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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.

 

Booze, Boys, Chocolate and Other Sacrifices for Lent

   

This year, I am following tradition and for Lent am giving up, well, absolutely nothing. But in honor of all of you who are more self-sacrificing people than I am, I am running a column I wrote a few year ago about what others give up for Lent. Enjoy!  

Recently, a strange occurrence took place in our home. I cooked a meal on a Friday night. The last time this happened was approximately, well, never, but my husband and I had just returned from a two-week trip the night before and my kids wanted a “real dinner.”

My daughter blessed our chicken dinner, but added this before the amen: “even though we aren’t supposed to eat meat on Fridays during Lent.”

Two thoughts occurred to me: One, I hadn’t even realized it was Lent and two, my daughter had not said a word earlier in the day when she asked me what we were having for dinner, waiting until the meal was safely on the table.

We’d been in the remote areas of Hawaii—away from TV and newspapers and the concepts of self-denial and sacrifice had pretty much been erased from our vocabulary. I’d be hard pressed to make a case that turning down a third piece of banana bread or another round of umbrella-festooned tropical drinks constituted any kind of sacrifice.

Of course I had prayed during the trip, especially as our helicopter went zooming over the huge cliffs of Kauai then soaring past the majestic Napoli Coast. These were in addition to the usual don’t-let-a-smelly/loud/obnoxious-person-sit-next-to-me-on-the-airplane prayer.

Then I wondered what other folks were sacrificing for Lent. My brother-in-law Jack gave up desserts. Oh, he didn’t give up sweets. He just eats them between meals or for breakfast because then it isn’t dessert.

Loralynne gives up sweets and Cokes, so she refers to Lent as her God-Driven Diet, with a guaranteed weight loss of a couple of pounds once a year.

Susan gave up candy, but it may not result in any weight loss. One night she ate half a box of Raisin Bran, because it’s sugar coated.

Lindsey gave up chocolate. But she didn’t give up chocolate liqueurs and is pleasantly passing the weeks of Lent by drinking chocolate martinis.

Although she is single and 28, Lyndsay gave up “booze and boys,” which she regretted the next day. “This year, in a quest to truly have 40 days of self-denial and reflection, I decided to forgo my social life and watch, slowly, as my chances of finding Mr. Right plummet to zero,” she said.

She was managing okay, with a momentary setback when she found out that this year Lent is 46 days. Then her father called. “He asked if I was ‘still on Lent.’ After assuring him that I was, he dropped this beauty, ‘Lyndz, your biological clock is ticking at quite a rate, and you just can’t afford to lose 40 days of dating to Lent.’”

Jennifer gave up chocolate also and found that Starbursts, peanut butter and shortbread are totally unacceptable substitutes. After looking up the technical definition of chocolate—a combination of cocoa bean, butter fat and vanilla—she was able to add such things as chocolate milk powder back into her diet.

Elizabeth gave up chocolate, so can only stare wistfully at the huge heart-shaped box of chocolates her boyfriend sent her for Valentine’s Day, a large portion of which I imagine will be snarfed down by dawn on Easter morning,

Other folks take a more creative approach to the concept of sacrifice.

When she was in college, Kim gave up riding elevators, even though her dorm was on the seventh floor. Maire, who lives in New York, gave up riding escalators. “It may sound pretty funny, but when you live in New York, escalators are a large part of your existence, especially if you get off of the 7 train at Grand Central.”

If you’re making sacrifices for Lent, good luck to you. I suppose this year I’m more like the Irishman in this joke.

An Irishman walks into a bar in Dublin, orders three pints of Guinness and drinks all three. The bartender said, “You know, a pint goes flat after I draw it. It would taste better if ya just bought one at a time lad.”

The Irishman replies, “Well, ya see, I have two brothers. One is in America, the other in Australia, and I’m here in Dublin. When we all left home, we promised each other that we’d drink this way to remember the days when we drank together. So I drink one for each o’ me brothers and one for me self.”

The Irishman becomes a regular in the bar, and always drinks the same way. One day, he comes in and orders two pints. All the other regulars fall silent. When he goes for the second round, the bartender says, “I don’t want to intrude on yar grief, but I wanted to offer my condolences on yar great loss.” The Irishman looks confused for a moment and then laughs.

“Oh, no. Everyone’s fine, me brothers are fine, ” he explains, “It’s just that I gave up drinking for Lent, but my brothers didn’t.”

Stylin’ with Belle de Jour Salon

   

During my first trip to New Mexico years ago I was thrilled my many things in The Land of Enchantment — the majestic scenery, the bold flavors of the food, its mystical quality. But one thing really stuck out in my mind. My hair looked awesome in Santa Fe.

The low humidity in New Mexico kept my generally naturally frizzy hair in line. But I live in Atlanta, the land of high humidity broken by occasional spells of slightly less humidity. So keeping my hair in line is a challenge.

Andrea Goldklang, owner of Belle de Jour Salon. She is also the color director and master stylist.

Andrea Goldklang, owner of Belle de Jour Salon. She is also the color director and master stylist.

Thanks to a wonderful session with Andrea Goldklang, owner, color director and master stylist at Belle de Jour Salon, I feel armed and ready to handle my hair challenges, no matter where my travels take me — including the beach and yes, even the rainforest.

I had been invited to check out Belle de Jour recently, and as the rest of the city was busy wiping the grocery store shelves clean of every bread and dairy product in preparation for Snowpocalypse #2, I made my way to the Roswell Road salon in Mount Paran Walk Plaza to have my highlights done. (During the massive snowstorm of 2011 I stayed home the first several days, venturing out later in the week only to make a hair appointment. A girl’s gotta have her priorities.)

Open since 2011, Belle de Jour has on open, clean and well-lit atmosphere where I immediately felt comfortable. Although I knew little about Andrea, I immediately felt comfortable with her, too.

Soon we were chatting like old friends, as she looked closely at my hair and discussed what would work best for me. When I read more about her later and learned she originally planned to study design and art in college, it made sense. The best stylists have an artist’s eye.

Andrea apprenticed with Louis Licari in NewYork and also at Van Michael Salon after a move down south. Although many stylists are encouraged to, and prefer to specialize in either hair color or styling, Andrea chose to do both.

What really struck me about Andrea, other than her obvious skill and easy-going manner, was her passion for hair. “I am just so happy doing hair,” she said more than once during our session. She truly loves what she does and when people have that type of passion it comes through in their work.

Belle de Jour Salon on Roswell Road near Mount Paran

Belle de Jour Salon on Roswell Road near Mount Paran

As we talked about our families and our lives, she mentioned at one point that her son had AML leukemia when he was younger. While he is doing fine now, that experience led to the generous charity work the salon does, particularly with Cure Childhood Cancer.

After Andrea highlighted and cut my hair, she brought out a tool I’d never seen before called the Instyler IQ, with a brush and a rotating barrel. “Oh, I think this will work beautifully on your hair,” she said excitedly. I watched as she pulled the heated tool through my hair by small sections, turning it into the highly polished, sleek hair with gentle waves I always aspire to.

Of course, I ordered one of the professional Instyler IQs, which the salon sells at their cost, and left thrilled with my color and my cut. And I was happy to have found a stylist with so much passion and talent for her work.

Bring on that humidity, Atlanta. Now I’ve got the tools to handle it.

Belle de Jour Salon is at 5290 Roswell Road, Atlanta 30342; 404.250.9100