by Marcia Simon, CTA, APR
Standing under a stream of warm water in an outdoor rain shower is nothing short of luscious, especially when you look up toward the dense green foliage surrounding your private casita near Costa Rica's Arenal Volcano.
The stunning greenery challenges anyone who questions the importance of protecting these nature-filled rainforests, aptly named because it does rain here, sometimes daily, if only for a short period. But the rain is warm and passes quickly in dry season and, after all, that's why it's so intensely verdant and filled with flowers, ferns, frogs, birds, monkeys and rich soil that feeds a healthy ecosystem. A cloudy sky or gentle rain makes the greens even richer – like fully saturated film colors.
That said, those in search of a tropical beach may long for an ocean view with nonstop sun. Costa Rica certainly has plenty of sunny coastline, which makes a combination rainforest/beach vacation a perfect trip, especially if you want to taste more of this Central American paradise.
What's the difference between a jungle and a rainforest?
A jungle has year-round tropical weather. A rainforest climate, on the other hand, can be either temperate or tropical, with tall trees that block sunlight, preventing heavy undergrowth typically found in a jungle. Both have heavy rainy seasons but while a jungle is warm, humid and has sunlight, a rainforest is humid, damp, and darker.
Staying at a hotel or resort that is both authentic and eco-friendly makes perfect sense when staying in Costa Rica's rainforest, and there are plenty of choices at various levels.
Nayara, about 10 minutes outside the town of La Fortuna, is recognized as one of the world's most highly rated eco-friendly rainforest resorts. Accommodations throughout the resort are similar; the size and outdoor spaces vary depending on category. Even the entry-level casita deluxe in Nayara Gardens feels like a bungalow, with indoor and outdoor showers, a private deck with two large, comfy wooden chairs, a table, hammock and hot tub. We could near the stream at night and the birds in the morning. Upgrades to Nayara Springs and the Tented Camp include private plunge pools, wraparound deck and more interior space and amenities.
Full breakfast is included in all room categories. Dining off-premises is just a short taxi or Uber ride away. Daytime excursions most often include lunch; there are five a la restaurants onsite for dinner and lunch. Four pools, two swim-up bars and four jacuzzis tucked into the greenery provide plenty of exploration, and there are hot springs, too.
One great thing about Nayara is that no matter what level of accommodation you choose, every person has access to all areas of the resort. The one exception is that the adult-only areas do not allow children. Walking paths are open to all, lined with flora and numerous varieties of wild orchids, red-flowered Heliconia, bougenvilia, red stalk palms, ferns and papayas.
Things to do near Arenal Volcano
From ziplining, repelling down or hiking along a waterfall, horseback riding, relaxing in the hot springs and night tours of the jungle, this part of Costa Rica has no shortage of activities for families, couples and solo travelers.
This area began attracting a new level of tourism a few years after the Arenal Volcano unexpectedly erupted in 1968, violently spewing fire, hot lava and large boulders over an area of six square miles. The volcano has been inactive since 2011. Hiking trails were created amid the lava rock when trails could be defined and the decimated greenery began to grow back. The Costa Rican government does not permit hiking on the actual volcano; hikes are on the surrounding land and provide exceptional views of the rainforest and volcano. Hiking trails at Arenal 68 end at a small outdoor cafeteria that offers a surprisingly good and varied lunch menu with tropical beverages. Take the stairs up to the roof for a 360-degree panoramic view of the area and volcano. Volcano National Park has two popular hiking trails as another option.
Mistico Park Hanging Bridges features a nature walk and path about two miles long, crossing 20 bridges, some very small and others overlooking the rainforest canopy. Six suspension bridges gently sway as you cross over them, making for unique photo opportunities.
Rincon Corobisi Rafting offers a two-hour Class III-IV white water rafting trip down the Tenorio River. It's followed by a traditional casado lunch and has a place to change into dry clothes. The guides are very skilled not only at navigating the waters and steering the rafts, but also at comforting nervous or inexperienced rafters with their humor and understanding. Our guide Lalo was fantastic! He made us feel safe, and pointed out the white-faced capuchin monkeys and other wildlife along the river's edge. RCR is a family-owned-and-operated business that receives consistently high ratings. This trip is sure to be a memorable way to break up the four-hour drive from Arenal to the Guanacaste coast. A private driver can transport you and your luggage and keep all your belongings safe during your time on the river. For people uncomfortable with Class III-IV, an optional Class I-II guided "float" is available.
Guanacaste – Beach Destination
Driving out of the rainforest, the colors change from green to brown. The landscape is dry, small wildfires pop up along the roadsides, and the Pacific Ocean comes into view. The heavy clouds are behind you clinging to the volcano tops. (This is actually steam, I've been told, produced by the heat of volcanic rock.) The sun is shining and the clouds ahead are wispy.
People who are looking for a new destination that parallels the beaches and turquoise waters of the Caribbean islands will be disappointed. The blackish sand is created from volcanic rock, and beaches are often rocky and small. Yes, there are surfing towns with bigger beaches. The hotels in those communities are generally smaller, more modest and a la carte.
All-inclusive resorts are less common, but more are appearing as coastal tourism in Costa Rica grows. We opted for the all-inclusive Secrets Papagayo for relaxed chill time within a half hour from the airport in Liberia. The food was very good at each of Secrets' five restaurants, particularly the Seaside Grill, where we enjoyed perfectly grilled fresh fish, ceviche and unique freshly squeezed juices.
One big perk about staying at Secrets prior to heading home is their on-site COVID-testing. (At the time of this writing, the United States requires a negative antigen test within 24 hours of entry into the US.) Testing is scheduled (USD $42) for the day before your flight with results emailed the same day.
Sustainability and wellness
Costa Rica is known as one of the world's most popular destinations for ecotourism. The country's energy sources are wind, geothermal (from the volcanos that produce underground heat) and hydro (water) power.
This is a place where you can rejuvenate your spirit, excite your senses and challenge your physical capabilities all in one week. However, it takes more than one trip here to experience and understand the Pura Vida (pure life) of Costa Rica (Rich Coast) where the richness is in the soil, the atmosphere and the attitude of living a life that respects Nature and all living creatures that intersect with the human ecosystem.
Marcia Simon is a writer, a traveler, and a travel advisor who has been named an Essential Costa Rica Destination Specialist. Connect on Instagram @friendlygrouptravel, Facebook @friendlygrouptravel, Twitter @friendsgotravel, or drop a note to email@example.com. (Or call +1 860 395 7244.)
photographs: Marcia Simon copyright 2022
by Marcia Simon, CTA, APR
Couples Resorts are exactly what the name implies - a place for couples – to unwind, chill and choose from a long list of complimentary options, such as water sports, yoga, snorkeling, how-to classes and of course - unlimited food and beverages. Solo travelers are welcome and will feel comfortable. Couples is adult-only; the rooms have king beds (no doubles).
Exclusive to Jamaica, Couples owns four properties – two in Ocho Rios and two in Negril. Couples Tower Isle in Ocho Rios, which opened in 1978, was a trendsetter back in the day as the first all-inclusive property in Jamaica. Today, Couples is often perceived as an affordable alternative to Sandals. The vibe between the two is very different. Couples is laid back, smaller, more authentic to Jamaican style, although some may feel that the intentionally-preserved retro feel of Tower Isle may be a bit old fashioned. There's no doubt, though, that Couples provides great value for all its amenities and perks. Free airport transfers are always included, and so are green fees for golf. The nonmotorized water sports equipment is clean and in good condition. If you want to take out one of the catamarans (holding up to four people) or try your hand at windsurfing or paddleboarding, they'll get you set up. If you want a lesson, that's included, too, which is nice because some other all-inclusive brands charge for instruction.
Whether you stay at Couples San Souci or Tower Isle in Ocho Rios, or Couples Negril or Swept Away on Negril's beautiful fine-sand seven-mile beach, you'll receive a complimentary excursion or day trip. In Ocho Rios it's a visit to the famous Dunn's River Falls. Bring (or buy) watershoes for a good grip on the rocks as you join a hearty group walking up the falls. It's not steep, but it can have challenging moments. You will get wet, and it's a must-do when given the opportunity. In Negril, all guests are invited for a sunset catamaran cruise and swim. The ocean water is warm, the sunset view is fantastic and gets you prepared for dinner upon your return to the island.
Surprisingly, a large number of guests are repeat visitors to Couples who come back year after year for the laid back attitude and the comfort of a resort that's not too big.
Some of the coconut trees on the properties are very old, and Couples has a policy of not disturbing nature's intention of letting them be. So, even from the waterview rooms, trees may obstruct your view as you gaze from your balcony to the sea. After a day, and realizing that you don't really spend much time in the room, it's all fine.
Tower Isle, San Souci and Couples Negril all have allocated space for an au natural (aka nude) beach during daytime hours. It's private, has a separate bar area and attracts a decent-sized crowd.
Swept Away is known for its 10-acre sports and fitness complex. If you're not into sports, you won't even know it's there, but if you cross the street from the beach to the complex, you'll find an Olympic-size lap pool, tennis and pickleball courts and a fitness center equipped with top-notch workout equipment that has attracted pro teams to come and train.
In a nutshell, San Souci has neat nooks and crannies, a mineral pool and jacuzzi, and also a lot of steps around the property, which some people love and others would rather avoid. Tower Isle is very walkable for people who prefer a flat landscape. It preserves its vintage Jamaican style. Couples Negril has escaped the modernization of many resorts on the island. It's unpretentious, with four restaurants. Swept Away is on the gorgeous seven-mile beach.
All four resorts offer interesting day trips, from waterfalls, rafting and ziplines, to ATV riding, to the Appleton Rum and Blue Mountain Coffee tours, allowing you to stay as busy as you want to be. There's morning yoga and plenty to do onsite.
Throughout the Couples brand, the food is quite good. The bartenders are super friendly. You'll find authenticity in atmosphere. It's not too rowdy, not too quiet. There's nightly entertainment that adds to the Jamaican spell of hospitality. With affordable nonstop flights from New York, Couples is one of the best values you can find for a tropical getaway.
Marcia Simon, a Connecticut-based travel writer, is owner of Friendly Group Travel, specializing in trip planning throughout North America, Europe and the Caribbean. Connect on Instagram @friendlygrouptravel, Facebook @friendlygrouptravel, Twitter @friendsgotravel, or drop a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Marcia Simon
An experience or a thing? This girl bets her money on an experience, especially when it involves a "child" who just finished school abroad after two years of COVID-induced travel restrictions.
It was time for one proud mama and her academically-fatigued son to reunite and embark on a month-long cross-country adventure. The packed car included two suitcases, two guitars, hiking shoes, flip flops, big beach towels and a cooler filled with seltzers, beer, yogurt, cheese, crackers and whatever fruit and miscellaneous snacks fit atop the ice chips. It's a joy and a blessing to fall back into step with someone you haven't seen in ages. Sometimes it's months, sometimes years, decades even. One thing's for sure though – compatibility for travel can make or break any trip, not to mention the relationship.
Being in total sync about heading west from Connecticut with absolutely no itinerary or plan, the road trip to explore America's Native roots began. When it was all done, this duo logged 27 days, 8,686 miles, passed through 25 states and visited 14 national parks, not to mention national monuments such as Mount Rushmore, Bandelier Native American cave dwellings, the striated Painted Desert, and oddities including the Spam Museum that houses the world's first motorcycle fueled by bacon, The Corn Palace with gigantic murals made exclusively from ears of corn, and the Jolly Green Giant statue that salutes the company that made canned and frozen vegetables a staple of the American diet.
Once out west, it became evident that, contrary to the politically correct language of a middle class upbringing, the term "American Indian" was preferred over "Native American," which supposedly is now falling out of favor with some Native people who use "indigenous" as their personal preference.
by Marcia Simon, CTA
Fully vaccinated and ready to travel. The world is opening up and people are dusting off their traveling shoes... or flip flops as the case may be.
If you want a quick, inexpensive nonstop flight from NY - or Connecticut's Bradley International Airport - you can easily get to Cancun, the gateway to the Yucatan Peninsula. Riviera Maya is south of Cancun on the Caribbean Sea. This popular destination is lined with beachfront resorts, many all-inclusive, at various levels.
Taking the plunge back into travel mode, it's important to stay at a place you trust for COVID-safety standards, where you can get your mandated COVID-test onsite before returning to the United States, and where you can obviously enjoy great food, a huge pool with ample availability of loungers, an endless view of the sea and horizon, and a long list of optional daily activities that you can pursue or blow off depending on your state of mind.
Cancun has a reputation as Party Central, but it's not necessary to be part of that culture. Locations outside of the popular hotel zone are quieter, with options for everyone from understated luxury to multigenerational family fun.
I visited two properties, both part of the AM Resorts collection, on a recent trip to Puerto Morelos about a half hour south of Cancun. This is considered the northern tip of the Riviera Maya region.
A two-night stay at the luxury Zoëtry Paraiso de la Bonita (the pretty paradise) was the perfect transition from COVID-homebody to comfortable traveler.
The name Zoëtry is loosely translated to capture a philosophy centered around "the art of life." The Zoëtry brand, found in Mexico, Dominican Republic, Jamaica and St. Martin, is about serenity and wellness. This 5-Diamond AAA-rated resort does a very good job at remaining unpretentious while delivering a high standard of client care and service. As an example, on the second day of the trip I misplaced my sunglasses. It happens. Asking if there was lost and found, Omar, who was at the lobby's front desk, made a call and happily reported that the glasses were secure and would be dropped off at the office in about 15 minutes. What a pleasant surprise to have butler service deliver the missing specs to my table while lazily sipping morning coffee and pondering the breakfast menu, which included fresh fruit, yogurt, "green juice" and traditional bacon and eggs, along with authentic Mexican dishes with local flavors.
A local artist uses natural pigments to paint colorful birds and scenes for interior spaces, while exterior surfaces are painted in reddish and gold hues, true to Mayan culture. Another way the resort shares the history of the area is through a one-hour spiritual Temazcal ceremony led by a healer. You'll also find daily yoga, alternating days of Tai Chi and sound meditation, with aqua exercise and stretching in the saltwater pool. The larger freshwater pool overlooks the ocean and guests get very attentive drink (and food) service. Zoëtry Paraiso de la Bonita has an onsite "marina" at the end of the dock that includes a catamaran and a dive boat for snorkeling, sightseeing and trips to the nearby reef.
Zoëtry is ideal for couples; children are welcome with families, but we didn't see many; solo travelers would also feel comfortable here.
Also in the AM Resorts collection is Now Sapphire, where I spent three nights and plenty of time in the pools. The main pool is close to the open air lounge and offers a swim-up bar and plenty of loungers both in and out of the water. There's also a quieter, and quite lovely, adult-only pool, with bar, for guests in the Preferred category of rooms.
The Now brand is well suited for multigenerational families, and there were plenty of grandparents with their adult kids and favorite little ones. There's a children's Explorers Club with a small water park and supervised outdoor, shaded activity center. It's also affordable for groups of friends, and certainly for couples. Now Sapphire and Now Jade, both in Riviera Maya, are in the process of transitioning to be Dreams resorts, which are also part of the AM Resorts collection. HOT TIP: Book a future trip at one of these Now resorts, and the price will be honored at the higher-priced Dreams. The transition should be complete this summer for Now/Dreams Jade, and October for Now/Dreams Sapphire.
Now is for people who want a livelier atmosphere, and has more than 400 rooms and suites; Zoëtry, with fewer than 100 suites, is for those who want serene reflection and a calming experience. These were two very different experiences.
One common thread is that both Zoëtry and Now are operating at limited capacity. Vaccines are not yet as readily available in Mexico since the vaccines are not produced inside the country. Although adults over 40 and all teachers and front line workers have been offered the vaccine, many of the younger hotel staff are not yet eligible as of this writing in June 2021. For this reason, it's a great sign of respect for visiting travelers to wear masks in accordance with signage prominently displayed for indoor spaces. The resorts both showed that they are very serious about safety, sanitizing, and keeping everyone healthy.
As is the trend, both Zoëtry and Now Sapphire used their down time, when rooms were closed to tourists, to add plunge pools and first-floor swim-out suites to several accommodations. These, plus the beautiful, clean pools, made it very easy to forgive the fact that sargassum (a type of seaweed) still plagues much of Mexico's east coast during parts of the year. Believed to be caused by warming oceans and changing currents as a result of climate change, and fueled by landscape fertilizers that find their way into the ocean, this sargassum is now washing onto beaches at several Caribbean islands that never experienced it before. It's also making itself known in Florida. Hotels are doing all they can during sargassum months, but Mother Nature rules the sea.
Get out. Experience life. Travel more, stay safe, and see the world in a new light.
Marcia Simon, a Connecticut-based travel writer, is owner of Friendly Group Travel, specializing in trip planning throughout North America, Europe and the Caribbean. Connect on Instagram @friendlygrouptravel, Facebook @friendlygrouptravel, Twitter @friendsgotravel, or drop a note to email@example.com.
by Marcia Simon, CTA, APR
It's been a weird school year for students and their families. Understatement.
With graduations just around the bend, finding the right kind of celebration to honor your favorite student, is particularly challenging amid the lingering pandemic. The upside is that people are getting vaccinated, and travel is becoming safer. With this in mind, here are a few ways to celebrate this year's graduation, which may mean making up for lost time or finding a reason to get the whole multigenerational family together.
For lasting impact and memories that will last a lifetime - hands down, the answer is travel – whether you're celebrating a graduation or just need to get the family together.
5 Family Travel Ideas to Celebrate a Graduation
1. Rent a house or villa
Not quite ready to step into a full return to post-COVID activities? Villas and house rentals are very popular this year. Some have minimum-length stays; others allow you to stay for a quick weekend, an extended weekend or longer immersion. Suites at hotels that provide deep sanitized cleaning between guests add a layer of safety. Get an exclusive package at Tranquility Bay in the Florida Keys: like a 3-bedroom waterfront beach house with full kitchen, living room, oceanfront patio, laundry facilities, three swimming pools, mini-golf, snorkeling and family activities on premises, close to restaurants, fishing boats, bicycling and more.
2. All-Inclusive resort
There's something for everyone of any age. The kids can enjoy a sailing lesson while parents try the stand-up paddle boards, and grandparents relax poolside after a morning yoga class. Gather for meals and excursions at an all-inclusive that matches your family's personality. ClubMed has new locations with larger family accommodations and optional activities all day long. Hotel Xcaret, in Mexico near Tulum, includes zip lining, water parks and the famed Xcaret eco-park.
3. Walking tours
Create your own private guided group or choose a self-guided option, complete with maps and local assistance if you need it. Whichever you choose, your breakfast and dinner will be included (with recommended lunch options for self-guided trips.) Luggage is transported every morning to your next destination at an authentic boutique hotel or B&B. What a fantastic way to spend family time together outdoors. Itineraries are available within the US and abroad with Easy, Moderate and Challenging levels.
Spend a week with your family on a private catamaran, which sails flatter than a monohull. Choose to have a captain and cook, so you are completely free to do as much or as little as you want. Pull up on beaches to explore villages, cultural sites or local culinary adventures.. Bahamas and Virgin Islands are popular destinations for ideal weather and crystal clear turquoise waters.
5. Road trip Pack the car, fill the cooler and head out. There's no telling if Americans will be able to cross the Canadian border this summer, pending COVID-restrictions. Explore Maine with its coastal communities, islands, or inland lakes and rivers (family rafting!). Or head down the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Smokey Mountains, filled with opportunities for outdoor exploration. If you have more time, Add Nashville for a diverse music and food scene - and a must-do experience at the Grand Ole Opry. This summer is expected to be very busy at the National Parks, so book as early as you can. Maybe this is the summer to get a bike rack and head to the Finger Lakes. Not in shape for the hills? No worries - ebikes are readily available at rental shops. You might also consider a fly-drive experience, or renting a camper. Campers and RVs have gone upscale since COVID scared people away from hotels.
As with all travel plans mid- and post-pandemic, it's very important to understand the cancellation policies of any hotels, airlines and travel vendors you choose. An informed travel advisor can help navigate these changing conditions and provide peace of mind should your travel plans need to change. Need help planning your family getaway? Call 860-399-0191 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Initial consultations are always free.
by Marcia Simon
By industry standards, the North Fork of Long Island is still in its winemaking infancy. The region's viticulture reputation has been steadily on the rise since 1973 when its first commercial grape vines were planted. The region now boasts about 55 wineries and vineyards.
Unlike Connecticut, where driving takes all day to follow the wine trail from Stonington to Litchfield, a 25-mile span along eastern Long island's north coast allows for easy stops for tastings, picnicking and musical entertainment in season. During a COVID-winter, the scene is surely different and very quiet mid-week, which is attractive to people more interested in the wines themselves. It's a quick getaway that is as COVID-safe as you make it.
The North Fork is as laid back as Long Island gets. Its popularity as a destination is growing as the quality of its wines and oysters are added to restaurant menus across the country. This unpretentious east end of Long Island is less than 100 miles from New York City, and less than 90 minutes with a car on the Cross Sound Ferry from New London to Orient Point.
The water, air and soil trifecta
Surrounded by Long Island Sound, the Peconic Bay and salt water from the Atlantic Ocean, the North Fork is buffered from both warm and cold fronts. This unique climate protects grapes through a long growing season and gives winemakers more control over their harvests; they can pick their fruits at peak times for ripeness.
The region's most popular varietals include Bordeaux-style reds – Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec from which winemakers create their signature blends.
Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are popular whites, but even more inviting than a soft white is a glass of North Fork Rosé or Gewürztraminer, which many think of as sweet wines, but after tasting a few, it's safe to say that many are refreshingly light and dry.
My two travel companions and I enjoyed tasting flights at multiple vineyards during a January road trip along Routes 25 and 48 between the towns of Peconic and Jamesport. We visited the grounds of several others, too to get a feel for their upcoming in-season outdoor scene and COVID-safety.
Starting at Pellegrini Vineyards in Cutchogue, we were the only tasters at 12 noon. We tried four varietals and surprisingly preferred the easy-drinking, dry 2019 Rosé. Pellegrini's tasting room mixes old world charm with modern open space and technology. Guests are welcome to walk over to the adjacent building to view the stainless steel fermentation tanks, behind glass walls, used in the winemaking process. Pellegrini's winemaker is Zander Hargrave, son of Alex and Louisa Hargrave who were pioneers of the North Fork wine industry with their vines back in 1973.
The largest of all the Long Island vineyards is Pindar Vineyards in Peconic, This family owned-and-operated vineyard is run by siblings Pindar, Alexander and Alethea Damianos. A fourth sibling, Jason, was an integral part of the family operation, too, and later opened Jason's Vineyard in Jamesport. An unfortunate car accident took Jason's life in 2015, and the Damianos family now operates Jason's as well as Duck Walk in Southold, which their father acquired in 1994. Remembering a blueberry port wine I tasted years ago at Duck Walk Vineyards, my travel companions and I stopped in to try it again. We also tried their Boysenberry Fruit Wine, which is not a port, but a very tasty after-meal sipper.
The family patriarch, Dr. Herodotus Damianos, known as Dr. Dan, was an internal medicine physician by profession when his winemaking vision led him to purchase 36 acres of potato farmland in 1979 on which he planted his first Chardonnay grapes from California vines. Today, Pindar's 500 acres yield 17 varieties of grapes and more than 70,000 cases of wine every year. As large as it is, Pindar Vineyards' comfortable atmosphere provides a warm environment for tasting their popular reds such as Cabernet Franc, Pythagoras. We particularly enjoyed their Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve and Cabernet port.
Pindar is among the pioneering vineyards of the North Fork sustainable wine movement away from chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Their massive composting operation combines lawn clippings from dozens of local landscapers, fish parts from a local seafood wholesaler, and their own grape skins. Tons of this rich organic compost is spread over the vineyard's sandy soil to enrich the grapes.
Although some Vineyards are closed for winter, or operate on limited hours during the pandemic, the wineries we visited all took their safety precautions very seriously. Some offer tastings by reservation only; others accept drop ins, with occupancy limits.
Mid-week in January, the tasting rooms were practically, and sometimes literally, empty; we felt very COVID-safe the entire time. Visitor traffic picks up on weekends, we were told, so mid-week is advantageous. Masks are required everywhere to keep staff and visitors safe.
Travelers who want to venture out with their bubble (up to six people) before the crowds return for spring season can rent one of the Bergen Road Bungalows at Macari Vineyards. These private, cozy heated tents provide your group with four hours of relaxed tastings from the selection of flagship Macari wines paired with a locally prepared gourmet lunch overlooking the grape vines on this 180-acre vineyard.
An Overnight Delight
After tasting wines at four vineyards, we were ready to check in to the Sound View Hotel in Greenport, three miles west of the village, and a short ride from most vineyards. Arriving before sunset, we watched the sky's changing colors from the deck of our room.
If you didn't know its story, you'd drive by Sound View, thinking this is still a 50s-era roadside motel. Now owned by Eagle Point Hotel Partners, renovations began a few years ago and are ongoing. Simple, rustic and modern all at the same time, this hotel feels beachy and upscale at the same time. All rooms provide waterfront views of Long Island Sound. It's so close to the water that you might get sea spray on your windows during a storm.
The hotel's Halyard Restaurant had limited winter pandemic hours. However, the to-go menu includes plenty of tempting items available for room delivery. From chowder to chili, turkey-bacon wraps to fish and chips, local sea scallops, salads and a kids' menu.
That night we were able to decipher the beacon patterns from Old Saybrook breakwater and the red blinking light that marks the channel by Duck Island in Westbrook. It's 14 miles across the Sound from this location and the winter wind on the water kept the sky clear across to Connecticut.
From Potatoes to Grapes
Long before the first grape vines were planted on the North Fork, its rich fertile soil attracted potato farmers who moved east when suburban sprawl started to take over the land closer to the New York City. In the 1940s, about 80 percent of all farming on Long Island was dedicated to potatoes, according to potatonewstoday.com.
Potato farming still exists on the North Fork. In fact, North Fork Potato Chips is a thriving business. Farm stands serve many of the local restaurants with fresh vegetables and fruits and season, and the oyster farms ship nationwide. But it's the grapes that are the North Fork's current attraction from a growing number of visitors.
Marcia Simon, CTA, APR, is a Connecticut-based travel writer and advisor. Contact her at email@example.com, on Instagram at friendlygrouptravel, facebook.com/friendlygrouptravel and Twitter @friendsgotravel.
by Marcia Simon, CTA, APR
A trip to the supermarket triggers anxiety, but looking at photos of Caribbean beaches and crystal clear blue waters makes me want to hop a plane and wiggle my toes under a pile of warm golden sand.
How safe is travel at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic continues to soar? We're all tired of COVID; this is not the time to let down your guard. The question is whether or not it is possible to travel safely.
A lot depends on your personal situation, when you want to travel, and how important the trip is. Do you have a compromised immune system due to a medical condition or age? Are you the primary caregiver for a family member? Would you lose needed income if you were unable to work for a month due to illness or quarantine before you could get back to your job?
On the other hand, airlines, airports and hotels appear to be taking every precaution to maintain a clean, sterile, safe environment. And not just for travelers; they are equally concerned about the health of their employees.
Not all destinations provide the same level of protection. Many hotels have reduced occupancy limits, so expect fewer guests. Along with that, anticipate fewer dining choices at resorts known for numerous culinary experiences. Buffets are gone. Masks are required in all public spaces; guidelines vary at pools and on beaches. And assume that nighttime entertainment will be minimized, too. Don’t expect an early check in. It takes longer to sanitize rooms and deep-clean the areas. Most hotels are not cleaning rooms on a daily basis either, so you'll need to make your own bed and clean up after yourself from check-in to check-out, depending on the length of stay. Ask the hotel before you book what their policy is about room occupancy and cleaning.
Destinations outside the US approach entry requirements in different ways. Some mandate proof of a negative COVID test result within 72 hours of arrival. Some require proof of health insurance that covers you while in their country. Rules may change from the time you book your trip and the time you actually travel.
Insuring Your Safety
Aside from protection against lost luggage, accidents and trip interruptions, "Cancel For Any Reason" insurance is a no-brainer today, whether you're booking a trip for next month or two years from now. But not all policies are the same. Some allow you to cancel up to 24 hours before your trip with 100 percent cash refund. Many resorts now include cancellation insurance at no additional cost, giving you a credit for future travel rather than a clean refund. Some policies exclude medical care due to COVID, so make sure you understand the policy to assure you are actually purchasing what you think you are. Insuring your trip is probably more important now than ever before.
So, is it okay to travel?
The answer lies in diligence. If you expect to get away so you can escape the coronavirus, forget that thought. It's not possible now.
Are you willing to mask up and revise your expectations so you can feel a warm breeze on your back, and close your eyes on a lounger submerged in an infinity pool overlooking the most amazingly blue ocean you've ever seen in your life? Run on the beach? Enjoy a fine wine or ice cold beer with the sound of island music as the sun goes down? Would you be happy eating some meals, delivered by room service, on your oceanfront balcony instead of in a dining room?
Hunkering down at home to minimize the risk of leisure travel during a pandemic that can literally kill you makes perfect sense, at least until you've received the two-step vaccine in its entirety. And yet, many people are determined to go and are willing to take the risk if they have already experienced and recovered from COVID-19 and have been shown through testing to carry antibodies, which may offer protection to some degree to themselves if not to others. The waters of COVID are uncharted. Nobody knows anything with certainty.
For those who choose to travel by plane during the pandemic, follow these recommendations from Friendly Group Travel in Westbrook, Connecticut to maximize safety:
1. Choose nonstop flights to reduce exposure to people and surfaces at multiple locations.
2. Pay for an assigned seat and choose a window on the left side of the plane, away from the restroom area. Window seats generally expose you to less contact with other passengers. The left side of the plane usually disembarks more quickly than the right.
3. If at all possible, avoid a checked bag and go with carry-on only. Some airlines have tightened requirements for carry-on sizes to reduce the time passengers juggle carry-on luggage in and out of overhead bins. Confirm this beforehand so you can pack accordingly.
4. Use private ground transportation from the airport to your hotel (some hotels include this now at no additional cost) rather than a shared shuttle.
5. Get "Cancel for Any Reason" (CFAR) insurance at the time you book your trip. Your circumstances may change, or you may become less comfortable about travel as the date gets closer.
6. Check your hotel's policies on occupancy limits, how and how often they clean guest rooms, how long they wait to fill a room between guests and whether room service charges are waived if you decide to eat in your room.
7. This is not a time to look for bargain hotels. Prioritize comfort and safety. Many of the larger hotel chains have trusted safety protocols and sanitation standards you can find on their websites.
NOTE - It is perfectly safe to start planning your next trip now. Get ideas, start dreaming, and enjoy your time at home being an armchair traveler preparing your next adventure.
Marcia Simon is a Connecticut-based travel writer and a travel advisor. Connect by email firstname.lastname@example.org or connect via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
by Marcia Simon, CTA, APR
Everyone needs a summer break, even during COVID-19. Having seen gorgeous photos of Watkins Glen State Park, it’s been on my hiking bucket list, so we loaded up the car on a Sunday morning and headed to the Finger Lakes.
Traveling midweek instead of weekends means fewer crowds, better hotel prices and less traffic on the roads. Our first destination was Mount Morris, NY, where we checked into the Allegiance Bed & Breakfast, a 46-room Greek Revival mansion. Each of eight guest rooms is named for a local historian from the 1800s. The Allegiance B&B itself is named in honor of Francis Bellamy, a neighbor, who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance. Owners Steve and Glenda Luick are transplants from Los Angeles who dreamed of living their retirement years running a B&B where they could enjoy four distinct seasons and lots of country comfort. When they saw the building, they knew instantly that this was their place. What they didn’t know until after they moved in was that their home would ultimately develop a reputation as one of the most haunted houses in the world. The spirits are friendly and make themselves known only occasionally, but never to intentionally frighten anyone.
Steve greeted us, wearing his COVID-safe mask, making sure we were wearing ours, and showed us around before taking us up to our room on the second floor.
This is a great location for hikers who want to spend a day at Letchworth State Park. The B&B is located one mile from the park’s north entrance. There’s not a whole lot to do in the area, especially during COVID times when so much is closed. That’s okay, though. The B&B oozes laidback elegance, and after a short walk into town for a casual dinner, we found that sipping a glass of wine on the front porch was the perfect way to unwind before heading up for a comfy snooze.
Letchworth State Park received the 2015 USA Today Readers’ Choice Award for Best State Park in the United States. It runs about 17 miles from top to bottom on either side of the Genesee River. Aside from the north entrance in Mt. Morris, you can enter the park from the south (Portageville) and west (Castile – the most popular gateway). With 14,000 acres and 66 miles of hiking trails, the Upper and Middle Falls are most popular, and most crowded, so arrive early to enjoy walking while remaining socially distant.
The water level in the Genesee River, due to a hot, dry August, was relatively low. I imagine that in spring after the snowmelt, the park’s 30 waterfalls would be magnificent; autumn’s foliage would be simply breathtaking.
Letchworth State Park is called the mini Grand Canyon of the East. The Genesee River has created a deep gorge bound on either side by cliffs higher than 500 feet in spots. White water rafting through Adventure Calls Outfitters was closed, possibly due to COVID-19 or possibly the fact that the water level was pretty low. Class 1 and 2 rapids make this a perfect activity for families with children or first-time rafters.
You can find overnight accommodations inside the park at the Glen Iris Inn and its affiliated properties, with everything from motel-type cabins to balcony suites overlooking the Middle Falls. Make reservations early because the convenient location attracts tourists. Campsites can be reserved through the park.
Letchworth State Park and Watkins Glen State Park both offer free admission this summer, with a modest parking fee for a full day. Both parks prohibit swimming in the gorges, partly due to safety concerns. Hiking is on well-defined trails high above the waterline. However, both parks have big, clean, family-friendly swimming pools.
Aside from hiking, farming and incredibly bucolic scenery, the Finger Lakes are known for their vineyards, so off we went to explore the wine trail. Canadaigua Lake may have the most well-known wineries. There’s also a wine trail around Cayuga Lake. We headed for Seneca Lake, which has more wineries, almost 70, than any other lake in NY State. We started at the top in Geneva, with plenty of time to hit up three vineyards along the lake on our way down to the village of Watkins Glen at the bottom.
First Stop on the wine trail… Belhurst Castle Winery, Inn and Restaurant (They also produce craft beers) overlooking the lake in Geneva. I was wondering how COVID-safe the tasting would be, but when I walked over to the tasting bar and picked up the menu, I was quickly scolded for not checking in with the host, and reminded that they’d now need to re-sanitize those two seating areas for someone waiting their turn. Oops. OK, no worries. I was happy to see the standard of cleanliness.
Second Stop… Keuka Spring Vineyards in Penn Yan, proud to share their unoaked Seyval Chardonnay, Riesling and ice wines. The Finger Lakes are known for sweet whites, although the dry Riesling was quite nice. Jim at the bar was happy to tell us about the ice wine process. He collected our names and phone numbers for contact tracing, “just in case we need to notify you,” he said. That was reassuring. It was clear that extra space had been added to keep tasting parties (of two) distanced from each other.
Glenora Wine Cellars in Dundee was next, with a restaurant and modernish accommodations overlooking the lake. We were just about 10 meandering minutes away from our destination – Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel at the bottom of Seneca Lake. If you want to stay on the water, this seems like the only choice for Watkins Glen. Because of the state park, there’s a demand for modest motels and camping. The park has 54 electric and 241 non-electric campsites. A few B&Bs seem interesting. This is the only large hotel with a dock for transient boats and indoor/outdoor waterfront dining.
Arriving at Watkins Glen State Park before 8 am the next morning gave us sample time for hiking and photos before the crowds started rolling in around 9:30. For coronavirus safety, the famous Gorge Trail, with 19 waterfalls, is one-way up and then one-way down on the Indian Trail. It’s a good idea. All together it only takes about an hour and a half so we drove the two-minute ride to the other side of the river and hiked the South Rim as well… still getting back to the hotel in time for lunch. (Normally there’s a shuttle that runs between the park’s three entrances, but it’s not operating during COVID-time.) We discovered a small casual restaurant down on the waterfront, the Village Marina, that seems to be a favorite spot for locals. They have sandwiches and salads, plus a full page of local wines by the glass.
Two miles from the hotel is Castel Grisch Winery. Their COVID-safe tasting flight is pre-poured, and you take the five samples outside where there’s plenty of space. Filling out contact tracing forms was required.
All in all, we packed a lot into a four-night getaway, but it never seemed too busy. Driving around on quiet back roads was a real flashback to less complicated times, and just the break I needed to ease the anxieties of the never-ending coronavirus era.
Other places to visit in Watkins Glen:
Schooner True Love –for sailing experiences such as Sails & Ales and Wine & Winds on the Water. Unfortunately, they are not operating this summer due to COVID-19, but you can still buy a T-shirt online to show your support.
Seneca Cheese Company – for artisan cheese, charcuterie, locally crafted wines and beers
Watkins Glen International speedway – “The Glen” is closed for racing this summer due to COVID, but hoping to open to host the October 30 Finger Lakes Beer Festival featuring over 40 New York State breweries, distilleries and cideries.
Marcia Simon, CTA, APR, is a travel advisor, travel writer and publicist. She plans small group and independent journeys as owner of Friendly Group Travel. During COVID-19, she shares safety information and updates. Visit friendlygrouptravel.com or connect at facebook.com/friendlygrouptravel
by Marcia Simon, CTA
After five months of diligent self-protection against the coronavirus and pining for travel, it was time to get away, but where?
From the Connecticut shoreline, it’s a two and a half hour drive to Cape Cod, adding another hour for the forty-mile ride to the tip. This is Provincetown, the Mayflower’s first landing in the New World in 1620 (Yes, the Pilgrims stopped here for five weeks before sailing on to Plymouth. Or so it’s told.)
P-town, as it’s known, is a welcoming haven for artists and the LGBTQ community. Here you can be yourself and feel free… as long as you wear your face mask. Signs are posted regarding the mandate to wear a face covering on Commercial Street, the main tourist strip lined with restaurants, ice cream shops, t-shirt and souvenir stores… as well as colorful nightlife in “normal” times.
As of mid-July, for the most part, bars, night clubs and cabaret shows are closed, although the Crown and Anchor’s popular cabaret show premiered its reopening this month with scaled-down outdoor seating. Numerous art galleries and restaurants are open – with limitations. Curbside take-out is available as well as limited indoor and outdoor dining. Provincetown offers lots of safe-looking restaurant choices that provide ocean views or a clear shot of the activity along Commercial Street. Enjoy patio dining with some of the freshest fish and lobster you’ll find anywhere, or walk up to a take-out stand and grab a comfortable spot on the beach overlooking Mac Millan Public Pier, the meeting place for ferries, fishing boats, and whale-watching tours to Stellwagen National Marine Sanctuary. Provincetown is one of the world’s natural deep water harbors ~ attracting boats of all sizes. Whale watching, fishing and sailboat trips were operating – limited to 50% occupancy as of mid-July 2020. The Pilgrim Monument and Museum, one of the most popular tourist stops offering a magnificent bird’s-eye view – with 116 narrow steps taking you to the top of the tallest all-granite structure in the United States – was closed during my July visit. So was the adjacent Provincetown Museum. Visitor Centers in town and at the National Park were closed as well. However, public restrooms were open and clean.
Because the bars are closed, night life fades early, with many restaurant kitchens closed by 9 pm. Phase 3-Step 1 reopening requires no more than six people at a table in restaurants, so large parties and family groups will be split up. To cut back on surface contamination, most restaurants ask you to scan a QR code either at the hostess station or at your table to download the menu to your phone. If your server sees that you’re sadly tech-deficient, you’ll be offered a paper menu, but shared surfaces in general are out. Ketchup, mustard, salt and pepper are served in single portion packets.
A Note About Lobster Rolls
New Englanders know all about lobster roll preferences. In Connecticut, for instance, a perfect lobster roll is served hot, on a buttered, toasted (or grilled) hot dog bun with a portion of melted butter on the side for dipping. However, in Provincetown, if you don’t specifically ask for a hot lobster roll, you will most likely get a cold lobster salad, very little mayonnaise, and usually with a leaf of lettuce on a hot dog bun. And if you order it hot, there’s a good chance your bun won’t be toasted. Just sayin’.
Exploring the coastline
Parking in P-town can be tight. Walking lets you meander, and offers lots of opportunities to take photos you might otherwise miss. Bicycling is popular, with ample inventory at the local bike shops in and around the town. Because the terrain is basically flat, cycling is easy, and what’s better than bicycling along a long stretch of coastline? The Cape Cod National Seashore has bike paths ideal for families with young children; these are generally protected by the shade of the forest canopy.
The National Seashore is a pristine 40-mile stretch of beautiful sand, dunes and pitch pine forests. We hiked one of the park trails in nearby Wellfleet. The 8.8 mile-loop zig zagged between shady pine-needled forest and sandy beach. While pets are welcome in the park, there are stretches along the beach where the habitat is protected for piping plovers and other endangered species of birds. These are no-pet zones (because dogs tend to scare the birds and disturb their natural environment.)
1. While some of the trails run through a shaded forest, parts take you onto the beach, which is gorgeous, but the sand can be very hot on bare feet, and the sun can feel scorching.
2. It’s easy to access Jeremy’s Point and sandbars during low tide, but the tide comes back in quickly, making for a wet walk back. If you can catch a morning low tide, it would be a great time for a summer hike. This area would be magnificent in autumn’s cooler weather.
We encountered very few people along the hiking trails and, for the most part, were able to keep our face masks in our pockets. Race Point Beach was uncrowded enough to allow for easy social distancing. Walking from the parking lot to the stretch of beach along the narrow sandy path was a bit more trafficked, so masks are recommended for that, but once you’ve staked out your spot, the mask is not necessary if you are comfortable with the safety of your travel companions.
Accessing many hiking trails in the park is free. But if you want to park to access the beach, the fee is $25 per car. We spent a half day at the National Seashore’s Race Point Beach. Umbrellas are highly recommended to protect you from the intense summer sun even when the ocean breeze is blowing. And the water is cold. Very refreshing, but cold.
To Go or Not to Go? Assessing Your Personal Risk
Whether to venture out or stay home is a personal decision, based on your risk factors, overall health and immune system, others in your household who may be high risk, and how careful you will realistically be with safety, masks, sanitizing and social distancing when you're out and about.
Overall, Provincetown seems surprisingly quiet this summer. Even the ride over the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges that cross the Cape Cod Canal from the mainland were delay-free, which is a true rarity. Crowds will likely build through the rest of the summer. Midweek is always less crowded, and lodging less expensive, than weekends.
This was a fun 3-night getaway. Just what I needed to renew my energy. I felt safe – because I was very proactive about my personal safety, social distancing, sanitizing, and wearing a mask in public places. Visitors, residents and people who work in the Provincetown community embrace masks. In fact, the souvenir shops have some pretty unique and fun mask designs. (The t-shirts are great, too.) If you are part of the anti-mask culture, do not go to P-town. Stay away. This is a community that is doing its best to stay safe; if you do not support that, you shouldn’t be there.
If you love long walks on the beach, early mornings on the water, sunsets over the horizon, lobster and an open-minded, nonjudgmental vibe, go and support the economy of a town that relies heavily on tourism.
One waiter, concerned about his own safety while being engaged with customers all evening, summed it up nicely: “Of course we want people to come here. That’s how we make our living. On the other hand, we really don’t want people to come if it increases our risk for coronavirus.”
So wear your mask. Bring sanitizer. It’s a matter of your personal safety and respect for people around you – making your getaway enjoyable and safe. For more information about Provincetown and COVID-19 travel updates, visit:
Marcia Simon, CTA, APR, is a journalist, publicist and travel advisor who gets around as much as possible, and plans small group and independent journeys as owner of Friendly Group Travel. Connect at facebook.com/friendlygrouptravel, twitter @friendsgotravel and Instagram @friendgrouptravel.
by Marcia Simon, CTA, APR
A European river cruise is a bucket list trip for a lot of people and, once hooked, making multiple journeys is quite common. If you’re exploring a river cruise for the first time, there’s a lot of nitty-gritty information that river cruise companies don’t tell you upfront. Working with a travel advisor can save you a lot of time, money and aggravation in the long run.
First of all, there is no “one size fits all” best river cruise company. Some are true luxury, which is fabulous for those who can afford it, but are beyond the budget of most people who travel as a lifestyle. Some river cruises cater to older (aka retired) travelers while others direct their activities to active adults and multigenerational families. There’s also at least one river cruise company that designs the ship, cuisine and itineraries for younger (under 40) travelers who want to hang with people in their millennial age range. So, make sure you choose a cruise directed to your personal interests and demographic.
7 Factors to Consider When Exploring a River Cruise Vacation:
The best way to get great deals on river cruises is to take advantage of early bird and last-minute deals, off-season schedules, and bargaining power of travel advisors who work with a consortium that brings high-volume special perks. Travel advisors keep their radar up for what clients want.
7 Great Things About River Cruising:
Marcia Simon, APR, CTA, is a PRSA-accredited public relations practitioner, and an IATA-accredited travel advisor. Connect through facebook.com/friendlygrouptravel, Instagram @friendgrouptravel or email@example.com.
Marcia Simon, CTA, APR, has been exploring new places since she was 17 years old and traveled around Europe on a Eurailpass with her best friend. Decades later, she still considers travel the best investment of time and money she's ever made for herself and her family.