Category Archives: tours

A Walk on Florida’s Wild Side: The Nature Coast

Florida is divided into various “coasts.” There’s the Space Coast at the Kennedy Space Center/Port Canaveral area. There’s the Palm Coast by Palm Beach. There’s the Emerald Coast on the panhandle. And then there’s the Nature Coast that stretches from Clearwater to Ochlocknee Bay on the Gulf side.  Here is “old Florida” at its best. Spanish moss drapes from live oak trees,  endangered Gopher tortoises wander the streets, and life moves at a slower pace. And manatees live here, too.

Floirda travel with manatees

One of the many resident manatees at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park

Florida travel by Susan McDaniel Travel

Wandering endangered gopher tortoises outnumber the traffic lights

For the tourist, this is the only place in the country where you can swim with manatees. In the dead of summer you can also scallop by snorkeling in shallow waters and catching the tasty crustaceans. And you can visit the Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park.

Florida travel by Susan McDaniel Travel

Welcome to the Wildlife Park

The park has an underwater observatory on a manatee viewing platform in the main spring. You can watch the several manatees that live here in the summer months.  In the winter, though, hundreds congregate here for the warm spring waters. Various tour operators throughout the area arrange snorkel trips to swim with them at any time of year. Check in Crystal River as well as Homosassa. Wandering the park, though, you will see manatees slip through the water at various locations.

Florida travel by Susan McDaniel Travel

The underwater observatory is in the center of the viewing platform

Other animals in the park are mostly native Florida residents. I’m not sure how a hippo joined the group, but Lu the hippo is a crowd-pleaser!

Florida travel by Susan McDaniel Travel

Hippos are obviously not native to Floirda but we love her anyway!

It wouldn’t be a Florida wildlife park without ‘gators. And there are lots of big specimens to oooh and ahhh over. All are securely located behind a fence, as far as we know. A reptile house showcases native snakes, too.

Florida travel by Susan McDaniel Travel

Enough said!

All of the birds on display here are in some way unable to survive in the wild. Flamingoes, pelicans (both white and brown), hawks, owls, and bald eagles all live here. Other wild birds flock to the area of their own accord. From swans to anhingas, to migrating and resident songbirds, you might be surprised at every turn.

Florida travel by Susan McDaniel Travel

Flamingoes aren’t native to Florida but they are an iconic Florida image

It’s just a fun family kind of place that you shouldn’t miss on a visit to Florida.

Florida travel by Susan McDaniel Travel

Channeling my manatee persona

Florida travel by Susan McDaniel Travel

Homosassa Springs is crystal clear

The springs in this area produce an amazing amount of water. It is where Zepherhills Spring water is bottled.  All kinds of sport fish gather at the springs, too. Those are snook in the picture, above. The park also contains a gift shop and small cafe. It takes a few hours to fully travel the entire park, and you can expect crowds in the winter. Why not come during the summer when you can scallop, too?

Florida travel and manatees

The manatees swim all over the springs

This side trip makes a perfect pre- or post- cruise adventure if you are departing out of Tampa, Florida, too.  When you want to play with the manatees, give me a call at 561-841-2224,  e-mail me at susan@susanmcdanieltravel.com or do some research on your own at www.susanmcdanieltravel.com . I’ll be happy to tell you all the insider secrets you need to enjoy a wonderful experience on Florida’s Nature Coast. It’s one of my favorite places.

Hint: Don’t enter the park off of US 19!

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Do’s and Don’t of New York City

More cruise lines than in the past are using New York City as a departure port. The opportunity to discover New York City before or after your cruise, or anytime, gives rise to some do’s and don’t associated with NYC adventure.

1.) Do give yourself more than one day to explore this vibrant city if you can manage to do so.

Don’t miss the chance to spend even one day here if that is all you have available to you.

New York City travel by Susan McDaniel Travel

A beautiful overview of the city from the Empire State Building

2.) Do fly into Newark, NJ if it is cheaper for you than flying into La Guardia. It is easy to get from Newark to Penn Station in NYC via NJ Transit.

Don’t even think about using Amtrak for this short jaunt!

3.) Do plan on seeing the Empire State Building first thing. It will give you perspective and a beautiful overview of the city.

Don’t buy the tickets there! Purchase them ahead of time and cut your wait time in half. I can get tickets for you.

New York City travel by Susan McDaniel Travel

Your destination looms

4.)  Do have lunch in one of the many Irish pubs.

Don’t rush. And don’t stick to your diet, either.

New York City travel by Susan McDaniel Travel

Have lunch at one of the many Irish pubs

5.)  Do dress comfortably and wear sneakers. You will be walking everywhere.

Don’t wear sandals or your blisters will have blisters. Trust me. I know these things.

New York City travel by Susan McDaniel Travel

I loved playing tourist in New York City

6.)  Do stop and have an afternoon cocktail.

Don’t let your cousin talk you into having it at the St. Regis unless you don’t want to be able to afford to eat for a week. Although the Bloody Mary’s are legendary, and delicious.

New York City travel by Susan McDaniel Travel

The bar at the St. Regis, NYC

New York City travel by Susan McDaniel Travel

The drinks are delicious but the bill will knock you over! That’s my cousin. His idea, our bill.LOL 

7.)   Do drop by the New York Public Library.

New York City travel bu Susan McDaniel Travel

5th Ave. and the New York City Public Library

Don’t expect Rockefeller Center to be very impressive unless it is the dead of winter,  the Christmas tree is up, and the ice rink is in use.

New York City travel by Susan McDaniel Travel

Rockefeller Center iin the middle of summer

Rockefeller Center, in New York City.

Rockefeller Center, in New York City. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

8.)   Do enjoy Midtown and save the other areas like the World Trade Center, Wall Street, Chinatown and more for another day.

Don’t think you can see it all.

New York City travel by Susan McDaniel Travel

Looking uptown from the Empire State Building

9.)   Do plan to come back at a later date.

And don’t forget to book your cruise, too. Cunard has the Queen Mary 2 sailing roundtrip  from NYC to St. Thomas, St. Lucia, Dominica, Barbados and St. Kitts departing December 22, 2012. Other itineraries by other cruise lines are also available. Call me at 561-841-2224 or e-mail at susan@susanmcdanieltravel.com for  information and schedules.

Willemstad, Curacao: Do You Think it’s a Successful Mix of Old and New?

Willemstad, Curacao: Is it old? Is it new? Is it a successful mixture of the two?

Royal Dutch/Shell Company built one of the world’s biggest refineries on the island of Curacao to refine Venezuelan oil. After all, Venezuela is only 35 miles away. The influx of refinery workers from around the globe created a diverse and lively population, a mix of many cultures and races. Then tourism grew and the resultant growth created a mix of colonial treasures and modern attractions. Cutting-edge shopping, entertainment, and dining live side-by-side with historical reminders of the island’s legacy of changing colonial rule. Integrating all of these changes has been a challenge. Look at these pictures and see if you think the integration has been successful.

Lovely pastel Curacao and a great place for people watching on the waterway

Pastel Dutch-colonial buildings house luxury jewelers and designer retail stores

Cruise ships stay in port late enough for dinner ashore or a casino visit

Cruise ships stay in port late enough for dinner ashore or a casino visit at the ultra- modern resort complex right next to ancient Fort Amsterdam

New resort infinity pool in front of colonial fort and historic buildings

The resort’s infinity pool in front of colonial Fort Amsterdam

Modern cruise ship docked by centuries old fort

Cruise ships dock right in Willemstad too. Notice the fort in the foreground.

Ancient Curacao fort in shadow of Caribbean style skyscraper

Fort Amsterdam in the shadow of one lone Caribbean version of the skyscraper

Crystalline waters against a backdrop of wastewater treatment plants and landfills

Curacao’s crystalline waters exist against a backdrop of wastewater treatment plants, landfills, and oil refineries

Curacao port area

Curacao’s modern port area, designed to look colonial

Great port area to shop and relax

The relaxing port area is adjacent to the neon-enhanced ultra-chic resort/casino complex

Do you think the integration of old and new was a success in Willemstad? As a cruise ship visitor you will love the easy access to many great points of interest, all an easy stroll from the ship.  Still, the contrasts of Curacao are not subtle. But the sometimes jarring juxtapositions do not detract from the fairy- tale feel of the historic area, or the energy that exudes from the island. You’ll have a great time here whether by cruise ship or a land vacation.

Contact me at 561-841-2224 or e-mail at susan@susanmcdanieltravel.com to arrange your next vacation to the Caribbean. This area is my specialty and I will see that your trip is custom designed for you. Start your planning at www.susanmcdanieltravel.com .

Are You a Pirate at Heart? Find Out in St. Thomas

Start at the top in St. Thomas, USVI. There are lots of ways to do this, but if you think you might be a pirate at heart, start at Blackbeard’s Castle, high above the harbor. Whether you take a tour or take a taxi, chances are you will stop at the overlook on the way to Blackbeard’s. In one direction you will see the cruise ships at dock in Charlotte Amalie; in the other, you will gaze out to the azure sea. (If a man holding a donkey is charging you five dollars “donation” for a picture, then you are in the right place. He says the “donation” is for the ASPCA, but the ASPCA should really rescue the donkey. )

Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, USVI

Looking away from the dock area, Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas

Carry onwards and upwards to Blackbeard’s hangout. This locale has two pools, spacious changing rooms, chaise lounges, and a bar and restaurant, too. The expansive view is just more booty. They make delicious flavored rums here now, so take the tour and taste all of the varieties. Afterwards, you will be in fine spirits to climb the lookout tower and do all of the fun, touristy, pirate-themed photo ops available.

I get into trouble everywhere I go!

Climb to the top of Blackbeard’s lookout tower for a great view

Now begins the descent down the 99- steps from the hilltop to the shopping district below. In between you will pass beautiful historic homes (many with docents giving talks on early island life), bountiful gardens, and statues commemorating various events in St. Thomas’s past. It’s a gradual descent. The 99 steps are not all together in one long staircase!

At the Statue of the Virgins you are one-third of the way down the 99-steps. You can see Blackbeard’s lookout tower in the background on the hilltop.

When you laugh your way to nearly street level (a function of the rum, no doubt), you’ll be ready for the cool oasis of the Amber Museum. The Amber Waterfall welcomes you, and inside you’ll learn about amber from all over the world. Did you know real amber floats in saltwater? It also smells like pine if you hit it with a hot needle. There is apparently a lot of fake amber on the market.  I never knew it came in so many colors! The blue-green is especially beautiful, and you can purchase a piece to take home here.

The Amber Waterfall at the Amber Museum

Then it’s off to shop in St. Thomas’s world-class duty-free shopping district. You will land right in the middle of it at the end of your 99- step tour. I suggest seeking out the Belgian Chocolate store in the little mall. You are also very close to the ferry that can whisk you back to your cruise ship if it is docked at Crown Bay instead of right downtown. Take your sword, your eye patch, your pirate hat, and your bottle of authentic island rum and mosey on back to your own sailing ship, just as Blackbeard did hundreds of years ago.

Your sailing ship awaits

As you leave St. Thomas to a picture perfect sunset, make plans to return. This island never fails to provide a fun time. I’ll tell you about other adventures in future blog posts. You can start planning your own St. Thomas getaway by land or sea at www.susanmcdanieltravel.com . Then contact me at 561-841-2224 or susan@susanmcdanieltravel.com to finalize your trip details.  The United States Virgin Islands are a national treasure. Even Blackbeard recognized that fact.

Leaving St. Thomas and another perfect cruise day! See you again soon

Eden and Satan Meet at Dominica’s Botantical Gardens

“Don’t touch the fruit of the Cannon Ball Tree! It smells like ‘Satan’s feces.’ ” This statement is the most vivid memory I have of our visit to Dominica’s Botanical Gardens. The warning was delivered in the lilting sing-song voice of our tour guide, and it was met with a resounding round of laughter from our group. But we all steered clear of the Cannon Ball Tree fruit. I did wonder what Satan’s feces smelled like, and how anyone would know, but I wasn’t quite curious enough to find out.

The Cannon Ball Tree

Don’t go near the fruit of the Cannon Ball Tree

The Botanical Gardens lie just outside Roseau, at the base of Morne Bruce, which is the mountain overlooking the town. On our cruise ship tour we had only a fleeting glimpse of the gardens. On another trip, we would spend many hours there exploring. The plantings are extensive, and a captive breeding program provides close up views of the endangered Sisserou and Jacko Parrots. It makes for a perfect picnic spot, as well as a convenient and relaxing stop for birdwatchers visiting Dominica. The plantings encourage a diverse array of birds to visit, so bring your binoculars and listen closely to their songs.

Ficus at Dominica Botanical Gardens

Aerial ficus roots, Dominica Botanical Gardens

The Spiny Bamboo House was an interesting topiary. We were told it was sometimes used for weddings, anniversaries, and other celebrations. We wondered if “other celebrations” included island “religious” ceremonies. Various forms of voodoo (for lack of a better word) are reportedly still practiced in certain areas of this portion of the Caribbean. The bamboo house’s spooky quality was not lost on us.

Bamboo House

The bamboo house is used for celebrations and events

The national tree/flower of Dominica is called the Bwa Kwaib. It sports prolific crimson blooms in the spring, but only after shedding all of its leaves. It was chosen to represent this country because it thrives under the harshest conditions, just like Dominica.

Dominica's National Tree

The Bwa Kwaib tree blooms after all its leaves are lost

According to Frommer’s, the Gardens were established initially to provide Dominica’s farmers with crop diversification. London’s Kew Gardens provided exotic plant seedlings from every tropical outpost to determine what would grow well in Dominica’s climate and soil. The result: everything grew well here.

On your next cruise stop at Dominica, consider a walk to the Botanical Gardens, or take a quick taxi ride there. Pick up a few beers and sandwiches in town and enjoy a nice picnic lunch. The lack of beaches on this island is quite overcome by its incredible natural beauty. I would first encourage a trip to the many waterfalls, rivers, lakes, or the rainforest. If, however, you decide to stay close to Roseau, these Gardens can transport you to a beautiful, tranquil, relaxing Garden of Eden. Just don’t be tempted by the fruit of the Cannon Ball Tree.

Contact me at susan@susanmcdanieltravel.com or 561-841-2224 to plan your trip to Dominica. Or visit my website at

www.susanmcdanieltravel.com  and use the tools there to explore any destination you choose. Travel begins with a dream, and I make dreams reality.

Four Tips to Make the Most of Your Cruise Vacation

Here are four tips to make the most of every moment of your cruise vacation!

A Pre-Cruise Stay

Pre-cruise stays and tours in the departure city are a great way to arrive early for your cruise, get into the spirit of your escape, and start your cruise refreshed. You can also book a tour the day before your cruise, or even the morning of departure. Get to know the departure city. It might be Miami, Fort Lauderdale, New York, San Diego, or San Juan.  All are great tourist destinations, not just departure ports. Miami Beach can prime you for that Caribbean vacation with its beachy, playful, fun vibe.

Miami Beach is a great pre-cruise destination

Departure city tours and pre-cruise stays can be booked through either your cruise line or several wonderful tour companies.  Contact me at susan@susanmcdanieltravel.com for a complete rundown on what’s available to you

There is no rush to arrive at the port on embarkation day. Boarding lines can be long and people can get testy;  that’s not the ideal way to start your vacation. It may be better to spend a few hours enjoying the sights of your departure city rather than waiting in line at the cruise terminal. Now that’s a good way to make the most of your cruise.  

 

Take Advantage of Things to do On Board

Once on board, be sure to read the “ships log” that arrives in your cabin each evening. This “log” lets you make the most of your time onboard by announcing the events for the following day. You’ll want to know when that first run movie in the theatre is scheduled to start; what band is playing in your favorite bar; the menu for the cooking demonstration; where the Scrabble contest, the Karaoke sing-offs, or the Toga party is being held; or what the Bingo Jackpot is worth. Even if you don’t think you might enjoy something, just stop by and see what you think. Memories of these events, and the people in them, are sometimes what linger longest after the cruise is over. And memories make the most of your cruise.

Bingo

The bingo games onboard have huge jackpots

Doing It All in Port

Once your itinerary is established, but before you even leave home, check out the available tours and shore excursions.

The tours and excursions offered by the cruise line are usually great, but they are not your only alternatives for onshore experiences.  Ask your travel agent for recommendations (my blog is devoted mostly to reviewing shore excursions for you) and peruse travel guides and online sites to familiarize yourself with the attractions at each destination. Then you can customize your own travel experience in each port, should you decide to do so. Attending the port information lectures onboard can actually alert you to where NOT to go if you are looking for an authentic experience rather than one orchestrated by the cruise line.

St. Lucia aerial tram tour

You would miss the natural beauty of most islands without a shore excursion or tour

Whether you decide to use the scheduled tours or develop your own really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you get off of the ship and enjoy each port you visit to make the most of your cruise. I am a great believer in shore excursions.

 

Post Cruise Stays

A post-cruise stay helps ease you back into reality.  It may help you make good flight connections for a leisurely trip home, too.  If you are flying a long way to meet the ship you should optimize the time and expense of the trip and add on a few days to enjoy the city of disembarkation. Why not see Disney World when you are in Florida? Or jaunt around Rome? After all, you never know when you might be passing that way again.

Cinderella's Castle at Disney World

You’re going to be in Florida anyway. Why not visit Disney World?

 

Cruising is an exciting, affordable, and relaxing way to vacation. But be a participant in your own getaway. Take advantage of the pre-cruise tours, the onboard fun, the port activities, a post-cruise stay, and other opportunities to make the most of your cruise.

 

An insider tip for those of you who have read this far: When driving to catch a cruise ship or flight, remember this tip.

Many hotels near cruise ports and airports allow you to leave your car in their parking lot for the duration of your vacation if you stay there before your cruise or flight. You can save hundreds of dollars in parking or taxi fees with this perk. Think of it as a free night to unwind before your trip!  Contact me at susan@susanmcdanieltravel.com or 561-841-2224 to plan all of the details of your next cruise or land vacation.

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