Monday, July 28, 2014

Goldring Travel Cruising the Peruvian Amazon With G Adventures - Part II

Our Amazon experience with G Adventures is marketed as its “Comfort” level, noting there are higher levels of service and amenities than its standard, more “get out there” and camp, hostel and use public transportation type tours.  So while our Amazon trip is not a luxury one, my expectations are that it should be fairly comfortable with appropriate amenities with a price of about $2,500 per person (exclusive of air) for this nine (9) day tour.  (The Aqua, a truly more luxurious ship, sailed by one morning and it has fantastic bedding and some flashier facilities, but I am not sure how many people are going to come to this part of the Amazon for a luxury experience of that sort.  At least it is available…at a much higher price.  Other options also exist at various price points, but more on that later; noting that all of these ships have itineraries that are quite similar.)


We started out in the jungle; the “concrete jungle” of New York City.  Because we only had limited time, and I really didn't have any desire to spend too much time in Lima (because I had been there before, there is not a lot to see, and there is so much crime), coordinating our flights required we fly out of JFK Airport on Copa Airlines…at 1:45 a.m.…with a connection in Panama City, Panama.  For those of you not familiar with JFK Airport, and more particularly Terminal 4, let’s just say it isn't a wonderful experience. 

We arrived at the airport in plenty of time for our supposedly on-time departure and did enjoy the Wingtips Lounge (which was surprisingly OK), but at about midnight we found out our flight was delayed to 2:15 a.m.. and then was going to board almost any minute…until 3:00 a.m., courtesy of US Customs performing a drug sweep of the plane upon its arrival from Panama.

Once, very tiredly onboard, the crew did not offer even a beverage service until about 2 hours outside of Panama.  Upon arrival in Panama for our 3 hour layover (now down to 2.5 hours) I was able to get upgrades to first class on our flight to Lima, after chilling out in the Copa Lounge.  Our 9:00 a.m. Copa flight was fine and I had a good sleep after lunch service…interesting on an early morning flight.

We were greeted by the G Adventures driver who took us (“us” being me and my son) to The Dazzler Hotel in the Miraflores section of Lima along with one other fellow passenger.  As I mentioned, Lima is a very poor city with lots of crime.  The number of police we observed in our 40 minute drive was remarkable.  G Adventures’ selected hotel was quite nice with friendly staff, clean and modern rooms and in a nice location.  Remarkably the hotel did not have any warnings about not drinking the water and did not offer any complimentary bottled water.  Lima has some of the worst “drinking” water anywhere with it not only being full of bacteria, but also ultra-high levels of heavy metals due to the water supply being downstream from intensive mining operations.

After a nap we had a 6:30 p.m. get together for a briefing and to meet most of the other travelers.  Our group of 26 was atypical for a G Adventures’ tour as it was it is a pretty much older (with at least 8 being well over 60 and two approaching 80...who did everything!), very Canadian and with a number of teachers/educators.  Unfortunately, as I would find out all too quickly, while where there were some very nice folks, our group proved a testament to teachers on vacation are far more rude than their students.  More on that later too.  


My son and I then headed out to dinner at an internationally acclaimed restaurant, Malabar, for a unique dining experience. (It has consistently been rated one of the Top 10 restaurants in all of Latin America.)  Malabar’s specialty is it use of ingredients from the Amazon and Andes combined into beautiful, creative and interesting tasting creations.  The restaurant itself has an earthy, warm, palate of colors and textures, a quiet atmosphere and very attentive service.  Honestly, it was hard to balance the crime concerns on the outside with the elegance inside the restaurant.  There is a wealth disparity here as in other South American cities, but wealth seems to be more of a relative term in Lima.






(I do have to admit that after I decided on Malabar I decided to look on TripAdvisor…which I did with the same skepticism I have when I look on CruiseCritic.  It was worth it for the ridiculousness of its rating and some of the comments.  Rated as the 149th best restaurant in Lima, Peru, my favorite was a very recent post claiming dissatisfaction with the restaurant but noting, "The only reason for its top rating is its excellent food."  Huh?  Isn’t that the point??? By the way, TripAdvisor ranks Veggie Pizza is rated the No. 4 restaurant in Lima…which is an internationally acclaimed foodie city!)

Anyway, it was a fairly early night as we had to be up at 4:30 a.m. in order to be on our way to the airport for an 8:00 a.m. flight on Star Peru Airlines.  Lima Airport is much improved from 1986 and our flight to Iquitos was fine.   Because of the early flight and where the bus dropped us off, there were no porters so we had to carry our own bags.  However, upon arrival in Iquitos, Peru G Adventures did not allow us to touch our bags, but  had porters take our bags to be placed on our midsized bus (there are 26 in our group) and then into our cabins on the Queen Violeta.

We drove 15 minutes to the Manatee Rescue Center where there a modest, but unique, opportunity to see the rare Amazon manatee (the smallest of the manatee species) and to feed and touch them.  After the animal are rehabilitated they are returned to the wild.  Hopefully their return to the wild is far away from Iquitos. Turtles are also raised there in a very successful program.

Amazon Manatee



I remember Iquitos as being a small rundown town back in 1986.  Now it is a large very run down city without anything about it that makes it attractive.  We stopped there so that folks in our group could pick up last minute items that they didn’t bring or didn’t think of (like ponchos) or for an ATM.  I have traveled to quite a few remote areas and spending an hour in a rundown port city to shop for last minute items should have been a red flag; especially because it was later explained it kept us from our “orientation tour” of Iquitos.  (Good or bad, understanding a place before or during your visit makes a lot more sense than doing it afterwards...a topic I will talk more about later on.  Yes, I have lots of travel thoughts!)

Iquitos, Peru
I was amazed by the effort some in my group put in to getting the best exchange rate possible.  Folks, you are spending thousands of dollars on your vacation and for the amount of money you are actually going to spend, do yourself a favor, make life easy and blow the potential $5 savings by using the ATM at the airport.  As we waited for a fellow passenger in Lima I purchased 250 nuevo soles for about $94; no hassle, no pressure, no waste of time.

After an hour in Iquitos (one hour too many) we finally headed towards the ship, the Queen Violeta, which was located in a truly depressing dump of a marina.  Fortunately as quickly as we could board the ship, the ship was underway and our Amazon adventure finally began. 

As an aside, one thing about this G Adventure trip I did not like right from the start is the passing of envelopes to tip literally everyone.  In less than 24 hours I had to tip the driver to the airport, the porter at the airport, and the driver from the airport.  During this trip various “included” excursions required a gratuity be given as well.  This sort of procedure does not make me feel like I am showing my appreciation for services rendered, but rather am a “tourist ATM” to which the locals go to withdraw funds.  (G Adventures advises, in advance, about gratuities for the staff, but not this.  It is an avoidable and inappropriate irritant; especially when it is a more inclusive product.  Ironically, on many of the more rustic experiences G Adventures creates a tip fund at the outset and let's the CEO (Chief Exploration Officer a/k/a guide) deal with tips along the way.  I have no idea why it wasn't done here.)


The Queen Violetta was supposed built in 2012 and is fairly basic, but comfortable, but one would never believe she was built in 2012.  If she was there were a lot of recycled parts.  That said, the interior public spaces consist of a dining room/bar and a small forward facing lounge.  (There is another “lounge” that looks like it was supposed to be a bar, but lays empty.)


Outside there are two covered areas on the top deck (one with a few simple mismatched metal chairs and one with four hammocks…that are in high demand) and below them there is another area with comfortable informal lounges and chairs.  


The rooms are basic, but the beds are quite comfortable.  Our Superior Room (on the upper deck) is just forward of the Dining Room and extremely conveniently located.  It consists of two beds, a dresser and a wardrobe with a very small desk and one table lamp.  The bathroom is rustic, but functional with a full tub over a shower (though I don’t see anyone taking a bath in it) and a sink that has holes for a larger faucet (and hot and cold taps, not just cold) that are open to below as well as a toilet and an open rack for storage.


All of the guests are accompanied by the CEO throughout the trip and a naturalist in a single skiff when venturing off of the ship.  Again, it is basic.   

On this trip most of the activities are viewing wildlife from a skiff rather than hiking through the Amazon as I did previously.  For that reason the reference in the materials to “skiffs” and being supplied with one skiff was not good; especially as some of the group was more interesting in being “vacationing tourists” rather than “travelers” and there was no way to segregate us into more appropriate subgroups.  (Also, later in our journey the skiff sunk during a heavy rain and that left us without any skiff for an entire day while it was pumped out and the engines flushed.)

Immediately upon arrival we were directed to the Dining Room for a briefing and lunch while our bags were delivered to our cabins.  The atmosphere is quite informal, but G Adventures’ staff makes sure you are comfortable and relaxed.  Along those lines the activities for the evening or morning are posted on a white board in the dining room letting you know what to wear and what to bring.  Not too much information; just the basics.  (I wanted more than the basics...like background, like what animals we might see and their ecology, for example.) It was explained that we would do everything noted in our itinerary, but possibly in a different order due to conditions and weather.

Our lunch was simple, but good for what it was and where we were.  Hearts of Palm salad, chicken, fried yucca and beans.  I won’t be discussing the menu as I normally do.  Just know that the food is of “good enough” quality and varied with usually two proteins offered such as catfish and beef, chicken or pork, along with vegetables, a starch, breads and a salad.  Soup is sometimes offered as well.  Desserts were generally pretty good..though jello seemed to be offered more as the trip was winding down.  There were a few occasions where they did run out of food.  Whether it was as a result of some of the more gluttonous group members or poor planning, that really is totally unacceptable.

I unpacked in about 3 minutes and it was time to chill out on deck and wait for our 5:30 p.m. skiff "excursion".  It was quite relaxing to be away from the cities and on the water watching the beauty of the Amazon start to appear and the grunge of Iquitos to slip away.



Just as we were going to board the skiff a typical late afternoon storm hit, but 15 minutes (and a lot of water) later the sun was out.  On board the skiff we had our safety briefing and pretty much went back onto the Queen Violeta for dinner as the sun was setting and an early night.



Tomorrow we are up at 5:00 a.m. for our first exploration!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Goldring Travel Cruising the Peruvian Amazon With G Adventures

In 1986 I traveled to the Peruvian Amazon Jungle when I was single and wanted a truly rustic adventure spending my days and nights under the deep forest canopy if not canoeing around some of the backwaters.  It was, well and truly, one of the most invigorating and inspiring journeys of my life...and one, along with my African safaris, inspired me to travel.  

G Adventures' Queen Violeta Amazon River Cruise Ship
Alas, it is now almost 30 years later and, while I am extremely excited to return to the Amazon jungle, I am not going to be roughing it, or spending quite as much time, in the biosphere that impresses me so much.  And I am taking my 18 year old son with me as a "father-son" trip before he heads off for his first year of college, so it isn't going to be all about my getting that great photo or my individual experience.  I am, now a bit wiser and maybe a step slower, more than ready for new perspectives on a fascinating area that far to few people experience.

I have organized this trip through G Adventures (which, as it develops its brand) offers trips that range from the truly rugged to pretty much, sort of, luxury. This nine (9) day trip is leaning more to the comfortable and fairly well taken care of side...but isn't quite what one would call luxury.  

It conveniently it takes two weekends and only one business week - and starts in Lima, Peru for one night at the Dazzler Hotel (a good thing after the 1:45 a.m. flight I have to Lima!), then an early morning flight the next day over the Andes to Iquitos, Peru for a visit to a Amazonian Manatee Rescue facility and a quick city tour (which I understand has grown significantly, if not for the better).



It is then on to our ship, the Queen Violeta, a new 32 passenger ship (though maximum 28 guests are on any sailing) (Note:  Starting in 2015 G Adventures will be using a different ship.) 

G Adventures' Queen Violeta Amazon Cruise Ship
While the accommodations will be simple, they are a huge upgrade from the hard bunk with mosquito netting in a room open to the jungle - no windows, no electricity and a basin with muddy Amazon River water...with the latrine-style outhouse and community 55 gallon drum shower (also using muddy Amazon River water)...down the dock...that I experienced the last time.  I will talk more about the ship after I am aboard.

Once a board the ship it will be six (6) days cruising the Amazon, but not heading east as I did the last time (when I visited the Yanamamo and Napo River areas), but doubling back west to the Pacaya Samiria Reserve.  

The first day will be spent sailing to the confluence of the MaraƱon and Ucayali rivers, considered to be the point where the Amazon River begins, where it should be possible to see monkeys, sloths, a variety of birds and the famous pink dolphin. Over the next five days, guides will lead jungle walks, give lectures and point out unique species of bird and marine life as we explore the smaller tributaries of the river.

Two days of excursions in the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve are designed to provide excellent wildlife viewing opportunities, and a chance to interact with the locals…including a local shaman.  I had an experience with the locals on a far less structured basis the last time (some great stories are coming in the next articles!), but I also endured what was a surprisingly touristic, but still very cool, demonstration of blow gun expertise.  While I don't know how things will go with the shaman, I don't think I will be trying to bring back a blow gun again, as in 1986 the airline said it was a weapon (a wood vs. pvc pipe, but OK, I guess!).

We will also go piranha fishing Last time I brought my own rod, but not this time (though I did catch some pretty nice fish other than piranha).  I know the technique to use, but will let you know about that when it happens!  And, of course, swimming in the back waters - with all of the folklore - and truths - as to its dangers is also on the agenda.


Something I am really looking forward to is exploring the mangroves in a dugout canoe.  I hope we visit some of the areas with giant lilies that are six feet or more across, as I did last time.  We will also visit the Sapisapi River to look for charapas and other turtles. 

Finally we will visit  the port town of Nauta and visit a local market.  Considering that the diets of the locals are almost entirely based upon what is available in the jungle, there are most certainly going to be some very interesting things to see...and, possibly taste.  (I mean you know I will try just about anything including balut eggs in Cambodia, so I am looking forward to this!)  

There are more than a few clients that I have urged to go deeper into the Amazon than Manaus, Brazil; heck, how pristine can it be when they are playing World Cup football (soccer) there entertaining tens of thousands of fans. That is why I regularly suggest that if you want more than a "taste", less of a "tourist" experience, and to experience the "real deal", Iquitos, Peru is your better jumping in point.

Now, speaking of G Adventures and its evolution into the luxury expedition market, I want to make you aware of its Galapagos luxury cruise experience. Its 32 passenger ship provides true luxury accommodations - something one luxury line is struggling mightily with - with many of the amenities that are difficult to find in the Galapagos.

G Adventures' Evolution Standard Stateroom
While I will be talking more about the Galapagos opportunities later, now is the time for me to get packing for my Amazon experience!

If you are interested in any G Adventure tours or cruises, please drop me an email at eric@goldringtravel.com or call me at (877) 2GO-LUXURY...but wait until after July 27th.  Internet and telephone are not prevalent in the Amazon!


Thursday, July 3, 2014

Last Minute Availability - 2014 Goldring Travel Food & Wine Cruise - AmaWaterways: Amsterdam to Budapest

I have just been advised by AmaWaterways that a very few staterooms have just become available for the October 6, 2014 Goldring Travel 2014 Food & Wine River Cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest on the AmaWaterways AmaCerto. 


This fourteen (14) day cruise has numerous included high quality tours and will also have some tastings of the little-known but extraordinary wines of the regions.  All this is provided without any additional cost to you with the tasting and other special events being provided courtesy of Goldring Travel.  (If you have ever been on a Goldring Travel Food & Wine Cruise you know a once-in-a-lifetime experience is more than probable!)

Whether you are a wine buff, a history buff or a scenery buff, this is a truly exceptional cruise during one of the most beautiful and comfortable times of the year.

Interested?  Please read the details on our website by clicking this link: 


and then give me a call at (877) 2GO-LUXURY or +1 732-578-8585 or email me at eric@goldringtravel.com

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Windstar's Star Pride Christened!

Windstar's Star Pride (formerly the Seabourn Pride) was christened yesterday in Barcelona.


Now with all-suite accommodations for 212 guests and a newly refurbished interior - which have some major changes - the Star Pride will start her Mediterranean season.

I am anxious to actually see the newly redesigned Yacht Club (previously the Observation Lounge)


and the Compass Rose (previously The Club):


as well as the Windstar touches throughout the ship including all of the suites.  When I receive actual photos of the Star Pride's interior I will, of course, share them with you.

Consistent with Windstar changing from only motorsailing ships, it has unveiled a new logo:


Taking the Star Pride for a Test Drive - Knowing how much I loved cruising on the Seabourn Pride - the first Seabourn ship I ever sailed on - and how much I enjoyed my first Windstar cruise this past January on the Windsurf, which you can read about here:  Windstar's Wind Surf - What Does It Tell Us About theTransformation of the Seabourn Pride into the Star Pride? Leave Your Tuxedo andBring Your Flip-Flops!I am truly looking forward to sailing on the Star Pride on September 8, 2014.


While I am onboard I will, no doubt, spend a lot of time looking at the differences, the changes, the improvements and, of course, enjoying the Windstar rebirth of this wonderful intimate ship.  (OK, I might have a few moments...a lot of moments...of nostalgia.)

If you would like to join me on this unique cruise of Istanbul, Turkey's Black Sea Coast, Romania and Bulgaria (and, possibly, post-crisis Odessa, Ukraine) call me at (877) 2GO-LUXURY or email me at eric@goldringtravel.com.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Celebrity Silhouette vs. Royal Princess - Which Is A Better Value For The Upscale Cruise Guest? Part IV: The Wine Lists Speak Volumes (As Do The Beverage Packages)

Now a word about wines on Celebrity versus Princess.


I am traveling as a single adult with my daughter, no different really from a couple where one does not drink or may not during meals, purchasing a bottle of wine is generally not a good option (unless I dined in the same restaurant each evening) so I would have been suffering throughout this week…if I had sailed on the Royal Princess.




Let me explain:  Before departing I took a long (well, it really could not be that long) look at Princess’s wine lists.  They are, except in Vines, pretty ordinary.  Sabatini’s prides itself on its extensive Super Tuscan list, which is fine, but I find it a bit offensive when you are given only two options:  Purchase expensive bottles of wine or select from rather ordinary wines by the glass…pretty much forcing you to purchase by the bottle if you care about wines.


Further, elsewhere on the ship you are pretty much stuck with marginal to acceptable wines, but not much that you actually want to drink.  Let me put it to you this way:  Your only "by the glass" options cost no more than $7.95 and are nothing other than you would find at a typical chain restaurant in the United States.


This, obviously works for the vast majority of the Princess guests, but I was not invited onboard to consider Princess for its average guest, but the upscale to luxury guest.

Celebrity’s approach is much different. 



Of course it has Cellar Masters which has a wonderful wine list and a very large egnomatic machine selection (where you can purchase various amounts of some truly outstanding wines through a pre-paid card sort of like using an ATM for wines. 



Carrying on with the "wine is important" theme, each of the Celebrity specialty restaurants has a solid variety of wines by the glass and bottle, so that you are not “forced” to purchase a Super Tuscan if you want a Cabernet Sauvignon or a bottle if you want a glass or two (or use your Premium Beverage Package).  Note that the wine lists vary by restaurant, so overall there are a pretty extensive offerings around the ship.  I can enjoy a quality Bordeaux in Murano, a solid Malbec in the Lawn Grill, an excellent Abarino in QSine.



What I truly like is the ability to supplement my Premium Beverage package, which allows me to order any wine up to $13.00 a glass without an additional charge.  But if I want a glass of a very nice Bordeaux which sells for $17.50 a glass I can pay $4.50 extra. (The Bordeaux went very nicely with my venison I enjoyed in Murano on my second night aboard.) Or if I want a 20 year tawny port with my cheese I can pay $2.00 more rather than “suffer” with an acceptable port.  With this approach I can readily change my wines by the course, creating my own parings with or without additional cost.  This is truly a more upscale experience available on Celebrity and really not on Princess.


On the issue of Beverage Packages, Celebrity has had them for years and they are truly a good value if you enjoy alcoholic beverages throughout your day.  If you have a Bloody Mary or Mimosa with breakfast, a couple of beers during the day, a glass of wine with lunch,  pre-dinner cocktail, two glasses of wine with dinner and an after dinner cocktails, the Classic or Premium package (dependent on the quality of wine and spirits you enjoy) can be a significant savings.  (Princess is first dabbling with the beverage package concept, having introduced it on a few ships.  But as the wine selection is limited I am not sure that for an upscale guest it will be of much value.)



Also interesting is Celebrity’s approach to “sales”.  More than once I have heard those folks selling water by the gangway and buffet remind people that if you have a package the water and Vitamin Water and Gatorade is included.  Similarly, while a person purchasing a cocktail has the spirit measured, when I ask for a double it is provided without hesitation.    It is nice to see that Celebrity understands that the cost of offering up that bottle of water is nothing compared to the cost of otherwise winning back a guest that might not be totally loyal to its brand.



This sort of focus on making the Celebrity guest feel valued is not lost and is seen in a number of touch points throughout the cruise.


Cheers!