Krakow during the painful era of Nazi rule.

The market square of Kazimierz retains the gritty flavor of the town before tourism and gentrification. While travelers come to see Kazimierz’s historic sites during the day, it isn’t a “preserved” neighborhood like the cute town center. Throngs of young clubbers bring the streets to life after dark, and an ever-changing array of bohemian-chic restaurants make Kazimierz an evening foodie destination.

Ten million Americans trace their roots to Poland. Many of those who visit their ancestral homeland for the first time feel as if they’re coming home: from the comfort food their “Busia” cooked them to the kindness of distant cousins they encounter. But you don’t have to be Polish to fall in love with Krakow’s vibrant main squares, in-love-with-life pedestrian drags, and sophisticated shopping boulevards. This mingling of a rich historic and thriving contemporary scene makes Krakow the ideal place for the traveler to feel the beating heart of Polish culture.

IF YOU VISIT…

SLEEPING: Golden Lion Guest House is basic but well-located, with 11 small, dated rooms off the Main Market Square (budget, www.goldenlion.pl). Hotel Maltanski has 16 rooms in the beautifully renovated former royal stables (splurge, www.donimirski.com/hotel-maltanski).

EATING: Pod Nosem (“Under the Nose”) is a smart choice for refined Polish cuisine in a sophisticated, less touristy atmosphere (Kanonicza 22, tel. 12-376-0014). Restauracja Samoobslugowa (“self-service”) Polakowski is a low-key Kazimierz spot with country-kitchen decor and cheap, tasty Polish fare (Wszystkich Swietych 10, tel. 12-430-2156).

GETTING AROUND: While the urban sprawl is big, the tourist’s Krakow feels small — from the main square, you can walk to just about everything of interest in less than 15 minutes.

TOURIST INFORMATION: www.infokrakow.pl.

(Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.)

 

First Time River Cruiser

I have a confession to make. I am 27 years old, and I love river cruising. Now admittedly, I was a cruise virgin — and I mean all cruises, not just river cruising — until recently. I can’t say for certain that I would never enjoy a larger oceanic cruise, but after my Viking experience, I don’t know how I’ll ever turn back. And here’s why.

Age Is Just a Number

First, let me debunk the myth that river cruising is only for old people, to put it bluntly. Yes, the average age of the passengers walks the line between 60s and 70s, but don’t let that fool you. They were the ones polkaing into the wee hours of the night and throwing back rounds of German beers as if they were locals. I shamefully was the first to waive the white flag one evening when I couldn’t keep up with the multiple rounds of schnapps. I also was not the youngest passenger on the ship. There were young newlyweds, couples in their 30s and 40s and a family with teenagers.

One of my favorite aspects of the Viking experience is that it is an intimate one, so you are forced to mingle with the other guests, especially during meals. In doing so, I learned a few valuable lessons: You don’t shrivel up and die once you reach the age qualifying for social security. In fact, that’s when you can really start living, according to a group of traveling girlfriends in their 70s whose wanderlust has led them to nearly every continent in the last few years. I also met several couples celebrating anniversaries of 50-plus years. They regaled me with tales of their romances and gave me hope that, even in the age of Tinder, true love still exists.

5-Star Steerage

Since I was traveling during winter, upgrading to a room with a balcony or veranda didn’t really appeal to me, so I happily saved a few pennies by booking a water-level room. That’s just a fancy way of saying that if I were traveling on the Titanic, I’d be with Jack in third class. Although the square footage shrank, the quality, to my surprise, did not. Living in Manhattan for five years prepped me for tight quarters, but there was plenty of storage space so that I didn’t feel too claustrophobic. Our bathroom, albeit tiny, was nicer than some at 4-star hotels, and the heated floors were just the ticket after a day spent in 30-degree weather.

Personal Service

Viking sets the bar for service not just in the cruise industry but in the entire travel industry. I may have booked the cheapest fare, but I was treated like first class from the moment I set foot on the ship, when I was greeted with steamed hand towels and the most decadent peppermint hot chocolate. By day two, Istvan, a member of the Viking crew, knew that I drank two apple juices in the morning; that my mom and I would split a single pancake; that we each took two sugars in our coffee; and that I always indulged in a cookie and hot chocolate before the daily briefing. If my mom and I ever ordered differently during dinner service, I would routinely eat off her plate, but Istvan caught on quickly and began bringing me tastings of each item. Perhaps that makes us creatures of habit (and me a glutton), but that kind of attention to detail made the trip that much more memorable.

Intimate Towns

The best part of cruising is that you go to bed in one city and wake up in a new one without feeling like any time has been wasted. While the capital cities like Vienna and Budapest are must-sees, it’s the small riverside towns that charm. You can walk around Passau, home of gingerbread, in a matter of two hours, and with so little street traffic, there’s a serenity that pours over this city. Winter also brings the sounds of Christmas carols when entering the main town center, location of St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the Passau Christkindlmarkt.

Regensburg, my favorite of the cities we visited, looks as if it were straight out of a storybook. Christmas lights flank the streets. The colorful building facades have been restored to their original state. And similar to Passau, there are so few cars that the cobblestone streets act more like pedestrian walking paths. It’s also home to the oldest sausage kitchen, but even that has been so beautifully restored that it looks as if it just opened its doors.

Christmas Markets

This was a Christmas Market cruise, so of course the markets were the highlight of the vacation. Each town hosted at least one market and they were all unique in their own right. However, some similarities emerged: We could always be sure to find a good cup of glühwein, and we had to put on our bratwurst judging hats since each city claims they make the best. Travelzoo Tip: If you choose to forego the three euro deposit, the glühwein cups are keepsake souvenirs and each feature drawings of the market.

There are several contenders for Germany’s most famous market, but Nuremberg usually takes the lead. Instead of mass-produced goods, you’ll find locally sourced food and crafts, including the famous prune men (small dolls created out of dried fruits). Be sure to sample the Nuremberg sausage, which is unlike any of the others.

Passau and Regensburg are smaller cities, so their markets are a fraction of the size of Nuremberg’s; however, they still have plenty to offer. Passau is known for glasswork, so hand-blown ornaments are abundant. Regensburg hosts a Christmas Market within the palace walls of Thurn and Taxis. Its name translates into “Romantic Christmas Market” and romantic it is indeed. Picture fire pits, caroling, lightshows and a palace that looks like it should be in a Disney movie.

To round out the list, Vienna offers several markets, but the two that stand out are the Christmas market at Schönbrunn Palace and the Wiener Rathausplatz market in front of City Hall. You’ll find the traditional craft and food stalls featured in every city; however, the luminous backdrops of the Viennese markets are by far the most captivating, so plan for equal parts shopping and picture taking (recommended after sunset for the full effect).

Amanda Mulligan is a deal expert at Travelzoo and based in New York. Travelzoo has 250 deal experts from around the world who rigorously research, evaluate and test thousands of deals to find those with true value.