Tuesday, March 29, 2016

5 Tips for Cruising with a Group

Do you prefer to spend your cruise time cuddling on cruise ship deck chairs with your sweetie, or do you like to travel with groups of friends?

Costa Maya, Mexico
Fred and I have enjoyed three cruises during our almost thirty-six years of marriage. The first was our honeymoon cruise from New York City to Bermuda, and the second was a Western Caribbean cruise from Miami to Cozumel, Mexico, Grand Cayman and Ocho Rios, Jamaica. Last fall, we received an email from a golfing friend who had booked a seven day Exotic Western Caribbean cruise that would sail in early February, 2016 from Port Canaveral, FL. He wanted to organize a group to sail on this mid-winter getaway.

Although we had been to Cozumel, this voyage offered the opportunity to visit some additional ports that were not covered in our prior cruise--Belize, Isla Roatan (Honduras) and Costa Maya, Mexico. So we asked around and found several friends who were interested in joining us on this winter vacation.
Cozumel, Mexico
Our two previous cruises were strictly “us time,” so we thought it would be fun to enjoy a journey with people we already know and like. This traveling group was comprised of five couples, including three individuals who were first-time cruisers.

I imparted all of my cruising knowledge to guide the newbies through the process, which truly does involve many details that require attention. Knowledge is power, and I wanted to be certain that they were well-informed. Cruises are not one-size-fits-all. It is helpful to decide whether you want a casual or a more formal cruising experience before you book. A little bit of research goes a long way to educating everyone about the ships, accommodations, styles, ports, prices and options.

If you are planning a cruise that includes friends and/or family or a combo of the two, here are some valuable tips for you:

1-Some folks like to dine early, some prefer to dine late. Discuss the dining room seating time in advance and be sure everyone is in agreement. Some cruises also have a flexible time dining option, so it is helpful to iron this out for everyone to be on the same page if they want the group to dine together. Adjustments can be made to a reasonable extent, but it is far better to settle this issue in advance.

2-Establish that breakfast is “on your own” unless there is some reason why it is essential for everyone to meet for breakfast. This gives each person ample flexibility in the time they wake up and make themselves presentable for the other passengers to see. Some folks love to see the sunrise from their balconies and then embrace an early morning work out in the fitness center. Others enjoy sleeping in while they are on vacation and are in no rush to hit the deck running. In terms of trying to corral everyone to breakfast at the same time, frequently it is not that easy to secure a table in the breakfast buffet area that will accommodate a cast of thousands or even dozens. Keep it simple first thing in the morning. Let everyone relax and do their own thing.

Mayan Ruins in Belize
3-Be certain that each individual in your group carefully reviews the excursion options and chooses what THEY want to do. Some excursions require physical agility, and not everyone in your group may be able to keep up or navigate difficult terrain or steep stairs. Booking an excursion for each port is not a requirement, and not everyone is comfortable in a tender (small boat) that may be bouncing along on rough waters to take passengers from ship to shore and back in some ports. Read the reviews which have been written by others who have taken those same excursions. You will receive a great deal of insight from these testimonials. Not everyone has the same experiences, so you will read the good, the bad and the ugly and then make your own decision. Excursions are not usually cheap, so choose the ones that appear to give passengers the best encounter for the relatively short time you are in port. Just remember that if everyone makes their own choices, they cannot blame you if they are not charmed by the experience.

4-Encourage everyone to invest in non-drowsy Dramamine and motion sickness wrist bands. Seas can swell during any season when a storm pops up. It is far better to be prepared for the worst and not have to use these items than to need them and either not be able to buy them or have to spend a fortune to acquire them.

Port at Isla Roatan (Honduras)
5-Please remember that when traveling with folks who have never cruised before, there is always the potential to have someone in your group who becomes cruise-phobic once you are already out to sea and they get antsy because they are locked into following the program for the next seven or more days. Occasionally, there is a cruiser who feels confined or trapped by not being able to simply say after a couple of days, “I don’t want to do this any more.” It really is not their fault. They have never been in this situation before and could not predict that they would feel this way. Try to encourage them by keeping them busy with activities and the multitude of fun things to do that are available to them on the cruise.

Warning! One last tip that comes to us from Cruise Expert, Kate Jensen: For any travel outside the U.S. borders, be sure that everyone in your party has a valid passport that does not expire within six months from your trip departure date. That sounds like a no-brainer, but Fred and I actually have a friend who was on his way to the Newark Airport for a fabulous golf trip in Scotland with his buddies and discovered that his passport had just expired. He had some serious scrambling to do to get to Connecticut to obtain an expedited passport renewal and re-book a flight to catch up with his friends. He missed most of the golf outings and spent a fortune securing a last minute flight.

Back to the benefits of cruising, Fred and I believe that cruises are a fabulous way to experience a variety of destinations for short periods of time, gaining insight on whether or not we would have the desire to return for a longer stay. A cruise offers the opportunity to do as much or as little as you wish. You can stay busy from morning until late at night, or you can kick back and do nothing. The sunrises and sunsets from your balcony can be amazing and unforgettable. One thing is for certain--you will never go hungry on a cruise, and each port is a new adventure. 

If you have any questions about cruises, contact Kate Jensen who is an expert resource: Kate Jensen, ECC CruiseOne-Myrtle Beach (843) 655-5158 cell phone

Bon voyage!!

See you soon for a visit to another fabulous location...
Mary Anne Benedetto, Author/Speaker

Saturday, August 1, 2015

24 Hours in New York City

With only a twenty-four hour window for New York City sightseeing, a recent brief stopover in this vibrant, bustling city brought a whirlwind collection of experiences.

View from our New York Athletic Club room
Knowing that we three couples had a limited period in which to cram our variety of activities, we checked into our room at the New York Athletic Club on Central Park South (which was arranged by a good friend who happens to be a member). After depositing our belongings in our rooms, we met in the lobby to begin our action-packed day.

We had conferred and agreed in advance that we would utilize our day to visit 1) the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, 2) One World Observatory, 3) meet our NYAC friends for dinner, 4) see Jersey Boys on Broadway. With our plan in place, we had already procured all tickets and reservations online.

Let’s talk for a moment about transportation within NYC. As a veteran of countless trips to this wonderful city, I can tell you that using public transportation from trains to taxis to the subway system is far easier than trying to drive your own vehicle up and down, back and forth among these one-way streets--or even the two-way streets. Just driving into the city and attempting to navigate to the NYAC was challenging because in multiple instances, our GPS directed us to turn onto streets that were barricaded for a parade to be held the following day. Add that to the fact doing battle with the yellow cabs, which seem to own the roads, is tricky at best. We could hardly wait to hand the car keys over to the valet and say, “Bye bye” to our vehicles.

Yet, I must be honest and tell you that it is helpful to be educated in advance about use of the subway system. Just a few tips are: 1) Acquire a Manhattan map. This valuable tool will give you some sense of the geography and street layout. Familiarize yourself with the streets surrounding your destination, and know the address. Standing on a crowded street corner and attempting to figure out a direction can be frustrating as pedestrians rush past you in their haste and annoyance at attempting to proceed.

2) Acquire a subway line map so you know exactly which line you are looking for and where to find the entrances.

3) When you enter the subway, go to the ticket booth and don’t hesitate to ask questions. The (hopefully) friendly people selling the subway tickets are the keepers of tremendously beneficial knowledge.

4) Once you have your Metrocard ticket in hand, go to the turnstile, slide it with the black strip to the left so the ticket will be read. Quickly enter the turnstile. I repeat…quickly. I believe that these devices were designed for a fast-moving public, because I made the mistake of hesitating for a moment and encountered a turnstile that would not move. My entire party was already on the other side waiting as I pushed and tugged at the stubborn arm of the turnstile, re-swiped my ticket and gained no ground. I had to go back to a machine, purchase yet another ticket and try again. Lesson learned. Swipe the ticket on the correct side, move quickly.

5) As with public transportation in any city in the world, carefully secure and guard your belongings. It is better to be paranoid and cautious than deal with a missing wallet.

6) Pay attention to the stops. You really do not want to discover that you have missed your stop, especially if you are on a tight schedule.

For more information on riding the New York subway system, this USA today article provides simple steps for you to follow: http://traveltips.usatoday.com/ride-nyc-subway-4236.html.

So the first leg of our adventure was a subway ride from Midtown Manhattan to the site of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum http://www.911memorial.org/. The memorial is free to visit and, understandably, evokes a generally solemn, reverent atmosphere. Everyone beyond toddler age remembers where they were and what they were doing when this horrifying event in American history occurred. The names of all who died in the terrorist attacks of 2/26/93 and 9/11/01 are inscribed in bronze around the memorial pools. To locate a name, access the name finder at the above referenced link or visit a kiosk at the memorial site.

The 9/11 museum is also a sobering reminder, but is a wonderful tribute to those lives lost in the senseless acts of terrorism at this location. Tickets purchased in advance online enable the visitor to choose the date and time of their entrance. Being armed with that advantage during our time-crunched tour was incredibly useful.

Onward to the newly constructed One World Observatory https://oneworldobservatory.com/, we were once again holders of date and time reserved tickets.  In less than sixty seconds, visitors are transported to the top of the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. These views of New York City are amazing, and we all agreed that we are delighted that we included this in our itinerary.

Just a couple of hints: 1) Do not get too crazy taking photos on the first level after your departure from the elevator. The second level actually affords far better photo opportunities. Just saying… 2) If you have planned an ambitious schedule, it behooves you to keep an eye on the line that forms at the elevator to return you to the ground level. You will want to watch your time and become a part of the queue accordingly. For the most fabulous New York City views, the One World Observatory is a must.

The next item on our agenda was returning to New York Athletic Club to freshen up before our dinner date with dear NYC friends. Having spent a great deal of time in the city over the years, I knew exactly what to wear--my little black dress and black heels.

We enjoyed a lovely dinner at BECCO http://becco-nyc.com/, where I devoured a scrumptious veal piccata special. This restaurant is conveniently located in the theatre district, and reservations can be made up to thirty days in advance. It was a perfect choice for us, and the servers are most conscious that many of their patrons are comprised of the theatre crowd.

As we dined, the rain began to pour from the skies. My husband excused himself from the table and dashed up the street to a vendor to purchase multiple umbrellas for our party, and then we marched the few short blocks to see our show. The umbrellas were a bonus, but when it rains heavily in NYC, one can be sure that massive pools of water will collect by the curbs at intersections. Unless you have kangaroo-like abilities to leap over the flooded puddles, your shoes and feet will become saturated. So much for the little black heels.

Although I had already seen Jersey Boys during a Chicago trip a few years ago, as well as the more recent movie version, I still found the show to be a great entertainment experience. Regardless of where or how many times you may have seen a particular show, viewing it on Broadway is always more memorable. There is a special ambience in New York City’s theatre district that cannot be duplicated.

Following the show, we walked back to the NYAC because…well, try to hail a cab on a drizzly Saturday night in New York City, and see how successful you are. You might as well be looking for a taxi in the middle of the Sahara Desert, and we needed two of them to accommodate a party of six. Besides, a brisk walk is always good for the heart and for absorbing the NYC atmosphere.

After a peaceful night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, we once again faced the challenge of trying to navigate the city with a GPS that does not recognize parade barricades. Eventually, we succeeded and headed south toward our eagerly anticipated South Carolina beds.

As the traffic abruptly ground to a halt in the typical stop-and-go fashion perpetually present in the Quantico/Manassas region of I-95, we wondered if sleeping in our own home that evening was an unrealistic fantasy. Finally, the painful auto crawl gave way to smooth sailing and we were, by the grace of God, safely home.

Visiting New York City is one of my all time favorite things to do. The sights, sounds and smells soak into my pores and always lure me back again. Just remember that for an optimal visit, particularly a brief one, you cannot do too much research and advance prep work. NYC is not a destination where you want to wing it and flounder. Having confidence in your schedule and directions will be the perfect setup for an enjoyable travel experience.

See you soon for another travel adventure!

Hugs from Mary Anne Benedetto

Author of Eyelash, Never Say Perfect, 7 Easy Steps to Memoir Writing, From Italy with Love & Limoncello, Write Your Pet’s Life Story in 7 Easy Steps! 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Hiking Inspiration Point

Seriously, I did not give it a second thought. In fact, I was beyond excited about it!

At a September, 2014 conference setting in lovely Santa Barbara, California at the Four Seasons Biltmore Resort, I was presented with a variety of options for an afternoon activity. The choices were golf (something I frequently do where I live in South Carolina), kayaking in the ocean (tempting, but I felt that my kayaking debut should be in calmer waters), a facial or massage at the spa (I could do that any place, any time), whale watching (except we were told that it was not whale season), or hiking. Ah, hiking! When I lived in New York, I loved hiking in the Adirondacks and even formed my own hiking group. I recall being at the top of Buck Mountain and looking down on small aircraft. Hiking it would be!

Originally, there were fourteen people signed up, but due to the unusually soaring temperatures for this area, seven cancelled. So, off we went with two affable guides, four younger hikers and three…shall we say… senior citizen hikers, of which I was one.

Completely pumped as we began the trek, Brian led the pack while his co-worker, Jake, stayed at the rear with us old codgers. The younger folks practically ran up the sun-drenched trail, but I sensed that it was in my best interest to pace myself. After about fifteen minutes of climbing straight up, my heart was pounding like a big bass drum, and I was utterly out of breath. How could that happen? Then I remembered--my last hiking event occurred over ten years ago. I quickly discovered that I needed frequent rests and could not dash up the mountain. Stopping occasionally to survey the spectacular view and gulp some chilled bottled water served as a valid excuse to catch my breath.

After climbing the trail for what seemed like an eternity, I finally asked Jake, “Okay. How much longer will it take us to reach the top, and will it be this steep all the way?” Obviously, the last question was silly. Of course, it would be steeper as we reached the top.

Jake humored me and replied, “About another half hour straight up.”

“Fine,” I said. “Remember that shaded area we just passed a minute ago? Well, that’s where you’ll find me when you come back down. This body isn’t going any further uphill.”

He radioed Brian to advise him that I was stopping in my tracks, and the two other senior citizens in our group breathed audible sighs of relief, thrilled to be joining me. I think they were just waiting for someone else to cry “uncle.” No one wanted to be the first to stop, but I did not want to have to be airlifted off the mountain.

The others joined us in about fifteen or twenty minutes, having made it to the top, taken photos and returned to our little social circle in the shade. Brian asked us if we wanted to descend the mountain the same way we came up, or did we want to try the “fun” way down?

Naturally, this adventurous group opted for the “fun” way, which contained no trail at all, but was comprised of huge boulders that we had to navigate in order to progress down the mountain. To say it was challenging would be a gross understatement. I survived it and did not break an ankle or leg, even when I had to sit on gigantic rock formations and slide down to the next level.

It was gratifying to be able to declare that I did it. I had hiked the major portion of the mountain and had the privilege of viewing the picture-perfect scenery that would have been impossible to see from ground level. On the way down, I traversed the rugged terrain with the best of them and finished unscathed. A huge thank you to Brian and Jake for their expertise and patience!

At the end of the day, I felt great for putting my body to the test, stretching my limits, participating in the “fun” way down. The destination was called Inspiration Point, and I actually left there inspired to depart from my comfort zone more often. Now, where do I sign up for that massage?

All the best,

Mary Anne Benedetto

Author of Eyelash, 7 Easy Steps to Memoir Writing: Build a Priceless Legacy One Story at a Time!, Never Say Perfect and From Italy with Love & Limoncello.

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