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Silver and Sand

   

DunejewelrySandbead  BraceletWhether your favorite beach is in California, the Caribbean, or even the Cook Islands, you can now carry a few grains of it in a beautiful piece of silver jewelry from Dune Jewelry.

Just select your favorite beach from the company’s extensive Sandbank and then select a necklace, earrings, ring or bracelet and the sand will be added to the design. A few weeks later you’ll be enjoying your own wearable memory.

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Vegas: Where Dolphins Paint

   
In "the studio" with Lightning as we create our masterpiece

In “the studio” with Lightning as we create our masterpiece

Given my monumental lack of artistic talent, it’s a good thing Lightning had the brush placement and design under control when we created our painting I’m calling “Sunlit Water Lilies,” an homage to Monet though the eyes of a dolphin. Either that or “Bellagio Fountains Through the Eyes of the Inebriated.”

I was at the Mirage in Las Vegas, at Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat, a quiet respite tucked away in the back of the huge resort, far from the cacophony and crowds of the casino.

After a brief training period during which I was told to hang tight to the canvas and was able to select the background and colors for my masterpiece, I was led to the water where I was joined by a trainer and introduced to Lightning. At 36, he has lived far beyond the life span of dolphins housed in a member facility of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums. He seemed happy to see me and eager to begin our painting session.

I could select colors for our painting, which would be loaded onto the buoy paintbrush.

I kneeled down beside him, and following the trainer’s instructions, held the canvas firmly as the trainer loaded up the buoy-turned-paintbrush and set it inside Lightning’s mouth. After a few strokes, the trainer gave us both the signal to stop. I would take a moment to look at the painting and determine whether to switch colors or to continue. After I deemed our painting complete, I was given some fish to feed Lightning for his efforts.

We engaged in some post-creation bonding, with the trainer showing me hand motions to signal Lightning to swim, jump out of the water, dance and wave his tail. After a double handshake and a kiss, we said good-bye.

Several dolphins participate in the painting activity, which started in late 2012. They were first trained to hold the buoys that are attached to paintbrushes to prevent swallowing. They were then taught to target the canvas, and move their heads in response to signals from a trainer. But from there, they each developed their own artistic style. Trainers also work with them to create paintings, which can be purchased in the gift shop.

Lightning and I pose with our finished painting

Lightning and I pose with our finished painting

The only thing my painting is missing is Lightning’s signature at the bottom. But I suppose I can add that myself.

Painting with the Dolphins is $199, which includes admission to the Secret Garden, the painting, a certificate and a photo of the experience. Click here to see a video of the experience.

Xperience Xcaret

   

I couldn’t stop giggling as our four new dolphin friends weaved their way in between our group of five, leapt over our heads and circled us at high speeds. We took turns dancing with them, then “surfing” down the length of the tank as two dolphins pushed us by our feet so fast we could rise up out of the water.

The 60-minute Delphinus Primax Experience at Xcaret Park in Playa del Carmen

The 60-minute Delphinus Primax Experience at Xcaret Park

The 60-minute Delphinus Primax Experience at Xcaret Park in Playa del Carmen in Mexico is just one of the highlights of the Unlimited Xcaret Xperience available from Occidental Grand Xcaret. This lush 62-acre Mediterranean-style all-inclusive resort on the Caribbean is adjacent to this one-of-a-kind archeological park. The Experience includes VIP hotel check-in, complimentary mini bar, unlimited access to Xcaret Park, a private eco-cultural tour and reserved area seating for the “Xcaret México Espectacular” show, a spectacular performance that traces the history of Mexico.

We also enjoyed snorkeling through an underground river and marveled at the daring feats of the Panpantia Flying Men as they flew through the air around a tall pole, reenacting an ancient tradition. A trip up the Rotating Scenic Tower afforded us views of the surrounding landscape and the Caribbean.

After our activities it was a short walk back to the Occidental Grand Xcaret, where you can tour some amazingly intact ruins right on the property, evidence of the ancient Mayan culture that once dwelled in this part of Mexico.

Vintage Airline Ads

   
An ad for Delta from 1959.

An ad for Delta from 1959.

 

 

I’m not sure which is harder to believe in this ad for Delta Air Lines in 1959: three stewardesses to serve your every need, free-flowing Champagne, choice of Cornish hen or tenderloin cooked to order, or that music by Muzak was used as a selling point.

Yes, it’s fun to reminisce about the “good old days” of flying when we dressed up, ate well and were looked after. But I’ll take the improved safety record, lower prices and increase in the number of routes over that Cornish hen and Muzak. Although, Champagne is always appreciated.

Here are a few more fun ads from the website for Reminisce, where I could spend hours looking at old ads and stories dating back to the early 1900s.

The 1949 American Airlines ad depicts those good old days when you could smoke on planes. And enjoy the view of other airplanes flying  dangerously close to yours.

The 1949 American Airlines ad depicts those good old days when you could lean way back in your cushy recliner while enjoying your cigarette. And enjoy the view of other airplanes flying dangerously close to yours.

And then there were those seven-course meals with wine pairings to enjoy on Air France in 1960. I do give credit to Air France, however, for having the best food I have had on a plane recently.

And then there were those seven-course meals with wine pairings to enjoy on Air France in 1960. I do give credit to Air France, however, for having the best food I have had on a plane recently, along with complimentary wine.

Disney’s Mighty MagicBands

   
My daughter, Catherine Butsch, holds up her MagicBand to enter Epcot. No more small tickets to keep track of, as all the ticket kiosks are gone.

My daughter, Catherine Butsch, holds up her MagicBand to enter Epcot. No more small tickets to keep track of, as all the ticket kiosks are gone.

Freedom. That’s the word that came to mind after experiencing the new MagicBands at Disney last week. Freedom from searching for a hotel room key or fumbling for it when my arms are full. Freedom from hotel keys being demagnetized and having to go wait in line for a new one. Freedom from keeping track of tickets at theme parks and the fear that I’d accidentally toss one out. Freedom from carrying a camera around to capture our magic moments. Freedom from carrying cash or credit cards to make purchases.

The fun started after we had our reservation for our stay at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. (All resort guests are offered MagicBands at no charge, as are annual passholders. Day guests may purchase them for $12.95.) We could then go to the website My Disney Experience where we could add dining reservations, purchase tickets and personalize our MagicBands with names and colors. I chose green for me, pink for my daughter, Catherine. If you are able to do this 10 days prior, the MagicBands will be shipped to you. As I ordered ours too late than that, we received them when we checked in.

Our personlized MagicBands

Our personlized MagicBands

To enter our hotel room, we simply touched the Mickey on our band to the Mickey icon on our door. When we entered a theme park, we did the same thing — Mickey to Mickey — then put a finger on the fingerpad, which measures the metrics of that finger to match it to the MagicBand holder. For the purchases we made, we again just had to touch our MagicBand and our purchase was complete.

As we traveled through the parks, we encountered many of the 200 photographers that can be found throughout the resorts. After taking our photo, he or she would scan our MagicBand, and voila! Our photos are added to our account to view and order later.

MagicBands can be blinged out with the addition of MagicBandIts or covers.

MagicBands can be blinged out with the addition of MagicBandIts or covers.

At the uber popular Be Our Guest restaurant in the Magic Kingdom, where stand-by guests wait up to 45 minutes for a table, you can not only make your reservation in advance, you can go ahead and order your meal. When it’s time to eat lunch, just stroll in and sit down. Your food will magically appear at your table.

The MagicBands are available in seven colors, and are waterproof and hypoallergenic. But wait, there’s more! You can accessorize your MagicBands with covers and themed MagicBandIts, which slip or clip on. According to Liz Boice Hankins, Senior Vice President of Merchandise Development, some families change their accessories according to which theme park they are visiting. Themes include Disney characters and Star Wars (light and dark).

The MagicBand serves as your hotel key, perhaps my favorite feature. (Mark Ashman, photographer)

The MagicBand serves as your hotel key, perhaps my favorite feature. (Mark Ashman, photographer)

Of course, as anyone familiar with Disney stories know, magic can be used for both good and evil. As one Disney exec told us, one of his sons figured out that he could go in the hotel room first, get on the computer to deactivate his brother’s MagicBand, which also served to lock him out of the hotel room.

 

3FLOZ to the Rescue

   

I’ve given up cursing the terrorists who tried to bring down planes using liquid explosives, leading to a ban on travelers carrying any liquids more than 3.4 ounces. Well, almost. I felt a flashback curse when $10 of Nutella was confiscated from my daughter after Christmas. Are you kidding? You can spackle walls with that stuff – in no way does it resemble a liquid.

A 3FLOZ kiosk has opened in Concourse D of Hartfield-Jackson in Atlanta

A 3FLOZ kiosk has opened in Concourse D of Hartfield-Jackson in Atlanta

But here we are eight years later, still faced with the inconvenience and waste of having to transport all our products into smaller containers.

To help travelers with the 3.4-ounce woes, the automated retail store 3FLOZ is adding a new location at Hartsfield-Jackson in Concourse D. The Atlanta location joins 20 others around the country.

Founded by Kate Duff and Alexi Mintz, who I suppose were tired of cursing about it and decided to take action, the store stocks more than 50 high-end products for men and women in a variety of categories including first aid, hair, fabric care, and even self tanners.

Note these are high end products, which translates to $13 for the cheapest sunscreen, $8 for shaving cream and two ounces of shampoo for $8.50. But the packaging for all the products is pretty and what fun to buy it from the cute machine!

Sunrise and Sunset at Cuckold’s Lighthouse

   
You can see the sun rise and set with the 360-degree views from a suite at Cuckold's Lighthouse.

You can see the sun rise and set with the 360-degree views from a suite at Cuckold’s Lighthouse.

What happens to old lighthouses that have outlived their usefulness as beacons to sea travelers? Well, in the case of The Inn at Cuckolds Lighthouse, named for islands off the coast of Maine, it has been turned into a small inn, scheduled to open in June.

Accessible only by boat, guests at Cuckold’s Lighthouse are taken to the small private island by Navy whaleboat where they are greeted by resident innkeepers Barbara and Dan  Aube, who will lead a tour of the historic lighthouse, which was saved by locals after the Coast Guard no longer needed it.

Looks like the charming 1892 lighthouse is manned again, although no longer by the light keepers that kept the flame burning until the mid-1970s when they were replaced by an automated light.

With just two suites, the inn will be a quiet getaway where guests can enjoy a lobster bake or catered gourmet dinner. I would enjoy just relaxing and taking in the ocean views.

If you venture off the island, check out the 250-acre Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, visit the Railway Village & Antique Auto Museum or check out the local shops and art galleries in the Boothbay Region.

The Cuckold’s Lighthouse is about a three-hour drive from Boston or 90 minutes from Portland. 855.212.5252.

Travel Tips: Saving Money on Accommodations

   

I’ve toured fancy hotel rooms where the nightly rate costs more than my first car. Even if I was a gazillionaire, I’d feel like I had to stay up all night to get my money’s worth! Of course all the high-class toiletries would find their way into my suitcase as well.

We've rented this home through VRBO for a family beach vacation.

We’ve rented this home through VRBO for a family beach vacation.

I enjoy staying in lovely accommodations, and my days of roughing it in budget motels is over. But I like to save some money on accommodations so there is plenty left over to go out to nice restaurants, indulge in a fun activity, and yes, maybe do a little shopping.

Here are a few ways to save on accommodations when you travel, which is the number one expense on vacation – 47 percent of the money we spend typically goes here.

Savings on Hotels

Call the hotel directly for the best rate.

• After you book a hotel, check back a few days before you travel. The rates may have dropped and you can cancel and rebook for a lower rate.

• Stay at a hotel that offers free meals or has kitchen facilities. We recently stayed at a Residence Inn in Washington D.C. It had a good complimentary breakfast, serves a complimentary dinner a few nights a week and has a kitchen where you could eat on your own if desired.

My balcony at Hotel Monaco, a Kimpton Hotel in Chicago

My balcony at Hotel Monaco, a Kimpton Hotel in Chicago

• Join loyalty programs at hotels. If you join the loyalty program at a Starwood Hotel you can get airline miles with Delta. The loyalty programs at Fairmont and Omni Hotels offer free wifi, as does Kimpton Hotels. You’ll also get a $10 credit for the minibar at Kimpton. Granted, that may get you a candy bar or a bag of nuts, but what fun to raid the minibar guilt-free. (We won’t mention the calories.) IHG, Intercontinental Hotels Group, has 4,600 properties and you earn points for stays and they never expire.

• Join AAA. They have great rates on dozens of hotels in every city. This is often the first place I look when booking a hotel.

Other Accommodations

• Rent an apartment, condo or home directly from the owner through VRBO or HomeAway. You can often save a lot off the price of a hotel and some owners are willing to negotiate prices. If they won’t come down on the price, they may throw in an extra day for free. I’ve booked several properties through VRBO and have always had a good experience.

I haven’t used it but a lot of friends swear by Airbnb, where homeowners will rent out their own homes while they are out of town, or may just rent a room in their home while they are there. There are listings in more than 190 countries, and I loved that they could be sorted by neighborhood. For example, when I searched Washington D.C., I saw descriptions for the neighborhoods. “Logan Circle: Night owls are sure to have a hoot.” “Dupont Circle: Champagne at brunch and gin at dinner.” Say no more!

A cabin at Richard Russell State Park in Georgia

A cabin at Richard Russell State Park in Georgia

State parks can be a very affordable option. In Georgia, we have 48 state parks, ranging up upscale lodges to cabins and campgrounds, or even a yurt. Cute cabins with one to three bedrooms start at just $85 a night. You can even stay in a yurt. North Carolina has 34 state parks, while Florida has more than 160.

• If you’d like to meet Jude Law on vacation, like Cameron Diaz did in the movie “The Holiday,” then try Home Exchange. The home exchange service has more than 50,000 members. You pay a small membership fee, then you can list your house and exchange it with others. Okay, you may not meet Jude Law but you’re sure to have an adventure in a real neighborhood and get free accommodations.

Helpful Apps to Save Money

DealAngel.  I love this hotel comparison site. Just put in your city and the dates you are traveling and voila! You’ll get the best deals with the name of hotel, the rate and how much I would be saving off the historical average. It also rates the hotels by what kind of deal you are getting, from Great to Overpriced. You can see a price trend that tells you whether the rate is likely to go down and what the chances of a sell-out might be. Add an alert to find out when the rates drop.

Hipmunk. I’ve used Hipmunk primarily for flights but the cute app with the adorable chipmunk also works for hotels. You can sort the results by business, kid-friendly, luxury or romantic getaway.

Hipmunk is a fantastic app for searching for flights and hotels

Hipmunk is a fantastic app for searching for flights and hotels

• Room 77. As soon as I started typing DC, it came up with neighborhoods and categories, like cheap hotels, hotels in Georgetown, hotels near White House, and it maps each one. I appreciate that because location is often of primary concern when I’m looking for a hotel.

Tingo.  Owned by TripAdvisor, Tingo has an awesome feature. If you book a room here and the price goes down, it automatically refunds you.

Social Media

• Follow hotels and resorts on social media for last-minute deals and specials.

Better Waze to Get There

   

WazeI have a thing about Clairmont Road in Atlanta. Although I was born here and have logged zillions of miles driving around the city, whenever I see the sign for Clairmont Road I know I’m fixin’ to get lost. Last night I set out from my office at Travelgirl magazine to go to my friend’s house in Druid Hills. The route involved Clairmont Road.

But this time I was armed and ready. I had the reassuring voice from the app Waze gently guiding me through pretty side streets, places I’d never seen before and was a bit unsure were leading anywhere, but I made it there quickly and didn’t hit a lick of traffic.

EN_ReportMenu-1Waze, purchased by Google last year, is a crowdsourced navigation app, so you get real-time traffic and hazard reports from other Wazers nearby. There is a social media component if you’d like to get your friends to join you, and you can also participate as a map editor if you see discrepancies along your route. You can see reports on hazards on the road, police up ahead, cars pulled over on the side of the road and where the traffic is. You can also find the cheapest gas prices along the route.

I attended a media lunch with the Waze folks this week (best goody bag ever!) and they told us that traffic reporters are now using Waze because of its accuracy. They also mentioned plans to add celebrity voices and showed us a funny demo with Kevin Hart. If you’re going to spend time in the car why not make it fun, right?

Waze is available in more than 200 countries, so wherever you’re going you don’t have to get lost. Download it for free from the iTunes Store, and never be lost again. Not even on Clairmont.

 

 

 

 

Cockpit Confidential: Your Plane Questions Answered

   

Why can’t my dog fly on a plane in the summer on some airlines? What do all those chimes during a flight mean? How much does a new airplane cost? Can leaving cell phones on really interfere with cockpit equipment?

BookWithMap1These are just a few of the questions answered in book Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel, written by Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and host of www.askthepilot.com. If you’ve ever wondered about any aspect of airplane travel, from how much pilots make to what are the odds of a midair collision, then you’ll enjoy this entertaining and informative book.

If you’re a nervous flyer you’ll find comfort in learning more about the mechanics of air travel, like the fact that turbulence is normal and not considered a safety issue. “For all intents and purposes, a plane cannot be flipped upside-down, thrown into a tailspin, or otherwise flung from the sky by even the mightiest gust or air pocket.” Now, don’t you feel better? $12 on Amazon.