RIDING UP THE EIFFEL TOWER AND SAILING SMOOTHLY DOWN THE SEINE

There may be no more iconic sight in any city in the world than Le Tour Eiffel. I doubt anyone has ever visited Paris without at least seeing it. Unfortunately, that is all that many can do, without careful planning.

Like many major cities, Paris requires advance thinking. The big attractions in New York, London, Rome and others like those can mean incredibly large crowds. Tourists make casual encounters like the ones in my previous blogs much more diffficult. Sure, you can still turn around and find surprises, but to see the landmarks requires research.

The internet is filled with suggestions on how to “do” sites, with package tours as well as self-guided tours. Yet even if you don’t choose one of those, at least buying an upfront ticket for a specific attraction actually makes sense. Prices are usually no more than a walk-up ticket, but many offer “front-of-the-line” boarding, or even like in the case of the Eiffel Tower, a ride above the rest.

This blog therefore extols the virtues of pre-planning, planning, and reviewing plans – all before you go! When planning our last trip to France, my wife suggested to me that she wanted to be at the top of the Tower when the lights went on at night. SO I pre-purchased a ticket that got all the way up (Sommet) at the time we wanted. When we arrived we saw long lines of tourists just waiting to purchase a ticket; our reservation put us in a different line. On top of that (pun intended), our ticket was to the uppermost deck, which only accomodates a certain amount of people at a time. Others go to the mid-level point only. We were up these when the flickering strobe lights came on, and it is still one of my favorite travel moments of all time.

Planning also helped with our Seine river cruise. Yes, there are dozens of boats to choose from. Some have meals, some have window reserved seats, and some have live music. Ours had all of those, with a five course wine-paired meal. And no, it wasn’t so expensive…we just got what we paid for. And with the exchange rate of the Euro, that’s really saying something. Educate yourself about the offerings in a major city before you go. That means more than making a list of sites to see, it entails comparing offerings from tour operators, reading reviews both good and bad, and even printing hard copies of all reserved activities.

Booking the big attractions means having the clarity of mind to enjoy the smaller surprises on the trip, like cafes with real coffee, or hotels with an employee who walks you right up to your room. One last note: transportation in cities also requires attention, especially in foreign locations where conversing with attendant at train stations means having a good understanding of the language. I have been able to get on a train where I thought it left from, but found getting off a lot more difficult: “How do you get up to street level” is not a phrase I ever want to speak again!

THE “WANDERFUL” WORLD OF DISNEY

I’m a planner. Whether it’s my daily “to-do” list, my grocery list (which has now migrated to Alexa), or my travel plans, I really enjoy it. Looking ahead and planning is half the fun. Sometimes it’s even more than half the fun! Yet I’ve always found that “hidden” treasures can be the most memorable parts of any trip.

Walt Disney World and its sister parks, here and abroad, offer opportunities beyond those “must-do” rides and shows that can be found in any of the dozens of guidebooks out there. For most first timers, a plan is mandatory, if only to be sure to catch the attractions that your kids, or grandkids, are longing to enjoy. All families will come home after that right-of-passage trip to face the same type of question from those who have gone before: “Did you ride (insert one of about ten big rides here)?”

Going on the premier rides isn’t just for first-timers either. My wife and I continue to do some attractions nearly every visit, and living in Florida means lots of visits. She loves The Haunted Mansion, I join Jose and his Tiki Bird friends to sing “like the birdies sing” at least every other visit. We also anxiously anticipate new rides from the first rumors on the internet fan sites till we can line up within those first few weeks of opening.

But hidden amongst the classic rides and shows are those hidden experiences just awaiting discovery. Do you NEED to look for them? No, they will be looking for you, so you only need to tune your senses to hear and see them. For example, as others stare down Main Street USA to Cinderella Castle upon arrival at the Magic Kingdom, look sideways and marvel at the storefronts that call up the early 1900s. On one side street an artist makes silhouette cutouts in the middle of a street full of flower carts and wrought iron benches. Stop for 5 minutes and either watch the pictures unfold, or sit for one yourself. In our age of digital photos, this experience provides a souvenir from another time.

While everyone must walk down Main Street USA, after that, the crowds tend to head down the main struts of the hub, the center of the park, towards the seven themed lands. Do that to get the perspective of the layout, but keep your eye open for those back pathways, like the one that exists behind The Christmas Shop in Liberty Square. It leads past a pretty gazebo that often hosts a character like Peter Pan or Princess Tiana, ready for quick greetings. It also opens to views of Adventureland’s real inhabitants…ducks and swans lazily floating down the stream under the bridge ahead. Kids love seeing these real animals amongst the many Audio-Animatronics (Disney for robots) around the park.

The word itself “hidden” at Disney takes on a special meaning when you combine it with Mickey. Spread throughout all the Disney parks are “hidden Mickeys” – those three little rings that align to form the structure of the mouse’s head. They can be painted, or made of metal or wood in a restaurant, along one of those pathways previously mentioned, or even in the middle of a ride like the Living with the Land boat ride at Epcot. My grandson can recall exactly where he’s seen some even after months away from that spot! Those are magical memories.

Disney cast members, as all employees are called, often provide the best unexpected happiness. Whether at an attraction entrance, a gift shop, or even while strolling toward an attraction, stop and chat with a cast member. With their name and their hometown on their badge, it is easy to strike up a question. Even the person cleaning up the street knows more Disney trivia than you’d ever think. They are all so proud of Walt’s creation, a little conversation will leave a bigger impression on you than some of the more famous rides you might enjoy.

Wandering and keeping your senses about you is so easy at Disney, probably because you are so transported to the relaxing environment continued within its berms. Just be sure to stick that “to-do” list in your back pocket at times, and I’ll promise you unique memories from your trip.

DIVING DEEP INTO CAYMAN

Grand Cayman became my favorite spot in the Caribbean as soon as I first stepped onto Seven Mile Beach. The texture of that white sand together with the azure color of that water was exactly my idea of perfection. Yet it was below that water that truly elevated my experience there. More on that later.

Grand Cayman is situated in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, just south of Cuba. It is part of the British West Indies, and as such, a genteel spirit permeates the island. The people are friendly, the town of Georgetown is safe (although expensive) for shopping, and the culture seems authentic.

On my first stay, those features were all I desired for my days. Although Cayman offered many adventures, I chose to enjoy the sway of the palms, and the hours of sun to improve my tan. That’s all many visitors desire from a Caribbean vacation after all. What “ups” the experience here is the food, as the fresh seafood is abundant, from Grouper to Lionfish the choices are many.

A stay on Seven Mile Beach for me meant a condo right on the beachfront. After many years at the Coral Stone Club, we moved to The Beachcomber. Both provided excellent rooms, service and amenities like waterfront pools. Both spots are close to my favorite restaurant, Luca, with outdoor dining on exquisite Italian food. Condos compete with luxury hotels, and Luca competes with many fine dining spots. Everything comes at a high price, often because the value of the Cayman dollar adds 20% to purchases with US dollars.

It was on my second visit that I decided to try the sport that many come here for – Scuba Diving. Red Sail Sports, among others, offer training and tours right from the hotels on the beach. I was attracted for one reason: “Thunderball”, my favorite James Bond movie, spent much of its screen time underwater. I jumped at the chance to don a wetsuit (black, not orange like Sean Connery’s one in the movie) and play out my fantasy. Well, even with a short 45 minutes, I got all the adventure I wanted and more: colorful tropical fish, and a shipwreck too. I came up exhilarated and exhausted, my favorite combination of feelings.

Sure, there are many other excursions and sights on the island, but my memories are always at their peak with that dive. It was something I wanted to do, no – needed to do, to make going to Cayman a vital part of my life when looking back. It crackles my mind with excitement whenever I think about going back.

That’s what you want, some experience that takes you above and beyond. Look for that one thing on your next trip. You needn’t be a Super Spy to get the feeling you conquered the world, just act like one!

TRAVELING DURING COVID

As I write this, it has been six months since my wife and I returned from our last foray – a “Disney Date” at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Just two days ago we finally returned there. Six months of semi-isolation due to the Covid 19 pandemic. Yet, we were lucky throughout – no symptoms and a pair of negative test results just a few weeks ago. So how did I make it through those months without distant travel?
Halfway through, we just needed to “get away”, so we headed to MargaritaVille Orlando for a mini-vacation. It felt so good to get outside, swimming and sunning while socially distancing. Birthdays and anniversaries were celebrated low-key.
A hotel stay at that time required giving up some fancy restaurant, and thoughtfully navigating through the hotel lobby. Even a dip in the pool meant always being aware of the surrounding crowds.
Next up was a carefully-planned drive to Saratoga Springs, New York – not for vacation but for a two week isolation prior to visiting my son’s family in New Jersey. We had a vacant home where we could do that. In the past, we would have visited the historic thoroughbred track, or caught a concert at the Performing Arts Center. Not this trip…the ultimate purpose precluded the pleasures of the past. Even the family visit was changed – we rented a cabin with my son’s family to provide another layer of isolation. Beach and backyard were the daily routines. Amazing how much fun can be had without tv and Internet!
In October, we thought it would be quiet enough at the beaches in Florida, so we found a small Inn where we could walk right onto the beach for spaced-apart fun with the grandkids, and enough outdoor dining locations with safety precautions.
In the last few weeks, we filled time at home, with sewing for my wife and puzzles for me. Time for real travel is still months off, with a vaccine on its way. So those months before are now happy memories instead of doom and gloom. It’s all about recalling the best, while forgetting the worst. Memories are your mind’s way of traveling back through the good times.