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We’re funny (usually), controversial (sometimes) and insightful (always!). Our travel experts share their experiences below in hopes of hearing back from YOU. So read, comment and enjoy!

Posts in ‘Family, Kids & Senior Travelers’

Downton Abbey Country Location Tour

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Highclere Castle

The movies and travel and tourism are becoming inextricably entwined. One would say the two industries are almost symbiotic. Where movie-makers go, it seems that tour and travel operators are quick to fill bus loads of folks and show them ‘the scene.’

From Braveheart to the Da Vince Code new tourist trails are being blazed in the UK. Now it is the turn of the global hit TV series, Downton Abbey to get in on the act. The series has inspired fans to go traipsing through picturesque Oxfordshire villages and down a pint at rural pubs. So great is the demand of Downton Abbey fans to follow in the footsteps of the aristocratic Crawley family and their staff that tours by one or two companies are sold out for the 2013 season!

The Downton Abbey Country Location tours are very comprehensive. They are generally of three days duration. They take visitors to Dower House, home of Cousin Violet aka Maggie Smith, Swan Inn, Downton Hospital, and the pub at Kirkbymoorside. The tour buses play excerpts and episodes of the series more or less relating to the location you will be visiting – just so that your memory is refreshed on the locations and characters.

You have to remember that though the setting for the fictional Downton Abbey is Yorkshire, many of the key film locations are not actually in that county. Highclere Castle is in Hamphire and used for all the exterior shots and most of the interior scenes. The exterior shots were taken in the picturesque village of Bampton in Oxfordshire, including St Mary’s Church. World War I battle scenes, in France, were filmed in the Suffolk countryside.

Haxby Park (featuring in the second season) is actually Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire and Greys Court, Oxfordshire was used as the family’s secondary property mentioned in the third series. Another historical mansion featuring in the series is Lincoln Castle, just south of York, where the prison scenes were filmed.

So if you are a Downton Abbey addict you could sip afternoon tea and stroll in the beautiful gardens of the elegant homes that feature so prominently in the movies.
 

Image credit: zen whisk

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Travelling in Prague by Bike

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Prague Bike Tour

Prague or Praha is one gorgeous city. It is one of Europe’s oldest and most attractive cities.  While many of its landmarks and architectural highlights have yet to become household names, their splendour and beauty are on par with some of their better known cousins.

One of the most interesting ways to see the “city of hundred spires” and its surroundings is by travelling around on a bike. With about 93 kilometres of bicycle trails, the whole city is yours to pedal around. Prague is a very bicycle friendly city, which makes it the ideal mode of sightseeing.

The variety and number of bike trails means that you will get great views, interesting and different perspectives and great accessibility to the marvellous sights of Prague. It is also a quick and convenient mode of getting around and gives you the freedom others don’t.

It is really easy to hire a bicycle and also relatively inexpensive. There are plenty of bike rental shops in Prague. They are generally found in and around the tourist hotspots and information centres. Hiring a bike can cost you between CZK 200 to CZK 500 a day. The price varies depending on the type and sophistication of the bike you want.

To make cycling more popular and encourage people to use this form of transportation bikes can be transported, free of charge, on the metro, ferries and (at specified times) on trams.  Cycles are also transported for free on PID trains. The Czech Railways also offer a bike rental option at select train stations.

You can travel in Prague and its immediate surroundings on a bike by yourself – armed with a map of course. You can pick up good maps from the Information Centres. These maps have colour-coded routes that take you to all the different tourist sites and landmarks in Prague.  They are an excellent reference resource and guide.

The other option is to join up with a guided tour – and there are many operators. The organised tours are not very much more expensive than just hiring a bike. The main advantages to the guided tours are you save a lot of time getting around; you get to see highlights via the easiest routes and avoid many strenuous uphill tracks.

Whichever choice you make or however many days you travel in Prague on a bicycle be sure to take in the famous and interesting sites of this lovely city. Here is a list for you to consider.

•    Municipal House & Powder Gate
•    Estate & National Theatre
•    The Dancing House & Panoramic River Views of Prague
•    Mala Strana or 'Lesser Town'
•    Wenceslas Square
•    John Lennon Wall
•    Kampa Park
•    Charles Bridge
•    Rudolfinum
•    Josefov
•    Astronomical Clock & Old Town
•    Prague Castle
•    Letna Park
•    Along the Vltava River
•    Royal Gardens
•    Petrin Park
•    Jewish Quarter
 

Image credit: Opu Pet

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What to know about Venice Gondola Rides

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Venice Gondola Ride

We’ve all seen the movies and pictures and are aware of the romantic power of a gondola ride on the canals of Venice. The enchantment of the experience changes the girl’s mind…‘and they live happily ever after.’ Beguiling, enchanting, romantic, magical etc, are standard adjectives to describe a tour of Venice in a gondola. It is a must-do thing.

True a Venice gondola ride is maybe that or maybe more but there are some practical things you need to know before you get on one of them. Some of these pointers may be a bit of an eye opener for you.

There was a time when about 10,000 gondolas plied the canals of Venice carrying goods and passengers across and around the city. Today there are roughly 400 of them and they are primarily used to ferry tourists. Though the number of gondolas is seemingly small the routes are limited. So you could find yourself in a prow to stern gaggle of gondolas – a veritable traffic jam!

The gondolas of today are all painted black as per the city’s regulations. However, many of them have colourful, individualistic and ornate decorations with comfortable seats, cushions and blankets.

The gondoliers have to wear a uniform of sorts, which are black pants, a striped (generally black and white) shirt and closed dark shoes. They also have a special hat but very often they don’t wear it. I suppose many a hat has been whipped off the gondolier’s head by the wind.

Not all gondoliers can sing nor are they required to. Some do but you may be disappointed by the results. Also it would be pretty hard to hear them over the chatting of your co-passengers and the calling and shouting among the other gondoliers. The night rides, though could be better for the singing. Some of them will give you information on the bridges and palaces of Venice as you pass them by.

Venice gondola rides are between 20 and 40 minutes duration. They also seat six people so if you are thinking ‘exclusive’ and romantic forget it as you will be sharing the boat with others.

The Grand Canal is perpetually crowded so take a ride along the quieter back canals, away from the more touristy places. It will give you a different view of Venice and a much better experience. Actually the smaller canals (you can touch the walls of the palazzos) will give you the feel of what makes Venice – Venice.

To hire a gondola to take you on the quieter routs look for one away from the main streets and the Grand Canal. If you have a particular route or places in mind then discuss it (and the price) clearly with the gondolier before you sit down.

Getting back to the singing gondoliers, several tour companies arrange a 40-minute Gondola Ride and Serenade. The glitch is that there is not one singer for each gondola. They travel in groups. Several gondolas will be listening to the same singer/musician as you glide along.  Another drawback is that you will be sharing the gondola with other people. So, maybe your Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn moment may not be the same.

The trickiest part is the fare. Gondola rides and fares are regulated. The standard day time 40 minute ride costs €80. The night ones are €100. However, you will be very lucky if you ever get one for those rates. Haven’t met or heard anyone who got a ride at the official rates.

This piece is not intended to turn you off a Venice gondola ride. You have to do it, no question. Just don’t go in starry-eyed.
 

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Aguamar Water Park, Ibiza

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Aguamar Water Park

Ibiza is blessed with many beautiful sandy beaches and the glorious azure waters of the Western Mediterranean Sea lap its shores. So you have to ask yourself, what earthly reason could there be for spending a rather expensive day at a water park? The answer, for me at least, is that this Ibiza attraction is for the kids and young adults. And it has several conveniences that make for a pleasant (or exciting) day.

The park has a wide variety and levels of water slides and pools that will keep you occupied.  The Aguamar Waterpark has seven series of water slides for older children and adults.  Some are fairly regular in that they are straight and are a relatively gentle ride down. Then there are the water spewing, scream-inducing fast, twisty slides with unexpected corners that have you spinning around with your heart in your mouth.

They even have names for them, which are pretty indicative of what the slide has in store for you.  Judge for yourself – The Kamikazee, The Black Hole, The Spiral, Rio Ventura and Spiro Tubo – and ride. Then there are several gentler, smaller slides for the little ones. Just in case hurtling down a slide on your rear only to end up in a crazy frothy wet splash is not your idea of having fun, then you could just float or stroke around in the swimming pool.

The add-ons that give the Waterpark little edge over beach is the excellent bar and a cafeteria with a fairly interesting menu choice. A great thing (and a money-saver) is that they allow you to bring in your own lunch or snacks.

Another enticement that the park offers is that your ticket is valid for the whole day. That means you can wander off into Ibiza town or walk down to the beach and return later without having to pay admission again.

There is one hidden cost though that is not mentioned anywhere or told to you at the time you buy your ticket or enter the gates. After you have spent a couple of hours in the facility a member of the staff will approach you and charge you €2.50 for every sun bed you have taken! If you have gone with the family then it could seriously lighten the wallet. So be warned.

Taking all this into account, the Aguamar Waterpark is a great place to spend half a day and give the kids a good time.
 

Image credit: shelly-jo

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Touring Brussels’ Chocolate District

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Brussels Chocolate

Strolling through Brussels’ city centre on the chocolate trail has got to be one of the sweetest (pun fully intended) experiences of your life. Be prepared to have your sweet tooth totally saturated. Locally chocolate is often referred to as “Le Chocolat, L'Or Noir Des Bruxellois” or Chocolate, the Black Gold of the People of Brussels. The chocolate guided tour is a rather unique way to see and experience this self-proclaimed ‘chocolate capital of the world.

It is not all about titillating your mouth and filling up on the sinfully good stuff. If you take the four hour Brussels Walking and Chocolate Workshop Tour you will see and learn about the chocolate making process, the history of chocolate and even get to make some yourself under the guidance of a "Master Chocolatier". The tours generally take you to some of the premier chocolate shops in Brussels. A part of the tour experience is the free tasting of chocolate samples.

This is also pretty good tour because you see a whole lot of Brussels’ historical landmarks too including some very pretty art noveau houses. The old historic city centre of Brussels is livened up by the iconic and famous statute of Manneken Pis (Little Man Pee).

The statute, made from bronze, is part of a fountain depicting a naked little boy peeing into the basin. It was sculpted by Hiëronymus (Jerome) Duquesnoy and installed in 1618 or 1619. It is amazing how many folks from all over the world come to this see chubby little fellow and photograph his non-stop urinating. There will be lots of giggles! Oh yes replicas of the 2 foot tall boy can be found cast in chocolates and lollipops.

Just around the corner from little Mannekin is the Grand Place or Brussels’ central square. The area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is enclosed by the Town Hall, The Breadhouse (King’s House) and a number of Guildhalls. Begun around the late 11th century with buildings being added at intervals, it was rebuilt after being destroyed by artillery fire in the 1700s. The Square, today, is a mix of Gothic, Baroque and Louis XIV styles. How it attained its current attraction despite the architectural mish-mash is a wonder.

Getting back to the chocolates… two stops are a must. One is a visit to Brussels’ oldest chocolate shop the Neuhaus. Started by Jean Neuhaus in 1857, they are the inventors of the praline or chocolate bonbon. The company is now a manufacturer of luxury chocolates, biscuits and ice-cream and the shop is bound to make your mouth water. If you make purchases here be ready to have your wallet emptied or credit card dented.

The other stop is the delightful Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate. They give you a history lesson on the origins of chocolate, the production process, chocolate sculptures and chocolate clothes. There are praline-making demonstrations several times a day so check for timings. The museum also contains and displays porcelain cans and cups relating to chocolate. The place is literally filled with the strong aroma of hot chocolate.

Tip
Most of the guides on these tours are supposed to be multilingual but you need to be clear when booking, which language you want or else you could find yourself in amongst a group that speak another tongue. The guide will obviously focus predominantly on them and you could be left out.
 

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Top 5 Things To-Do in Finland

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     Hiding in the Northern part of Europe is the beautiful, Nordic country of Finland. Bordered by Sweden to the west, Norway to the North and Russia to the east, Finland has always lied beneath the shadows of its neighboring European countries. Known for it’s snowy climate, excellent education and peaceful economy, Finland is an ideal destination for relaxation and perfection. The following list is a countdown to the Top 5 things to do in Finland!

5. Husky Dog-Sled Safari
     If Cool Runnings is your favorite movie, then the Husky Dog-Sled Safari is for you! The tour begins with a heart warming meeting with you’re friendly husky team. Once acclimated with your crew, begin your journey through the majestic forests and magnificent mountains of Rovaniemi, Finland.

4. Find the North Pole
     Get as close to Santa as possible with a Reindeer Farm Visit and Sleigh Ride in Lapland. Santa might be hard to find at this time of the year, but his trust reindeer are there to lead the way. With a complimentary hot juice or coffee, this sleigh ride is a perfect activity for family and friends.

3. Rauna Wildlife Park
     If reindeer are not exotic enough for you, make sure you check out the Rauna Wildlife Park. Located in Rovaniemi, and is the northernmost zoo in the world, the park is filled with exotic and unique animals that you will not be able to find in the London Zoo!

2. Helsinki
     Opposite of Rovaniemi is the southern city of Helsinki. Filled with breathtaking artwork and the largest maritime fortress in the world, this city is filled with adventure and magic. The Helsinki card grants you access to all major sights and over 50 museums. This card is the best way to immerse yourself in the Finnish culture. 

1. Hunt for the Northern Lights
     You do not want to miss out on the chance to see the greatest light show on earth! Allow the moon to light up your path to the most radiant sky illumination in the world! The Northern Lights is a Finland staple and should not be missed! 

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Las Fallas – Festival in Valencia

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            In March Valencia is home to one of Spain’s largest celebrations called the Falles, which is a traditional celebration commemorating Saint Joseph. The celebration lasts for 5 days and 5 nights, and is a perfect reason for a vacation. From March 15th-19th the streets and small neighborhoods of Valencia will be filled with people of all ages throwing fireworks and noisemakers into the streets to celebrate the culture and history of Valencia. Known to Spaniards as Las Fallas, there are 6 main events that make up the popular festival that cannot be missed! La Despertà and La Mascletà are events that occur in Valencia’s neighborhoods and are large displays of fireworks, firecrackers and musical celebration. La Despertà happens at 8:00 am but if you are not a morning person La Mascletà is the larger celebration at 2:00 pm.

La Plantà is an event that happens on the first day of Las Fallas and marks the start of the festival. Neighborhood leaders, also known as the Casal Faller, produce a structure known as a Falla, which is eventually burnt down at the end of the festival. A good way to see the Falla's and the neighborhoods is through a walking tour around the city. A walking tour will also show you where the fourth event of Las Fallas is, the L’Ofrena Floral, which is the floral offering given to Saint Mary by the Casal Fallas. This event occurs on March 17th and 18th and is a larger event than described because by the end of March 18th Saint Mary is beautifully covered in flowers and floral arrangements. 

If the firework displays at 8:00 am and 2:00 pm are not enough for you, Els Castells and La Nit del Foc, the night of fire, are nighttime fireworks displays at the old riverbed in Valencia. They occur on the first four nights of Las Falles and each display gets progressively grander. If your looking for something to do in between the multiple fireworks displays, bike and tapas tours are an excellent way to learn about the culture and history of Valencia.

All of these events and information will get you ready and excited for the final event of Falles, which is held around midnight on March 19th, La Cremà. The Falles that were constructed by each neighborhood are burnt in a huge bonfire to symbolize the end of winter and beginning of spring. This tradition started in the Middle Ages when artisans disposed of their winter wood by burning them to celebrate the spring equinox. This ritual evolved over the years into Las Fallas, which is now one of Spain’s largest celebrations. So hurry up & book your trip, celebrate the coming of spring with the people and community of Valencia. 

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Top 5 Reasons To Visit Belgium

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            Best known for it’s authentic beer, rich chocolate, and delightful waffles, Belgium’s food reputation over powers its historic character and diverse atmosphere. A destination filled with history, food, sightseeing, and relaxation, Belgium is one of Europe’s most unseen countries. If you are still contemplating on whether or not Belgium is for you, here are 5 reasons as to why Belgium is a must see European country.

1.     Notorious for it’s chocolates, waffles, and fries, Belgium has food that is easy to find in any other country but more authentic when found in Belgium. From unique fry toppings to flawless chocolate shops, the cultural food of Belgium is one of a kind.

2.     You might have tasted Belgian beer before in a country of your own, but nothing compares to an actual Belgian beer in Belgium! From strong beers that will knock you off your bar stool to over 400 different types of Beer at the Delirium bar, make sure you pace yourself when experiencing this part of the Belgian culture.

3.     Hidden in the shadows of Brussels, are the marvelous cities of Bruges and Ghent. Just a short train ride away from the countries capital, these two cities will astonish you with their medieval architecture and serene demeanor.

4.     Compared to Bruges and Ghent, Brussels is a modern city that not only is the capital of Belgium, but the European Union as well. However do not let its modernism fool you, Brussels has some medieval secrets of its own.

5.     Giving Berlin a bit of competition, Brussels’ nightlife has been emerging over the years. With many bars and restaurants open until 6 in the morning, you can find anything from tequila bars to seafood restaurants to put up camp for the night.

So before you plan your next trip to an overpopulated city or a remote island, think about the distinctive beers you can try in Brussels, the delectable chocolates in Bruges, the great waffles in Ghent, and the medieval secrets residing beneath your feet and book Belgium!

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I Heart New York Tours

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The Big Apple, The Concrete Jungle, The City that Never Sleeps, call it what you want, New York has garnered an unrivalled reputation for good reason.  With so much to do and so many places to see, it can be overwhelming trying to decide. Here is a list of some of the top things to do whilst in NYC:

  1. New York Helicopter Tour

New York was built from the ground up, so it makes the most sense to see it from the sky! You’ll feel like a VIP as you soar around the New York skyline. You’ll get a bird’s eye view of iconic New York landmarks including Central Park, the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty. 

 

  1. Statue of Liberty Cruise

Take a cruise out to see the lovely “Lady Liberty” and the nearby Ellis Island on a Statue of Liberty Cruise.  You’ll also get spectacular views of the New York skyline including the Brooklyn Bridge and Chrysler Building.  

  1. Central Park Walking Tour

Escape the hustle-and-bustle of New York, without ever having to leave the city, on a peaceful Central Park Walking Tour. On this intimate tour you’ll learn about the park’s history whilst exploring major landmarks and other less common, local hotspots.

  1. Fifth Avenue Shopping Tour

Fifth Avenue is the epitome of luxury and wealth as it is one of the most expensive streets in the world. On this shopping tour, you’ll be treated to the expert services of an NYC-based stylist who will show you how to master New York style, regardless of whether your budget is more high street chic than luxury designer boutique. 

  1. Empire State Building Observatory Express Pass

Skip the queue and ascend 86 floors to the top of the Empire State Building. From the Observatory you’ll see all five boroughs that make up New York. On a clear day you’ll be able to see as far as Connecticut and New Jersey!

If a Helicopter Ride around New York sounds like your dream travel experience, then vote for it in the isango! travel experience poll. You’ll be entered for the chance to win a new iPad and other weekly giveaways. Bonus: you’ll get 10% off at isango! just for entering.

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See the Sights in Sydney

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When you think “Sydney” chances are the first thing that comes to your mind is the Sydney Opera House. A Sydney Opera House tour is obviously a must-do activity but there are plenty of other things to do in Sydney. From a Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb to Wine Appreciation Course, here are our picks for the best things to do:

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  1. Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb
    This is one of the most popular things to do in Sydney for good reason. Climb to the top of Sydney Harbour Bridge for unrivalled views of the city. You can choose the time of day you want to climb from dawn, day, twilight and night.
  2. Surfing Lessons
    Hang ten! What place could be better than Bondi Beach to learn to surf? Bondi Beach is renowned for having the best waves in Australia. This lesson is perfect for those looking to catch their first wave.
  3. Sydney Opera House Tour
    You know what it looks like from the outside, but this tour will show you what it looks like on the inside! You’ll learn about the history of the Sydney Opera House then visit its major concert halls, where a staggering 2,500 performances are staged annually.
  4. Sydney Harbour Cruise
    Dine under the stars on an evening Sydney Harbour Cruise. The perfect romantic night out, you’ll see the twinkling lights of Sydney Harbour while enjoying a sumptuous three-course meal.
  5. Hunter Valley Tour and Wine Appreciation Course
    Enjoy a tranquil day sampling some of the finest wines in Australia. On this comprehensive tour, you will learn about the winemaking process from vine to bottle, all while sampling some fine wines and tasting platters.

 

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