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At-Home Activities Family Travel Gear

Kids at Home? Here's What to Read After Harry Potter

By now you’ve probably seen hundreds of lists like this one—books to read after you or your kids finish the Harry Potter series. These lists are all pretty similar, I think, and they mostly focus on stories that feature other magical kids having magical adventures. And I’ll be honest, I think most of those lists are thrown together by people who haven’t even read half the books they’re recommending. 

You won’t have that problem here. For one thing, I’ve actually read the books I’m about to recommend. (Full disclosure: I even wrote one of them.) And here’s the other big difference: Most lists like this don’t seem to acknowledge that we all probably like slightly different things about Harry Potter. Maybe for you it’s the magic spells and fantastic beasts. Or maybe you’re really a fan of the British boarding school setting. Maybe it’s the core friendships, the slow-burn mysteries, or the inspiring fierceness of Hermione Granger. 

So, this isn’t a list of Harry Potter clones. You won’t find books that try to directly copy Harry Potter here. Instead, it’s a set of recommendations around what to read after Harry Potter based on the elements of the story that may have resonated most with you or your kids. 

If you like ghosts and haunted places in Europe…

I love Nearly Headless Nick, The Bloody Baron, Peeves, and (especially) Moaning Myrtle. The ghosts of Harry Potter are charming and funny and only occasionally spooky, but they all have a story to tell. I recommend City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab if you enjoyed hanging out with the ghosts at Hogwarts. It stars a gutsy heroine named Cassidy Blake and her best friend, Jacob, who happens to be a ghost no one else can see. The book is also loaded with Harry Potter references (Cassidy is a proud Gryffindor) and a spooky Scottish setting that evokes a little of that Hogwarts feeling. A second book in the series was released earlier this year and a third is on the way.

From the Publisher: “Ever since Cass almost drowned (okay, she did drown, but she doesn’t like to think about it), she can pull back the Veil that separates the living from the dead … and enter the world of spirits. Her best friend is even a ghost. 

So things are already pretty strange. But they’re about to get much stranger. When Cass’s parents start hosting a TV show about the world’s most haunted places, the family heads off to Edinburgh, Scotland. Here, graveyards, castles, and secret passageways teem with restless phantoms. And when Cass meets a girl who shares her “gift,” she realizes how much she still has to learn about the Veil and herself. And she’ll have to learn fast. The city of ghosts is more dangerous than she ever imagined.”

What People Are Saying: “Spine tingling and page-turning, perfectly blending humor, heart, and adventure… I loved it!” –Jennifer A. Nielsen, New York Times bestselling author of The False Prince

Available at Amazon: Hardcover, paperback, or Kindle

If you like teenage witches and wizards, contemporary fantasy, and feisty girls who stick up for themselves…

I wrote this book! It’s called The Witches of Willow Cove and it comes out May 26. I was inspired by J.K. Rowling’s magical series, particularly the third and fourth books where the kids are in their early teens. The elements that most interested me in Harry Potter were the magic, friendships, slowly unfolding mysteries, the occasional darkness, and the clever way all the twists and turns come together at the end of each book—especially in book three. So if Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is one of your favorites in the series, I hope you’ll give The Witches of Willow Cove a try. It’s available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or your favorite local bookstore. I’m working on the sequel right now. 

From the Publisher: “It’s not easy being a teenage witch. Seventh grader Abby Shepherd is just getting the hang of it when weird stuff starts happening all around her hometown of Willow Cove. Green slime bubbling to life in science class. Giant snakes slithering around the middle school gym. Her best friend suddenly keeping secrets and telling lies.

Things only begin to make sense when a stranger named Miss Winters reveals that Abby isn’t the only young witch in town—and that Willow Cove is home to a secret past that connects them all. Miss Winters, herself a witch, even offers to teach Abby and the others everything she knows about witchcraft.

But as Abby learns more about Miss Winters’ past, she begins to suspect her new mentor is keeping secrets of her own. Can Abby trust her, or does Miss Winters have something wicked planned for the young witches of Willow Cove?”

What People Are Saying: “This atmospheric debut is a nail-biting story of local history, sinister magic, and what it means to be a true friend. With narrow escapes, rising tension, and secrets aplenty, good luck trying to put this one down!” –Diane Magras, Author of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter (Junior Library Guild Spring 2018 Selection, The New York Times Editors’ Choice, ALSC Notable Children’s Book)

Available at Amazon: Paperback or Kindle

If you like British boarding schools and tight-knit friends…

My first reaction upon reading The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane was that it’s just like Harry Potter without the magic spells. I mean that in a good way. British boarding school? Check. Three friends investigating a mystery? Check. Suspicious teachers and lots of twists and turns? Check and check. This is a great story that evokes the cozy feelings of the early books in the Harry Potter series. A sequel has just been released and I hope there’s even more to come. 

From the Publisher: “With a dad who disappeared years ago and a mother who’s a bit too busy to parent, Emmy is shipped off to Wellsworth, a prestigious boarding school in England, where she’s sure she won’t fit in. 

But then she finds a box of mysterious medallions in the attic of her home – medallions that belonged to her father…who may have gone to Wellsworth. 

When she arrives at school, she finds the strange symbols from the medallions etched into walls and books, which leads her and her new friends, Jack and Lola, to Wellsworth’s secret society: The Order of Black Hollow Lane. Emmy can’t help but think that the society had something to do with her dad’s disappearance and that there may be more than just dark secrets in the halls of Wellsworth.”

What People Are Saying: “A page-turning mystery ripe with plot twists, crackling humor, and a plucky heroine. Kids will love Emmy and beg for more.” —Michael Buckley, New York Times bestselling author of The Sisters Grim and NERDS

Available at Amazon: Hardcover, paperback, or Kindle

If you like Hagrid and his Monster Book of Monsters…

Is it magical creatures you’re looking for? Let me introduce you to Fablehaven, a favorite literary destination for fans of mythic monsters like trolls, imps, satyrs, and fairies. With relatable sibling leads, a fantastic setting, and a mystery to solve, there’s a lot to love in this long-running fantasy series by Brandon Mull. The first series consists of five novels; a subsequent set of books continues the story after that.

From the publisher: “For centuries, mystical creatures of all description were gathered to a hidden refuge called Fablehaven to prevent their extinction. The sanctuary survives today as one of the last strongholds of true magic in a cynical world. Enchanting? Absolutely. Exciting? You bet. Safe? Well, actually, quite the opposite… 

Kendra and her brother Seth have no idea their grandfather is the current caretaker of Fablehaven. Inside the gated woods, ancient laws give relative order among greedy trolls, mischievous satyrs, plotting witches, spiteful imps, and jealous fairies. However, when the rules get broken, an arcane evil is unleashed, forcing Kendra and Seth to face the greatest challenge of their lives. To save her family, Fablehaven, and perhaps the world, Kendra must find the courage to do what she fears most.”

Available at Amazon: Hardcover, paperback, or Kindle

If you like adventurous boys, magical battles, and epic mythology…

Percy Jackson and the Olympians may seem like an obvious pick—in my unscientific survey of lists suggesting what to read after Harry Potter, it’s the most frequently recommended series—but just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean it’s wrong. The Lightning Thief is the book that launched Rick Riordan to literary superstardom, and with good reason. It’s a fun, funny, adventurous romp that really hits the post-Potter sweet spot. If you’ve only seen the movies, you’re missing out. Not only are they not as good as the books, they’re really not even that similar. Skip the films and head straight to the novels. My son, who doesn’t typically read fantasy, loves these books.  

From the Publisher: “Percy Jackson is a good kid, but he can’t seem to focus on his schoolwork or control his temper. And lately, being away at boarding school is only getting worse—Percy could have sworn his pre-algebra teacher turned into a monster and tried to kill him. 

When Percy’s mom finds out, she knows it’s time that he knew the truth about where he came from, and that he go to the one place he’ll be safe. She sends Percy to Camp Half Blood, a summer camp for demigods (on Long Island), where he learns that the father he never knew is Poseidon, God of the Sea. 

Soon a mystery unfolds and together with his friends—one a satyr and the other the demigod daughter of Athena—Percy sets out on a quest across the United States to reach the gates of the Underworld (located in a recording studio in Hollywood) and prevent a catastrophic war between the gods.”

What People Are Saying: “Packed with humorous allusions to Greek mythology… along with rip-snorting action sequences, this book really shines.” —Horn Book Magazine

Available at Amazon: Hardcover, paperback, or Kindle

If you just can’t get enough of Harry Potter…

I resisted picking up a copy of the eighth Harry Potter story, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, because I’d heard mixed reviews of the story by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany. It’s a play script rather than a novel, and it focuses on the next generation of kids at Hogwarts, though Harry, Ron, and Hermione do play major roles. 

Then my daughter talked me into buying tickets for the Broadway production. And I have to say, maybe a bit grudgingly, it’s a reasonably good continuation of the series. Not perfect, not necessarily the direction I would have gone, but still—a worthy successor. See the full production if you can (the stage effects are spectacular) or read the script if a live performance isn’t in the cards. Either way, it’s a nice way to say goodbye—again—to the wizarding world. And you can always pretend it’s fan fiction if the story’s particular twists and turns aren’t to your liking.

From the Publisher: “It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn’t much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband, and father of three school-age children.

While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.” 

What People Are Saying: “A well-crafted and enjoyable read.” —Tyler Hixson, School Library Journal

Available at Amazon: Hardcover, paperback, or Kindle

Josh Roberts is the former Senior Executive Editor of SmarterTravel. The Witches of Willow Cove is his first novel, and you can find it at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your favorite local bookstore.

Categories
Packing Travel Technology Travel Tips & Advice

4 Surprising, Low-Tech Travel Gadgets You Need

People are often surprised when I reveal what I consider to be the most essential item in my carry-on bag. It’s not some fancy device or expensive gadget (though, to be fair, I wouldn’t leave home without my Kindle Paperwhite either). In fact, four of my must-pack items are decidedly low-tech.

Lacrosse Ball

orange lacrosse balls.

The one thing I never fly without, my secret weapon against the aches and pains of the coach-class crunch, is the humble lacrosse ball.

I can sense your skepticism even as I type this, so I’ll get right down to it. Today’s torturous coach-class seat configurations might as well have been designed by the CIA for “enhanced interrogations.” (Seriously, who thinks a 29-inch seat pitch is OK?) A lacrosse ball gives you a fighting chance against the neck ache, stiff back, and piercing headache that are natural byproducts of cramped seating.

When the aches kick in, pinpoint your tender muscles and massage them away with a sturdy lacrosse ball. It’s just the right size to dig into most problem spots, and it’s tough enough to give you the needed pressure to ease the pain away. Honestly, this is the cheapest, tiniest, lowest-tech travel tool you’ll ever need, and it might just end up being your favorite, too.

Bonus: It fits in any reasonably sized pocket.

Swiss Army Knife

victorinox swiss army jetsetter pocket knife.

Also pocket-sized and useful: the Swiss Army knife. Right about now you’re thinking, “But knives are banned on flights.” And you’re right. But you can get a Swiss Army knife without the knife, courtesy of the Victorinox Jetsetter, which gives you immediate access to a screwdriver, a bottle opener, a key ring, tweezers, scissors, and a toothpick—all in one handy space-saving device that the TSA isn’t allowed to confiscate.

Kid Kit

Ticonderoga pencils.

Sometimes I travel with my kids, and when I do, I also keep a supply of low-tech travel gadgets for them to play with during the trip. Not just on flights, either: on road trips, in vacation rentals, at the airport or train station … I owe it to them and to my fellow travelers to make sure they’re entertained and not disruptive. My “kid kit” includes a small puzzle or two, pencils and paper, and a few travel-sized games.

Grid-It Organizer

large grid-it organizer.

I’ve talked before about the Grid-It system, an inexpensive organization system that makes use of rubber bands to hold everything in place. People often associate it with tech gadgets only, but it’s very helpful for keeping all this other gear in place, too. You can either buy a large Grid-It to store all your electronics and cords alongside your non-tech gadgets (earplugs, travel games, etc.), or you can employ a second, smaller Grid-It to keep your gadgets separate.

Either way, as far as organizers go, there’s nothing better.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2015. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Categories
Adventure Travel Arts & Culture Cities Experiential Travel

10 Best European Castles You Can Visit

Sometimes romantic, sometimes sinister, Europe’s best castles evoke a palpable sense of both melancholy and wonder. Their ancient stones brim with mystery and history—but not the stodgy old history of musty textbooks.

The Best European Castles You Can Visit

Castles are the past brought to life, a visceral reminder that quests and battles and chivalry weren’t always the exclusive province of fantasy novels. Go medieval on your next trip with a visit to one of these castles where ancient history is alive and well.

Carreg Cennen Castle, Wales

european castles

Never trust any list of Europe’s best castles that doesn’t include at least one entry from Wales. Owing to its tumultuous history of war and rebellion, the Welsh countryside is home to more castles per square mile than anywhere else in the world. Our favorite is Carreg Cennen, the only ruined stronghold to make this list. Actually, we like that Carreg Cennen has been in a ruinous state since 1462. Perched on a lonely limestone hilltop in Brecon Beacons National Park and often shrouded in mist, Carreg Cennen is easily the most evocative castle in the land. And while it may not be quite as popular as the larger Caerphilly Castle, Carreg Cennen will always be first in our hearts.

Hohenwerfen Castle, Austria

european castle

Brooding high above Austria’s Salzachtal Valley amid the dramatic peaks of the Berchtesgaden Alps, this stronghold has served alternately as a home to kings, archbishops, and prisoners (it was a state prison for a period of time) for more than 900 years. Today, Hohenwerfen Castle is a popular tourist draw and the site of Austria’s foremost falconry center, where the royal hunting art is on full display with daily demonstrations.

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Predjama Castle, Slovenia

european castle

Predjama Castle is an easy sell to castle lovers. Most famous for being built into the side of a 400-foot cliff, it may also call to mind visions of Tolkien’s Helm’s Deep. But this real-world stronghold has the requisite dungeons, secret tunnels, and bloody history to make it a must-see on its own merits. Visit Predjama Castle during the annual medieval tournament, held each July, for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Guedelon Castle, France

european castles

Who says the age of castles is over? Take a trip back in time at Guedelon Castle in Burgundy, France, where a team of 50 craftspeople and laborers are currently using 13th-century building techniques and technology (think: horses) to construct an authentic castle from scratch, deep within a secluded forest. The project has been running since 1997 and hopes to reach completion in the 2020s.

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

european castles

It might be the most photographed castle in the world, but there’s still nothing quite like seeing Germany’s fairy-tale castle in person. The brainchild of “Mad King Ludwig” (or, more generously, “The Fairy-Tale King”), Neuschwanstein has influenced everything from Disney attractions (note the similarity to Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle) to books and computer games. Take a tour of the castle grounds, but leave time for an off-site walk along the myriad nearby trails. That’s where you’ll find the most stunning views for photographs.

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Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland

european castle

One of the most iconic castles in Europe, Scotland’s Eilean Donan Castle is recognized the world over from its appearances on postcards and in movies like the original Highlander (“There can be only one!”). History buffs will appreciate Eilean Donan’s rich past as a key site during the 1719 Jacobite Rising, and all will enjoy the stark beauty of its surroundings, where three great lochs meet at the foot of an impressive mountain range. Today nearly every part of the castle is accessible to the public for tours and exploration.

Hohenzollern Castle, Germany

european castles

This ancestral home to a line of German emperors would fit in with the fantastical fortresses imagined by J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin. At 2,805 feet above sea level, Hohenzollern Castle really is a castle in the clouds. The current fortress is actually the third to be built on the site (the first was destroyed in the battle and the second fell into disrepair). Today it is a popular tourist attraction.

Hunyad Castle, Romania

european castles

The imposing Hunyad Castle, which once imprisoned Vlad the Impaler (Bram Stoker’s inspiration for Dracula), offers plenty for castle aficionados to sink their teeth into. Marked by myriad towers, multicolored roofs, and exaggerated stone carvings, this Gothic-Renaissance castle was fully and fancifully restored after decades of neglect. What we see today may or may not be authentic (some suggest that modern architects projected their own “wistful interpretations” of a Gothic castle onto the reconstruction), but either way, the end result is memorable.

Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

european castles

One of the best examples of a fully restored medieval fortress, Edinburgh Castle towers over Scotland’s capital city from atop an extinct volcano called Castle Rock. It was built in the 12th century and has passed hands between the English and the Scots numerous times over the course of its bloody history. Today, it’s open to the public year-round for tours and events.

Versailles, France

european castles

From its origin as an unassuming hunting lodge to its height as the royal court of France under Louis XIV, the Sun King’s Chateau de Versailles is arguably the grandest castle in the world. No visit to Paris is complete without at least a day trip to see the gardens, canals, and gilded halls of Versailles.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2013. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Categories
Packing Travel Technology

Why an Electronics Travel Organizer Is the Key to Successful Packing


Unless you always nab an aisle seat close to the overhead bin, an organized personal item is critical to making sure your must-have items are easily accessible throughout your flight. A well-packed personal item also guarantees you won’t be separated from your valuables if you’re forced to check your carry-on at the gate.

But organizing everything you need in a bag that fits under the seat in front of you sometimes feels like it requires Marie Kondo-level organization. Chargers, plugs, earbuds, and other items with cords easily tangle (and have been known to break or fray from poor storage).

Some people like to store items in the tray-table pocket, but this is where the germs live. Like, all of the germs. Keep away from this infectious disease hub.

Instead, I divide my items into different categories and then organize them based on how and when I’ll use them. My clothes, my TSA-compliant toiletries, and everything else I don’t need in flight go in my regulation-size carry-on bag. In my personal item, I secure my boarding pass, my passport, and all other financial or identifying materials in the front pocket; fill one side pocket with an Entertainment Weekly or two for reading during takeoff and landing; and stash a water bottle in the other side compartment.

I reserve the main compartment of my backpack for electronics. Depending on the purpose and length of my trip, I’m probably traveling with my iPhone, Kindle, iPad mini and its keyboard, Fitbit, mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, SLR digital camera and extra memory cards, headphones, charging cables, adapters, extra batteries, and cords.

Sounds like a mess, right? This is where an electronics travel organizer comes in. Never again will you lose a charger or wind up with hopelessly tangled cords in your travels. Below are a few of my favorite options.

The Best All-Around Electronics Travel Organizer: Jelly Comb Electronics Organizer

jelly comb electronics organizer.

Keep your cables, chargers, cell phone, and more protected in this zippable case. Its waterproof nylon is designed to keep your electronics dry while its padded cover offers an additional layer of protection from bumpy rides.

Most Versatile Gadget Organizer: Cocoon GRID-IT!

cocoon grid-it organizer.

This technology organization system comes in multiple sizes and makes use of rubberized elastic bands to hold everything in one place in a flat, lightweight case; some models also come with pockets for laptop computers and other bulkier gadgets. The elastics allow you to store items of varying shapes and sizes in virtually endless combinations.

Best Low-Tech Gadget Organizer: Sosanping Taco Trio

sosanping taco trio.

If you need something more portable and only have a cord or two that you travel with, consider a cord taco. These simple leather cases with a snap closure keep cables and earbuds tangle-free and easily fit in any personal item.

Most Stylish Travel Gadget Organizer: STRAPO Leather Accessory Pouch

strapo leather accessory pouch.

This leather option offers a bit more style than your typical cord-carrying case. It’s got room for multiple cords and plugs, plus an extra zipped compartment for any smaller items you want to keep safe, like memory cards. Roll it up for easy stashing.

Storing, organizing, and protecting your gadgets is one of the most significant elements of packing an effective carry-on bag. Every bag is different—you may prefer print books over e-readers or your phone’s camera over a bulky SLR, for example—but the important thing is that you approach it with a sound strategy.

Keep your gadgets close and your valuables closer, and you’ll be just fine.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2015. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Kate Sitarz contributed to this story.

Categories
Active Travel Arts & Culture Family Travel Group Travel

Iceland with a Twist: What It’s Like to Explore the Land of Fire and Ice with Adventures by Disney


If there’s one thing Disney knows how to do, it’s build anticipation for a coming attraction. Whether it’s a Marvel movie trailer or the opening of a new theme park, the Mouse is no slouch at generating buzz. So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised when an Adventures by Disney package arrived at my home a month before my family trip to Iceland with Disney’s high-end group vacation company.

Inside the box were a few sturdy daypacks for our trip, luggage tags for our checked bags, and a couple of full-color “Adventure Handbooks” for our eight-day exploration of the Land of Fire and Ice. My kids, ages nine and 12, scooped up the handbooks and quickly began to read aloud the things they were most excited to do. Whale watching near the Arctic Circle! Horse riding on the Golden Circle! Whitewater rafting! Fishing! A glacier walk—with pickaxes!

Yup, it’s safe to say that Adventures by Disney brings the same crowd-pleasing sensibilities to its vacation packages as Disney movies and Disney theme parks do to superheroes and thrill rides. As for the trip itself? This is one example of the experience being even better than the anticipation. After all, we didn’t know quite what to expect when we decided to bring our kids to another country with Adventures by Disney. We are generally a family of very independent, non-group-tour kind of travelers, and we’d never done a family trip like this before.

Curious about taking a vacation with Adventures by Disney? Here’s what you need to know.

Disney’s Iceland Itinerary

 

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Arrived!

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Iceland is a small country—at 39,769 square miles, it’s about the same size as Ohio—but there’s a lot to explore on this tiny landmass. So much so, in fact, that this was my third trip to Iceland in the past 13 years. Naturally I was interested to see not just more of this country (despite my travels, I’d never visited the north of Iceland), but also what it would be like to let someone else do all the planning and driving.

We arrived on an early morning flight and were met at the airport by our driver for the week, who delivered us and our luggage to our centrally located downtown Reykjavik hotel for a restful day of self-directed time—light napping, a little exploration, and then a welcome meeting and orientation with our guides and fellow travelers late in the afternoon.

With five other families on the trip, the group size was typical of an Adventures by Disney vacation, as was the mix of ages: several grade school-age kids, a couple of tweens, and a handful of teenagers who (and I know this may sound shocking for those of you with teens at home) actually wanted to be there. It was a great group, and the kids especially found it easy to form friendships and grow quickly attached to one another.

We spent our first evening enjoying the Blue Lagoon with our group before finishing with dinner at the lagoon’s upscale Lava Restaurant. It was a nice sort of icebreaking day—chatting together on the bus, and more getting-to-know-you talk at dinner—with a good bit of family time at the Blue Lagoon. It’s a routine that became fairly consistent through the next few days: enough time to get to know one another, but not so much that we weren’t able to focus on enjoying our own families, too.

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Disney’s Iceland trips, which will run from May through October in 2020, visit both the north and south of the country. We spent the first several days in the south, which my wife and I had explored on our previous trips, then hopped on a short flight to Akureyri, the northern capitol. Early on, it became apparent that our self-planned vacations were strictly amateur compared to the itinerary assembled by Adventures by Disney.

Consider: In our three days exploring the south of Iceland with Disney, we took in the vistas from Thingvellir National Park, explored both the Gullfoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls up close, dodged the steaming eruptions at the Strokkur geyser, hiked around the Kerid Crater on foot and up a glacier in Skaftafell National Park with crampons and pickaxes, sailed through an iceberg-filled glacial lagoon, and went horseback riding over rocky terrain in the Golden Circle.

 

Just reading that list, it probably sounds exhausting. But it really wasn’t. I think that’s because of Disney’s other trademark skill, at theme parks and elsewhere: everything runs like a well-oiled machine. When we arrived at our glacier hike, our private glacier guides were already waiting and ready to go—no sitting around for the next scheduled tour to begin. At the lagoon, our boats were fired up the moment we arrived. When we stopped for lunch at the spectacular Fridheimar greenhouse restaurant, our tables were waiting for us. It’s remarkable how much you can pack into a couple of days when every experience is tailored to your schedule.

Imagine, for a moment, the unspeakable luxury of taking your kids on vacation to another country—and there’s no whining. None. Not from your children, and not from the other kids on the trip, either. Everyone’s having fun, the kids are making friends—and you’re making friends, too. This is the Holy Grail of family vacation experiences: everything you love about family travel with none of the stuff that makes you feel like you need another vacation the minute you get home.

It was the same way when we reached Iceland’s northern capitol, Akureyri. A whale watch voyage just miles from the Arctic Circle. A hike through the lava labyrinth of Dimmuborgir. A bread-baking demonstration. A relaxing trip to Myvatn nature baths. And on the drive back to Reykjavik on the last full day of the trip, a few hours of family-friendly whitewater rafting through a glacial river canyon. Smiles everywhere. A good time had by all.

 

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Hiking Skaftafellskokull Glacier. #glacierguidesiceland

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The Real Value of Adventures by Disney

If you’re not already familiar with Adventures by Disney, the tour company probably isn’t what you think it is. It’s not all Mickey Mouse or Star Wars, for example. No princesses or talking animals. It’s Disney quality—top-notch service, people-pleasing experiences, worldwide reach—without all the cartoon extras.

Adventures by Disney is a vacation company that was created with families in mind. It offers trips to more than 35 destinations around the world, including Australia, Japan, Italy, Iceland, Peru, South Africa, and Costa Rica, with new trips added every year; in 2020, the big excitement is Disney’s first-ever Egypt adventure.

And Adventures by Disney is, by design, about as low-stress as a family vacation can get: the company’s Adventure Guides are chosen not just for their expertise, but also because they love kids—and it shows in their interactions with them. There’s built-in family time, and there’s built-in alone time when the Adventure Guides host kid-only “Junior Adventure” movie nights or kids-only dining tables. The vacations are active and immersive, and because every trip includes at least one guide from the host destination, they’re authentic in a way that many vacations are not.

 

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We got so close to this whale in the fjord!

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Nearly everything is included in the cost of an Adventures by Disney vacation: transportation within the trip, including airport transfers; upscale hotels; admission prices; luggage and concierge services; taxes and most gratuities; and most meals, including—and this is true—a seemingly bottomless, self-refilling basket of free snacks and candy on the tour bus.

Most of all, Adventures by Disney stands out for its service. You get VIP privileges at every attraction and restaurant you visit. No lines, no waiting, no fuss. You get behind-the-scenes access to people and experiences you would never achieve on your own. Your guides provide local knowledge and a deep connection to the area, capped off with an uncanny ability to attend to every detail. I imagine they only make it look effortless.

 

Life on an Adventures by Disney Trip

Life becomes a pleasant routine on an Adventures by Disney vacation. Wake up, enjoy breakfast, go someplace spectacular, do something incredible, eat, eat some more, chat with new friends, watch your children have once-in-a-lifetime experiences, return to your hotel. Rinse and repeat.

The days are long and full, but never wearying. Every other day or so, you get a nice block of free time to explore, or rest, or shop—sometimes as a family, and sometimes, because it just happens naturally, with the new friends you’re making along the way. My daughter, who turned 10 on our last night in Iceland, got a cake and special pin to add to her Disney pin collection, just one more extra perk on a trip full of them.

The goodbyes are hard. You spend a lot of time together exploring astonishing places, and the friendships—especially among the kids—feel more substantial than you’d think when you only met your fellow travelers a week ago.

And when you get home? Well, if you’re anything like my family, you immediately start talking about where you’ll go next time.

 

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Josh Roberts received a complimentary trip from Adventures by Disney. Follow him on Twitter (@joshwhowrites) and Instagram (@joshwhowrites), and visit his website (joshrobertsbooks.com) or Goodreads pageto learn more about his forthcoming novel.

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Family Travel Luxury Travel Theme Park

SmarterTravel Spotlight: Gaylord Opryland Resort and SoundWaves Water Park, Nashville, Tennessee


Centrally located within walking distance of Nashville’s most famous attractions—like the Grand Ole Opry and Madame Tussauds Nashville—and just a 10-minute shuttle ride from the airport, the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center has long been a luxury destination in Music City. But last December, the resort added a whole new reason for families to visit: America’s first upscale indoor-outdoor water park, called SoundWaves, a sprawling four-acre, three-level playground filled with one-of-a-kind water experiences.

It’s not easy to describe the scale of this resort hotel in a way that accurately portrays its massive size, but here’s a number that may help paint a picture for you: Gaylord Opryland Resort has 19 different restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. Nineteen! That’s not counting the unique dining experiences available inside the SoundWaves water park. There’s also an upscale spa, of course. A fitness center, as you’d expect. An 18-hole, par 72 golf course. And nine acres of lush, naturally lit indoor gardens with a river running through them.

But for families, the real attraction—the reason for visiting even if you or your kids are not country music fans—is the water park. Here’s everything you’ll want to know about staying and playing at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and SoundWaves indoor-outdoor water park, where I stayed in August 2019.

The Location

Gaylord opryland resort location

The Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center, which also houses the newly constructed SoundWaves water park, is located 10 minutes from Nashville International Airport. Resort guests can book a shuttle from the airport directly to the hotel. Once at the resort, many of Nashville’s top attractions are just a few minutes away. Both the Grand Ole Opry and Madame Tussauds Nashville are a half mile from the hotel. The General Jackson Showboat—famous for its live entertainment cruises—can be boarded at the Opry Mills shopping center, also within easy walking distance of the hotel.

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It’s worth noting, of course, that the resort is a famous destination unto itself. Food, drinks, entertainment, shopping—it’s all available inside the sprawling complex. If you’ve come for a few days of indoor-outdoor water park fun, you may never want to leave the hotel. With its massive indoor gardens and abundant natural lighting, there’s plenty of room to stretch your legs without ever setting foot outside.

The Rooms

Gaylord opryland resort rooms

Many of the spacious rooms at Gaylord Opryland Resort offer balconies overlooking the atrium, featuring sparkling views of the gardens and water features, including waterfalls and an indoor river that winds throughout the resort grounds. My family stayed in a stylishly furnished top-floor suite with atrium views, perfect for people-watching and for enjoying the live music performances that often play during the afternoon hours.

With a full-day SoundWaves pass, you can head back and forth between your hotel room and the water park as often as you want, taking a midafternoon break to chill out or catch a movie on your room’s widescreen television. There’s a movie theater within walking distance of the resort, but the hotel’s in-room entertainment features for-purchase movies that are still playing in theaters—a feature that my entire family enjoyed when we settled in to catch a new release one evening from the comfort of our couch.

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Resort Activities 

For families, the centerpiece of the Gaylord Opryland resort is the new, four-acre, one-of-a-kind indoor-outdoor water park, SoundWaves, which opened in December 2018. The indoor park is open year-round; the outdoor area is open seasonally and usually winds down toward the end of September.

Attractions: SoundWaves is a unique three-level indoor-outdoor water park spread across 111,000 square feet. All the rides and experiences are cleverly named after musical terms. The Rapid Remix, for example, is a four- or five-person indoor ride in which you board a mega raft to rocket down an enclosed “vortex loop” water slide. The Crowd Surfer, another indoor ride, is a two-person high-velocity surfing and boogie boarding experience.

My kids’ favorite indoor offering was the Up Tempo Rapids River, a fast-flowing, 36-inch deep circular river complete with waterfalls and powerful spray features. It’s like a typical indoor water park’s lazy river, minus the inner tubes and with the current cranked up to 10. We spent hours there—and it was a lot of fun. But never fear, lazy river fans: SoundWaves also has you covered with the Down Tempo Lazy River, a relaxing river experience through a rocky cavern filled with LED lights and musical tunes.

Outside, the central attraction is the massive Tidal Track Wave Pool, featuring giant waves that come at you every 10-15 seconds and an outdoor screen blasting favorite music videos from both modern and classic artists. The Beat Drop is an adrenaline-pumping floor-drop ride in which you plunge down a near-vertical tunnel when the floor is literally pulled out from under your feet (it’s both as terrifying and invigorating as it sounds). The Rock’n Racer is a four-lane, 360-degree water slide race track featuring a leaderboard at the bottom to show who finished with the fastest time on each run.

Adults will appreciate the Diamond Pool, an exclusive adult-only outdoor pool for guests ages 18 and up.

Gaylord opryland resort dining

Dining: In addition to the 19 eateries and bars inside the Gaylord Opryland Resort, SoundWaves features multiple dining options of its own: Decibels, a burgers and nachos-style joint with typical theme park food; Status Cymbal, an adults-only bar that serves cocktails and munchies; and a variety of food trucks offering everything from frozen drinks to soft tacos.

During our stay, we ate a few lunches at Decibels—try the pulled pork nachos, they’re delicious—and enjoyed dinners and breakfasts at some of the restaurants outside the water park, which feature everything from American to Asian to Mexican cuisine. The food is resort-pricey and generally more filling than mouth-watering, but we enjoyed it well enough. One of our kids is a picky eater, and she found something to like everywhere we went. Cascades American Café features a sizable buffet selection, and kids eat as much as they want for just $8 each.    

How to Book: If your plans include a day or more at the water park, it’s best to purchase a SoundWaves Water Experience package when booking your hotel stay at the Gaylord Opryland Resort. Day passes may be offered to general overnight guests based on availability, but those are sold on a limited basis and may not be available at peak times.

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Josh Roberts received a complimentary stay at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel as a guest of the resort. Follow him on Twitter (@joshwhowrites) and Instagram (@joshwhowrites), and visit his website (joshrobertsbooks.com) or Goodreads page to learn more about his forthcoming novel.

Categories
Active Travel Adventure Travel Arts & Culture Family Travel Group Travel Weekend Getaways

Beyond the Theme Parks: How Adventures by Disney Opens a Whole New World of Travel


I wasn’t always a Disney person. Anyone who knew me in my twenties or thirties knows this. I mean, sure, I knew other people might enjoy traveling with Disney, but it definitely wasn’t for me. I liked hiking, trekking, camping; not crowds, not theme park rides, not Disney.

Or so I thought.

[st_content_ad]When I visited Walt Disney World with my kids for the first time, I realized: “Maybe this isn’t so bad.” As the trip progressed, that turned to: “Actually, I’m enjoying this quite a bit.” After a subsequent Disney cruise with my extended family, the needle moved again, all the way from “Disney World was fun, but I still don’t want to travel around the world with Disney,” to “please, sign me up for another Disney Cruise immediately.”

So when I had the opportunity to experience the third pillar of the Disney travel experience, a guided vacation with Adventures by Disney, I leapt at the chance. And the trip—a “Short Escape” to New York City—did not disappoint.

If you’re not quite sure that traveling with Disney is right for you, or even what it means to travel with Disney, here’s what you need to know about Adventures by Disney’s guided vacations.

What It Means to Travel with Disney

 I often tell people that Disney vacations can be as much or as little about “Disney” as you want them to be. Not into princesses and tiaras? No problem. Don’t like Star Wars?—What’s wrong with you?—But still, you’ll be fine on a Disney vacation. It’s not like the theme park experience at all. Adventures by Disney is all about the Disney way of doing things, not the Disney entertainment brand.

When you travel with Disney, here’s what you’ll get: friendly staff, VIP access, and unique experiences. All the other Disney stuff—super heroes, Jedi Knights, princesses—are just window dressing that you can either soak in or set aside, depending on your preferences.

Adventures by Disney and Disney Cruise Line are travel companies that consistently deliver quality trips with one-of-a-kind experiences. They’re not all-Disney, all-the-time, immersive experiences—unless specifically billed as such (e.g., a Star Wars Day at Sea on a cruise).

 

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VIP Access

The biggest thing I didn’t understand about traveling with Disney before I did was the value-added experiences you can only get by traveling with them. My recent trip with Adventures by Disney to New York City is a perfect example: I used to live and work in New York, and I continue to visit the city at least three or four times a year for business. But seeing the city on Adventures by Disney’s New York Short Escape was, to borrow a line, a “whole new world.”

Over the course of a few days I saw parts of the city that most New Yorkers probably never do: I went behind the scenes at Broadway’s New Amsterdam Theater, where Disney’s Aladdin is currently playing, to explore the set and try on original costumes from past productions like Mary Poppins and The Lion King. I had front row seats for a live taping of Good Morning America and toured the ABC television studio. And after a live performance of Frozen: The Musical on Broadway—with front-row orchestra seats—I met several of the cast members after the rest of the crowd had gone home.

This was not a typical New York City getaway. It wasn’t something I ever could have put together on my own. The Adventures by Disney experience was essentially a VIP pass to the city’s hottest attractions.

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Exceptional Service

Nowhere is the Disney difference on display more than in the people you meet in your travels. Whether it’s the staff on Disney Cruise Line or your two Adventures by Disney guides, you get the sense that the people accompanying you on vacation actually enjoy doing their job.

Compare that with, say, literally any encounter at an airport, and you start to get the picture. Being around people who enjoy what they do can be contagious, especially when what they do is ensuring you have a great trip.

Unique Travel Experiences

Adventures by Disney tailors each trip to its destination. My New York getaway had a very Manhattan vibe to it: Broadway shows, TV studio access, a Times Square hotel, high-end dining.

My wife and I spent an afternoon learning dance steps in a Broadway dance studio, but in Wyoming you’ll hit the trails on horseback; in Peru, you’ll visit Machu Picchu; in Japan you’ll get a lesson is wielding a samurai sword; in Tuscany you’ll make pizza in a rustic farmhouse; and in Rome you’ll have private after-hours access to the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museum.

These are not experiences you’re likely to have on another vacation.

Dozens of Destinations

Adventures by Disney offers vacations on six continents. There are long trips, and there are short escapes. Disney Cruise Line sails from both U.S. coasts and travels as far and wide as South America, the Caribbean, Alaska, Europe, and Canada and New England. If there’s someplace you’ve always wanted to visit, chances are Disney can get you there in a unique way.

New for 2019, Adventures by Disney is introducing Short Escapes to Boston, Vancouver, and London. Other quick getaways include trips to New York City, San Francisco, Southern California, Wyoming, Barcelona, and Rome.

Everything Is Included

And finally: It’s all a package deal. Hotel accommodations, tickets and admissions, transportation on the trip, luggage handling, snacks, most meals, and two guides—everything is already baked into the price of your trip.

Josh Roberts visited New York City as a guest of Adventures by Disney. Follow him on Twitter @joshwritesYA.

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Arts & Culture Travel Etiquette

8 Things You Should Never Do in a Hotel


You may think of it as your “home away from home,” but try not to get too comfortable in that hotel room. Private hotel rooms are a surprisingly public space, shared by hundreds of strangers each year. And whenever you share something with that many people, things are bound to get dicey. For your own sake, we recommend that you avoid these eight activities no matter where you stay.

Don’t Use the Remote Control

[st_content_ad]Study after study has confirmed what germophobes everywhere have long believed: Hotel rooms are disgusting, fetid pools of fecal bacteria. We won’t get into the specifics just in case you’re reading this on your lunch break, but suffice it to say, you wouldn’t be out of place wearing a hazmat suit inside your room. And while there’s no shortage of filth-ridden surfaces to be wary of, the nastiest culprit by far is the TV remote control. You’ve got a few options here: Bring some antibacterial wipes with you, download a smartphone app to control the television, or just avoid TV altogether. Oh, and while we have your attention … don’t sleep on or under the quilt, either. Just trust us on this one.

Don’t Leave Valuables Lying Around

Perhaps this seems obvious, but we’ve heard enough stories of hotel-room thefts that we think it bears mentioning: Hide your valuables. Put them in the safe if you can (even if that means paying a small fee—it sure beats the cost of replacing that nice watch or fancy earrings). If there’s no space available, and you don’t want to carry them with you at all times, stash your valuables in an inconspicuous place, such as inside an empty vitamin or aspirin container. Hotel thieves know all the usual hiding spots, though, so an even better plan is to leave all or most of your valuables at home.

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Don’t Forget to Put up the ‘Do Not Disturb’ Sign

People tend to get frisky in hotel rooms. Maybe it’s just the natural aphrodisiac of being someplace new. Who knows? The point is, it happens—a lot. But here’s the thing: Your hotel room isn’t exactly private until you put up the “do not disturb” sign. So if you want to be alone, make sure everyone knows it first. Otherwise, Murphy’s Law suggests your intimate moment may not be so intimate after all.

Don’t Reveal Your Room Number

Don’t say your room number aloud at check-in, at a restaurant, or to that friendly stranger you’ve just met. It’s just not a good idea. If you want to meet up with someone new, agree to meet in a public space—preferably one that’s not even at your hotel. The last thing you want to deal with on your vacation or business trip is a break-in.

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Don’t Open the Door

It’s an automatic reaction for some people: There’s a knock at the door, so they answer it. Not a good idea. Make sure you know who’s there before you open the door—even if you’re expecting someone, like room service. Similarly, don’t leave the door ajar if you leave to get ice or, in some places, use the bathroom across the hall. You might return to find your room ransacked. Or worse yet, you might catch an unexpected guest waiting for you. And as long as we’re on the topic of leaving your room for ice, don’t do it au naturel either, or you may end up a hilarious Internet sensation like this guy.

Don’t Go Anywhere Near the Minibar

The good old days of perusing the minibar “just to see what’s in there” are long gone at many hotel chains. Those exorbitantly priced snacks are now more booby-trapped than the golden idol at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Even jostling the Snickers bar a little could trigger the sensor, and just like that you’ve run up an automatic charge on your room bill.

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Don’t Forget to Look for Bedbugs

They’re small, they’re nasty, and they’re pretty much everywhere these days—even at high-end hotels. Bedbugs are the world’s first (and worst) souvenir: They love coming home with you. Look for the incriminating signs of these little creepers before you put your bags down on the hotel bed or furniture for any lengthy period of time. Keep an eye out for the critters’ blood or fecal stains on your sheets or mattress and for the little buggers themselves on the mattress, headboard, couch, chair, and any other furniture.

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Don’t Drink the Tap Water

Did you hear the one about the nice British couple who noticed a funny taste in the drinking water at a downtown Los Angeles hotel? It turns out the couple (and the hotel’s other guests) had been drinking from a corpse-tainted water supply for weeks. You read that right: There was a dead body just floating around and decomposing in the rooftop water tank. And while this may be the most extreme case of tainted water we’ve heard in a while, it’s certainly not the only story of good water gone bad. Our advice: Don’t drink the tap water, no matter where you’re staying. Nothing good ever comes of it.

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Josh Roberts is the Managing Editor of SmarterTravel. Follow him on Instagram @jauntist and on Twitter @jauntist.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2013. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Categories
Family Travel Theme Park

Disney Unveils Toy Story Land at Hollywood Studios


Disney’s newest theme park innovation, Toy Story Land, opens to the public this weekend at Hollywood Studios in Orlando. I was there for a media preview and behind-the-scenes look at the new themed area ahead of its official opening on Saturday, June 30. Here are my initial impressions of Toy Story Land and the ongoing expansion and renovation of Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park.

Welcome to Andy’s Back Yard

The new 14-acre Toy Story Land is located adjacent to Hollywood Studios’ existing Pixar Place area, and everything is designed to give you a toy’s-eye view of Andy’s back yard. More than 400 toy blocks fill the area; giant Buzz and Woody figures tower over it all; and the land’s prime attraction, the Slinky Dog Dash roller coaster, coils and twists and turns through the entirety of the land.

Enormous crayons, a Rubik’s Cube, and other toys and board games provide the oversized decor. Lampposts are shaped like Tinkertoys, while benches are made to look as if they were constructed from Lincoln Logs and K’nex pieces. The overall impression is one of being a pint-sized toy at the heart of Andy’s back yard.

The Slinky Dog Dash roller coaster is one of two new rides debuting at Toy Story Land. The other is Alien Swirling Saucers, a creative new take on the classic whirling teacup motif. The popular Toy Story Mania ride, already available via the Pixar Place area of the park, gets an update and new entrance as well. All three rides fall into the family-friendly category of theme park amusements—they’re perfect for younger kids, but offer plenty of charm and gentle thrills for teens and adults, too.

The Slinky Dog Dash Roller Coaster at Toy Story Land

The Slinky Dog Dash is Disney’s first-ever double-launch coaster. At the midpoint of the ride, the coaster comes to a full stop, backs up, and then rockets forward again through pulsing rings, spinners, and flashing lights. (Star Wars fans, take note: The best views of the under-construction Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge area are from the top of the Slinky Dog Dash.)

“The first half of the ride is many swirls, turns, and dips,” says Dave Minichiello, Executive Creative Director of Walt Disney Imagineering. “After the second launch comes a drop and camelback humps, as if you were playing with a Slinky Dog toy.”

FastPass+ is accepted on the Slinky Dog Dash. Children must be 38 inches or taller to ride.

Alien Swirling Saucers at Toy Story Land

A 14-foot statue of Buzz Lightyear greets guests at the entrance to the Alien Swirling Saucers ride. (Lest anyone doubt who the true star of Toy Story is, however, the Sheriff Woody statue at the land’s entrance stands 20 feet tall.) On the saucer ride, the three-eyed, pointy-eared aliens from the Toy Story movies are the central attraction, while the dreaded Claw hangs menacingly overhead. Each alien’s flying saucer is hitched to one of the 22 rocket ship cars that spin and twirl through the Pizza Planet galaxy of Andy’s imagination.

FastPass+ is accepted on the Alien Swirling Saucers. Children must be 32 inches or taller to ride.

Dining Options at Toy Story Land

Woody’s Lunch Box, situated halfway between the Slinky Dog Dash and the Alien Swirling Saucers, serves up kid-friendly food (think grilled cheese sandwiches) and old-fashioned soda floats in an area surrounded by more of Andy’s favorite toys. Woody’s Lunch Box also features Mini Babybel cheese, which provides the inspiration for the cheese-wheel-shaped chairs and tables.

What’s Next for Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Toy Story Land continues the massive re-tooling and expansion of Hollywood Studios in Orlando, but it’s far from the only change on the horizon. At the media preview of Toy Story Land, Disney also announced the 2019-debuting Lightning McQueen’s Racing Academy, “a high-octane first-of-its-kind new show that’ll put you right in the middle of the world of Disney-Pixar’s Cars.” Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway is also slated to open in 2019.

And then there’s Star Wars.

Next year, Disney will open the fully immersive Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge themed area, called Blackspire Outpost, and sometime after that will come a Star Wars-themed hotel adjacent to the Star Wars area of the park. (No official date has been announced for the hotel.) This is all in addition to the updated “Star Tours” attraction (now featuring planets and characters from Star Wars: The Last Jedi), the park’s Star Wars Launch Bay area, Star Wars: Path of the Jedi interactive training for young padawans, and of course the Tatooine Traders merchandise shop.

All told, it sure looks like Disney’s Hollywood Studios is set to become Orlando’s main attraction in the years ahead.

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Follow Josh Roberts on Instagram @jauntist for behind-the-scenes pics from Toy Story Land’s opening weekend. 

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Packing

Briggs and Riley Sympatico International Carry-on Spinner CX 21″ Review: Finally, a Perfect Carry-on Bag!


When you travel a lot for work and pleasure, you develop certain likes and dislikes with regard to your luggage. I like hard-sided bags that protect my stuff; I like spinner wheels that allow me the versatility to either pull my luggage behind me or roll it alongside me; and, most of all, I like the freedom to travel without a checked bag.

For years, I’ve searched for the perfect carry-on bag that checks all these boxes. A few have come close, but now one has risen to the top: the Briggs and Riley Sympatico International Carry-on Spinner with expansion-compression technology.

Briggs and Riley Sympatico International Carry-on Spinner CX 21″ Review

Price and Where to Buy: This hard-sided carry-on bag retails for $529 from the manufacturer; but is also available at Amazon.

How the Briggs and Riley Sympatico International Carry-on Spinner CX 21″ Rates:

Usefulness: 10/10. This sturdy lightweight carry-on suitcase would be a star simply for its smooth 360-degree maneuverability, attractive design, combo lock security with TSA key access, and nearly indestructible hard shell exterior. But it has a secret super power that puts it into rarified territory: expansion-compression technology.

Its unique CX “expansion-compression system” allows you to increase storage capacity by 22 percent and then compress the suitcase back down to its standard 9x14x21-inch size, which meets carry-on requirements for most domestic and international carriers.

In practical terms, this system allows you to either pack more into your carry-on bag from the outset of your trip, or save extra room for souvenirs and other purchases during your return travels, without having to check a larger bag.

Value: 9/10. Although its MSR price of $529 is hefty, you’re paying for a durable high-quality bag that’s more than meets the eye. If you travel frequently, you’ll make up the cost of the bag in no time with the airline bag fees you avoid.

Portability: 10/10. Most carry-ons these days conform to standard airline size requirements and can boast some degree of lightweight portability. What first attracted me to the Sympatico, though, was its low center of gravity and 360-degree maneuverability. This is a carry-on bag that won’t topple over and won’t fight back while you’re rolling through the airport.

Final Verdict

The Briggs and Riley Sympatico International Carry-on Spinner looks like a carry-on but acts like a full-fledged checked bag. Its impressive compression system is a game changer for hard-sided carry-on bags, and its smooth 360-degree maneuverability puts it at the top of the list for portability, too.

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Editor’s Note: Reviews are based on usefulness, portability, and value. Some review products are sent to us free of charge and with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions, positive and negative, and will never accept compensation to review a product. If you have any questions or comments concerning our reviews, or would like to suggest a product for review, please email us at editor@smartertravel.com.

Categories
Family Travel Theme Park

Harry Potter Theme Park Tips: What to Know Before Visiting the Wizarding World


I’ll never forget my first glimpse of Hogwarts: the soaring spires, the winged-pig statues, the snow-covered rooftops of the surrounding Hogsmeade village. As a devout fan of the source material, those magical images will be etched into my memory forever. Of course, I’ll also never forget the sheer volume of wand-toting, spell-casting, butterbeer-guzzling people all around me, either. Elbow to elbow, we jostled for position under the hot Orlando sun like the crowds at the Quidditch World Cup.

Harry Potter Theme Park Tips

The mass of people didn’t diminish the experience for me, but it did get me thinking about the Harry Potter theme park tips I wish I’d known before my first visit. I made a few rookie mistakes my first time, but maybe you won’t have to. Here are my best tips for visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park in Orlando.

1. Buy the Universal Express Pass

Seriously, do it. Remortgage the house if you have to. It’s worth it. Universal Express Passes let you zip through the lines on nearly all of the rides at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, including all of the Harry Potter theme park rides. Express Passes are pricey, but they are unquestionably worth every penny—especially if this is your first visit to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

[st_content_ad]Express Passes come in two varieties: Universal Express (which allows you one express entry per theme park ride) and Universal Express Unlimited (which, as the name suggests, allows unlimited express entries to all rides that accept passes). For me, with a family of four including two children under 11, the Universal Express Passes did more to improve the quality of our trip than everything else combined.

Most rides at Universal have two separate lines: the standard line and the Express line. Express lines are more direct than the standard lines. This means you might wait about 15 minutes using the Universal Express Pass line to board Harry Potter themed rides. In the standard line, the wait times routinely reach 90 minutes to two hours.

For many, visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There are places where it might makes sense to cut corners to save money, but this is not one of them. Pay the extra price and zip through the lines rather than spending most of your day waiting in them.

Universal Express Passes are available for purchase before your trip or at various well-marked locations throughout the parks. Special lanyards for displaying Express Passes are available for sale throughout the parks and many shops as well.

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2. You Need to Visit Both Parks

You need to visit both Universal Studios Florida and the adjacent Islands of Adventure parks to get the full Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park experience. And you will need at least two days to see it all.

Hogwarts Castle and the surrounding Hogsmeade environs are located inside Universal Studios Florida; Diagon Alley and its shops and rides are located in the Islands of Adventure. They are connected via the Hogwarts Express, a short train ride that’s only accessible when you purchase multi-park passes that allow you to travel between the two parks any time you want.

To sweeten the deal, Universal has made the Hogwarts Express into a short but entertaining experience, like a mini-ride all its own. I won’t spoil the surprise, but suffice it to say it’s a different experience traveling from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade than it is traveling in the other direction. True Harry Potter aficionados will want to experience the ride in both directions.

The other way to travel between the two parks is via an area called Universal City Walk, which is mostly shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues connecting the two parks. You don’t need tickets to explore Universal City Walk, but you will need tickets to gain access from the City Walk to either park.

3. Arrive to the Park Early

Get there early. Like, before-it-opens early. Leave now if you can. Once the park opens, walk directly to the Harry Potter area without stopping for anything. I can’t stress this Harry Potter theme park tip enough: If you want to experience the Wizarding World of Harry Potter without shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, you must arrive before everyone else does. There’s no other way.

With the Universal Express Pass, you can get onto virtually every ride in both parks in pretty short order. But Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley aren’t rides—they’re open areas with shops, restaurants, vendors, and all of the design details you dream about when you imagine your visit. So naturally they are quickly overwhelmed by the crowds.

By arriving at the Harry Potter theme park area first, you’ll get roughly 30 to 60 minutes of relative freedom to explore these magical spaces without the crowds. This is especially important if you or your children want to try your hand at spellcasting. Universal sells replica wands that allow you to “cast spells” at dozens of locations across the Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley areas. (I’ll talk more about the wands later.) But unless you imagined yourself or your children standing in line with scores of other people waiting your turn, you need to get there before everyone else.

Casting a successful spell in a virtually empty Diagon Alley is magical; being 10th in line to perform the same trick is frustrating and a bit ludicrous.

When you arrive at the parks, go directly to Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley, wander around, take it all in, maybe browse the shops—enjoy the scenery and the atmosphere of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter before everyone else gets there. Then, once the rest of the world arrives, use your Express Pass to quickly hop on the various Harry Potter-themed rides.

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4. Stay at a Universal Studios Hotel

Speaking of getting to the park early, staying at a Universal Studios hotel is one of the easiest Harry Potter theme park tips to take advantage of. My family stayed at the retro-chic Cabana Bay Beach Resort, which offers a free shuttle to the parks and is within walking distance of Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure, Universal City Walk, and the Volcano Bay Water Park.

The major advantage of staying at the Cabana Bay or another Universal Studios resort, as opposed to other area hotels, is the early access to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. When you book, check which park is offering early access during your scheduled dates and plan your visit accordingly. Some Universal Resort packages also include Universal Express and Universal Express Unlimited Passes.

One small advantage of staying at a Universal Studios resort: access to the gift shop merchandise at your hotel. Sure, it’s crass commercialism, but let’s face it—you’re probably going to buy that Gryffindor Quidditch team captain T-shirt anyway, so why not buy it during your down time at the hotel instead of wasting time shopping at the parks?

5. You Don’t Have to Buy Your Interactive Wand at the Park

If you’ve always dreamed of wandering into Ollivander’s and letting your wand choose you—then by all means buy the wand at Universal Studios. You won’t be disappointed with the attention to detail inside the wand shop. But if you do go this route, arrive early, go straight to Ollivanders Wand Shop (in Diagon Alley) or Dervish and Banges (in Hogsmeade) and make your purchase before the line begins to stretch outside the store.

If you’re more interested in casting spells with your wand than the experience of purchasing it, do yourself a favor and buy the wand literally anywhere else. There’s a Universal Studios gift shop at the Orlando airport and in all the Universal hotels. You can even buy it online before you arrive.

You’re going to spend upwards of $50 per wand no matter where you get it. Don’t stand in line if you don’t have to. This applies to nearly all of the merchandise you can find in the park.

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…Or Buy Ahead!

Harry Potter Costume set via Amazon

For all you Harry Potter fanatics out there, what better way to stay in the moment than to emulate Harry or any of your other favorite characters from the series with a packable, light costume from Amazon?

6. Try the Butterbeer

This non-alcoholic drink, which comes in both cold and frozen varieties, is sold everywhere inside the Harry Potter areas of the parks. Depending on where you purchase your drinks, you might come away with a replica goblet or beer stein souvenir as well. The sweet and frothy brew tastes like a combination of cream soda and butterscotch, but pinning down the exact flavor is hard to do—other than to say it’s pretty much perfection.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that drinking the butterbeer might be reason enough to visit the Harry Potter theme park. It’s that good. Often imitated, never equaled, the secret recipe for butterbeer is a closely guarded culinary secret—and it really hits the spot when the Orlando temperatures start to rise.

7. Check Height Requirements Beforehand

There are only a handful of actual Harry Potter theme park rides, but they are all pretty wonderful. Just be sure to check height requirements before you get in line (or get your child excited for a ride he or she won’t be allowed on). Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey’s height requirement is 48 inches; Flight of the Hippogriff is 36 inches; Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts is 42 inches. There is no minimum height requirement for the Hogwarts Express.

8. You Might Want to Repeat the Rides

Opinions vary on which is the best ride inside the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park, but my kids loved Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts the best. My personal favorite was Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which takes you inside Hogwarts. Even waiting in line for the Harry Potter rides is a fun experience for Potter fans, because the walls inside the castle are alive with moving portraits and other interesting set pieces.

It’s worth noting that the Universal Express line and the standard entry line inside Hogwarts take different routes to the ride’s starting point. If you’re a huge fan, you might want to wait in the standard line at some point just for the experience. Get there early for the standard line entry and then go again with your Express Pass.

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9. Bring a Small Backpack (or No Backpack at All)

You can bring backpacks and snacks into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park areas of Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, but you can’t bring bags with you on most of the rides.

The park offers free lockers for use during the ride, but there are a few things you should know. First, the lockers are fairly small—so only bring a small backpack or purse with you to the park. Second, the lines to use the lockers can be long and the area around them crowded. If you can avoid bringing a backpack to the park, you’ll save yourself some time and hassle.

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Josh Roberts visited The Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park as a guest of Universal Studios Florida. Follow him on Instagram at @jauntist and on Facebook @JoshRobertsBooks.

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Active Travel Adventure Travel Arts & Culture Beach Booking Strategy Budget Travel Cities

10 Exotic Dream Trips You Can Take in 2018


For many of us, the new year brings dreams of new travel destinations. And even if your other dreams and resolutions for 2018 have already fallen to the wayside, it’s not too late to make this the year that your dream trip becomes a reality. Whether your ideal getaway involves sun-soaked beaches, fairytale castles, epic long-distance hikes, or exclusive safaris, there’s an adventure for every taste and budget.

The Best Dream Trips for 2018

Here’s a sampling of the best dream trips you can take in 2018—many of them newly designed for the year ahead.

Visit an Exclusive Private Game Reserve at Thanda Safari in South Africa

[st_content_ad]Imagine a place where Africa’s famed Big Five game animals—lions, elephants, rhinoceroses, leopards, and Cape buffalo—roam freely in a spacious natural habitat, protected from hunters and poachers yet easily accessible to curious travelers. Imagine yourself there in the foothills of South Africa’s Drakensburg Mountains, led by a seasoned tracker and armed not with a hunting rifle but a camera. Now imagine you have an expert wildlife photographer at your side to teach you the secrets of capturing these magnificent animals up close in the African Bush.

At Thanda Safari, a five-star World Tourism Award-winning private game reserve in South Africa, you don’t have to imagine it. You can live it with a stay at the luxury reserve’s upscale lodge, luxury camping tents, or private villa. This African outfitter combines all of the traditional elements of a once-in-a-lifetime safari with a commitment to supporting the local Zulu culture and caring for the environment. There’s no better time to visit than in 2018, when South Africa celebrates Nelson Mandela’s centenary.

Important Information: Local staff and guides enhance the experience and provide cultural immersion opportunities. Guests can opt to stay in a traditional safari lodge, a luxury safari camping tent, or a private villa.

Provider: Thanda Safari Private Game Reserve

Price: ‎$687 to $1,389 (based on average rates for a standard room)

Sail the Coast of Sri Lanka with G Adventures

Sri Lanka, an island nation in the emerald waters of the Indian Ocean, is the up-and-coming destination for international travelers in Southeast Asia. But more interest naturally means bigger crowds, too, which is why G Adventures‘ intimate new seven-day sailing trip around the southern coast of the island is a perfect way to discover this rising destination in 2018. In addition to exploring ancient forts, remote beach towns, and tiny fishing villages, you’ll also have ample time to relax, surf, and snorkel.

This is a brand-new itinerary for G Adventures in 2018, making it a must-book dream trip for avid travelers who want to be the first to see a hot destination that’s high on rewards and low on crowds.

Important Information: Travelers must be at least 16 years old to book this trip. Light physical activity, including hiking, kayaking, rafting, and walking, is required. This is a small-group trip with a maximum group size of eight people.

Provider: G Adventures

Price: Starting at $1,359 from G Adventures

Hike Japan’s Long-Distance Paths with Walk Japan

Beyond the bright lights and sensory overload of Tokyo, Japan’s rural past lives on in its serene long-distance walking routes, many of which are offered as guided trips by tour operator Walk Japan. Nakasendo Way, one of the five established routes used during the Edo period, once connected Edo—modern day Tokyo—to Kyoto for pedestrian travelers. Today you can take a guided walking tour of Nakasendo Way for a taste of old Japan—while still benefitting from a few modern amenities, like baggage transfers between stops.

Important Information: Walk Japan’s five-day guided tour of Nakasendo Way: The Kiso Road can be booked for travel in March, April, May, June, September, October, or November. A longer and more strenuous alternative is also available.

Provider: Walk Japan

Price: Starting at 216,000 YEN (about $1,900 USD at time of publication) from Walk Japan

Uncover the Mysteries of Easter Island at Explora Rapa Nui

A far-flung and mystical destination hundreds of miles off the coast of mainland Chile, Easter Island (called Rapa Nui by its indigenous people) often finds its way onto the bucket lists of passionate travelers. Just 63 square miles in size, Rapa Nui packs a lot of adventure into its small stature: Think volcanos, beaches, wild horses, and of course moai statues—the famous “Easter Island heads” that have confounded explorers and archeologists for centuries.

There’s no better way to see all of Rapa Nui than with a stay at the famed Explora Rapa Nui lodge, which celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2018. At Explora, you can select from more than 30 guided explorations of the island based on your personal interests and fitness level. And at the end of the day, you’ll return to the lodge for a glass of Chilean wine or a frisky pisco sour, or perhaps indulge at the spa amid a luxe environment with waterfront views.

Important Information: Local staff and guides enhance the experience and provide cultural immersion opportunities.

Provider: Explora Rapa Nui

Price: $996 to $1,754 (based on average rates for a standard room)

Animate Your Summer at Disney’s New Toy Story Land in Florida

Last year it was Pandora—The World of Avatar. Next year, it will be Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge. But don’t overlook this summer’s big Disney Parks reveal: Toy Story Land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

Featuring new rides like the Slinky Dog Dash and Alien Swirling Saucers, as well as a carnival-themed 4-D arcade, Toy Story Land is primed to be the hottest ticket in Orlando this summer.

Important Information: Final dates have yet to be announced, but Toy Story Land is expected to open in time for the summer travel season. Some Disney hotels will also feature Toy Story décor this summer.

Provider: Disney’s Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando

Price: Starting at $99 for a one-day pass to Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Relax at a Floating Hotel Off the Coast of British Columbia

Located in the Haida Gwaii archipelago off the coast of British Columbia, the spectacular Ocean House floating hotel offers isolation-seekers the ultimate opportunity to experience a remote part of the world in virtual solitude.

Newly opened in 2018, the Ocean House offers three-, four-, and seven-night adventure travel packages highlighting the culture and natural environs of the local Haida people—all with unexpectedly luxurious touches. Activities include guided rainforest hikes amongst old-growth forests and up-close explorations of ancient Haida villages now returning to wilderness. Pair a stay at the Ocean House with the floating hotel’s sister property, the Haida House, located in the village of Tlell on Haida Gwaii’s east coast, for even more opportunities to explore and relax.

Important Information: Packages include return flights to Vancouver, as well as helicopter transfers to and from Ocean House. Meals, snacks, non-alcoholic beverages, and adventure activities are also included.

Provider: Ocean House in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia

Price: Starting at $4,410 per guest

Discover Cyprus, a Mediterranean Alternative to Croatia, with Intrepid Travel

Tourists love the Mediterranean Sea so much that Europe’s most popular coastal countries become a sea unto themselves every summer—a sea of tourists, that is. But that’s not the case in sunny Northern Cyprus, a dream trip candidate that remains gloriously unspoiled by mass tourism. One of the best kept secrets in the region, Northern Cyprus delivers peaceful beaches and plenty of sunshine, sans crowds.

Intrepid Travel‘s new eight-day Northern Cyprus guided trip lets you explore ancient monasteries and fairytale castles (including Saint Hilarion Castle, said to be the inspiration for the castle in Disney’s Snow White and Seven Dwarfs), swim along the coast, and relax against an idyllic Mediterranean backdrop. It’s relatively inexpensive, too—especially considering what you get for the price: private transportation, seven nights’ accommodations, bread and cheese making experiences, a day cruise, and multiple castle and monastery visits.

Important Information: This eight-day trip runs four times between May and October 2018. The minimum age of participants is 15 years old. Maximum group size is 12 people.

Provider: Intrepid Travel

Price: Starting at $1,054 from Intrepid Travel

Witness Iceland’s Northern Lights with Wilderness Travel

Once ignored considered more of a stopover than a destination in and of itself, Iceland is now among the top dream trips for adventure seekers and casual tourists alike. Yet even with its recent surge in visitors, the country shows no hint of being spoiled by its popularity. Perhaps that’s because the best parts of this sparsely populated island nation remain inaccessible except to the hardy few who venture into its vast and icy wilderness.

New for 2018, upscale adventure outfitter Wilderness Travel has assembled what might be the ultimate Icelandic experience: eight days of hiking, snowshoeing, and star gazing during the darkest months of the year in search of the elusive Northern Lights. If snowshoeing across lava fields and spelunking through lava tubes is your jam, this is the trip for you.

Important Information: This eight-day winter trip is recommended for those who are physically able to complete all excursions. Departures are offered in February, March, and November 2018.

Provider: Wilderness Travel

Price: Starting at $7895 from Wilderness Travel

Explore the Galapagos by Catamaran with Exodus Travel

The Galapagos Islands need no introduction, but this new-for-2018 dream trip offers a whole new way to see this remote archipelago with popular adventure travel company Exodus Travel: onboard the Nemo II, a First Class Motor Sail Catamaran with room for the whole family.

This brand-new itinerary is the perfect trip for those looking to bring a dream family vacation to life. The itinerary includes snorkeling, guided walks through the islands, and plenty of up-close photo opportunities in Exodus Travel’s trademark responsible travel style.

Important Information: This is a leisurely trip appropriate for most fitness levels. The minimum age for participants is eight years old. Maximum group size is 14 people. Departures are available in April, July, and August 2018. A local leader accompanies travel parties on their adventure.

Provider: Exodus Travels

Price: Starting at $5,655 for adults and $5,385 for children from Exodus Travel

Experience Europe’s Last Great Adventure with Wild Frontiers Adventure Travel

You have to be a certain kind of traveler to hear about a place called the “Accursed Mountains” and think to yourself, “Yes, that sounds like a dream trip to me.” If you’re just such a traveler, then a) we are kindred spirits, and b) get yourself to the Albanian Alps—the so-called Accursed Mountains—to discover a seemingly endless wilderness of alpine lakes, rugged river valleys, secluded villages, and staggering limestone gorges.

This is, in many respects, the last underexplored wilderness in Europe, and Wild Frontiers Adventure Travel‘s eight-day guided trip takes you there for a week’s worth of hardcore hiking against an indescribably spectacular backdrop.

Important Information: This trip requires a high level of physical fitness. All breakfasts, lunches, and dinners are included. You will spend five nights in hotels and two in local guesthouses. Departures are available in June and September 2018.

Provider: Wild Frontiers Adventure Travel

Price: Starting at $1,349 from Wild Frontiers Adventure Travel

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Josh Roberts believes the best trips involve long hikes and muddy boots. His life goals haven’t changed much since he was a kid: He still wants to be Indiana Jones when he grows up. Follow him on Instagram at @jauntist and on Facebook @JoshRobertsBooks.

Categories
Family Travel Outdoors Road Trip Romantic Travel Weekend Getaways

How to Do a Fall Weekend in Woodstock, Vermont


For a quick getaway filled with vibrant colors and country charm, you can’t beat a fall weekend in Woodstock, Vermont. With opportunities for hiking, shopping, and fine dining in a classic New England village that looks like a postcard come to life, Woodstock is the quintessential place to take advantage of a seasonal weekend escape.

Where to Stay in Woodstock, Vermont

Head to the Woodstock Inn & Resort, a fully renovated and bigger-on-the-inside historic Colonial inn that’s been transformed into a year-round resort experience—complete with a spa, golf course, and upscale farm-to-table dining scene. Elegant yet cozy, the Woodstock Inn is centrally located on the town green, right in the middle of the action and within easy walking distance of nearly all seasonal activities.

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The highlight of every room at the Woodstock Inn is the natural wood-burning fireplaces (precut wood and matches are waiting upon arrival). Start your own fire and then sit back and enjoy warm, romantic nights during your fall getaway.

Fall Weekend in Woodstock: Your Friday Schedule

Arrive in the afternoon—Woodstock is just two hours driving from Boston or five hours from New York City. After check-in at the Woodstock Inn, enjoy complimentary coffee, tea, and cookies in the inn’s conservatory, or wander just minutes from the hotel for coffee and treat at the downtown Mon Vert Cafe.

For dinner, head to the inn’s upscale farm-to-table Red Rooster restaurant, and then settle in for a relaxing evening by firelight in your room. Rest up—you’ll have a busy day tomorrow.

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Fall Weekend in Woodstock: Your Saturday Schedule

Start the day with a leisurely farm-fresh breakfast at the Woodstock Inn, and then walk to the charming downtown (less than five minutes by foot from the inn) where you’ll find an eclectic array of local shops.

Begin your shopping excursion with a stop at Unicorn, known for its kitschy variety of toys, gifts, souvenirs, and jewelry products you won’t find anywhere else. It’s a wonderful place to pick up a special something to remember your trip or get a head start on your holiday shopping.

Next, wander into F.H. Gillingham and Sons, a classic general store in the truest sense, still owned and operated by the family that established the shop in 1886. It’s still housed in the original building, too. Here, you can pick up fresh Vermont cheese, rich Maple syrup, and other local specialties.

For book lovers, the highlight of your morning shopping will be a visit to The Yankee Bookshop, Vermont’s oldest continuously operated independent bookshop (since 1935). Pick up a new read to enjoy back by the fireplace in your room.

If you’re a foodie, hop in the car and drive a half hour to King Arthur Flour. Here you can purchase your favorite fresh ingredients, take a baking class, or enjoy lunch or coffee at the cafe.

After lunch, hit the highways and byways of Vermont to take in the fall foliage—just about everywhere you go will be scenic. Or, for a more active encounter, get a dose of fresh air on a local hiking trail. Hiking trails for all skill levels can be found at nearby Mt. Tom—it’s easily summited in just a few hours, but yields technicolor views of the surrounding valley—or Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Park, which is home to miles of mostly flat walking and carriage trails.

Enjoy a Saturday evening dinner back at the Woodstock Inn’s more relaxed in-house restaurant, Richardson’s Tavern. Don’t leave without sampling the cheese fondue for two.

Fall Weekend in Woodstock: Your Sunday Itinerary

After another breakfast at the Woodstock Inn, your first stop on Sunday should be the Billings Farm & Museum, where you can explore one of the best outdoor museums in the country. (Admission is free for guests of the inn.) In addition to being a museum dedicated to preserving Vermont’s rural heritage, it’s also a fully-operational Jersey dairy farm where you can see draft horses, Jersey cows, and even some roaming sheep. Take a tour of the gorgeously preserved 1890 Farm House, where you can see what life was like on the farm during its Victorian-era heyday.

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Across the street, visit the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller Mansion to find out what it was like to be the wealthiest resident of the community. Originally built in 1805, this home was renovated and modernized multiple times over the next two centuries. Currently, you’re able to catch a glimpse of what it was like when the Rockefeller family left the home in 1997. Guided tours are available at select times.

Finally, return to the Woodstock Inn for a luxurious spa treatment before you head back to reality. From premium massages to multi-layer body treatments and alternative therapies like Reiki and reflexology, you’re sure to find a treatment that’ll allow you to end your fall weekend in Woodstock on a relaxing note.

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Josh Roberts visited Woodstock, Vermont, as a guest of the Woodstock Inn & Resort. Follow him on Instagram at @jauntist and on Facebook JoshRobertsBooks.

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Active Travel Luxury Travel Outdoors Photography

At Thanda Safari, Rhino Tracking Is (Literally) a Walk in the Park


Few things in life have ever gotten my heart pumping as much as stalking a 5,000-pound rhinoceros on foot through the African bush.

To be clear, I wasn’t hunting the rhino—I was tracking it alongside a team of professional wildlife researchers inside Thanda Safari, a non-hunting private game reserve in South Africa. It’s one of the many unique programs offered by Thanda to get guests like me out of the safari vehicles and into the wilderness, up close with the African wildlife.

[st_content_ad]In my case, very up close.

My safari’s Specialist Rhino Monitor, a burly 28-year-old Afrikaner from Johannesburg named Morné Arnold, had been leading my small group on the trail of a rhinoceros for nearly an hour—inspecting old tracks, observing impressions in the grass, and generally following the trail like a professional wildlife CSI—when we suddenly found ourselves no more than 20 yards away from three enormous white rhinos.

I froze. We all froze. What else can you do when you’re close enough to witness three mammoth rhinos snorting, snuffling, and chewing in the wild—not to mention occasionally raising their heads to sniff you whenever the breeze shifts?

For me, that was the moment that drove home the essential truth of an African safari: In the bush, out there on foot and surrounded by wildlife, you’re a guest in their house. And you’d better behave like it.

I think that’s the kind of perspective a stay at Thanda Safari is designed to inspire. This isn’t a Disney animal park—it’s nature, unfiltered. Thanda positions you to experience it up close, camera in hand, for the kind of unique safari experience you’ll never forget.

A Focus on Wildlife Photography

Thanda Safari is a luxury Big Five private game reserve located in KwaZulu-Natal, the Zulu homeland, not far from the beaches of Durban and the Drakensberg mountain range. I visited in June as a guest of the property, during the dry season when the weather was a pleasant 70 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and a mild 50 degrees after dark. That made for comfortable game drives and bush walks, as well as great lighting all day long—excellent conditions for taking wildlife photos.

The ideal conditions were no accident. Thanda is the place to take a private safari in South Africa if wildlife photography factors into your plans. Included in every stay is a 90-minute instructional session with Thanda’s Resident Wildlife Photographer, Christian Sperka. That’s a big deal because Thanda is the only game reserve in South Africa with its own resident wildlife photographer available to give lessons or take guests on guided game drives.

My private session with Sperka covered the basics of wildlife photography with instruction tailored to my specific camera and experience level. “The most important thing about teaching wildlife photography in this setting is to actually sit down and go through the individual’s equipment and ensure they understand its full capabilities,” Sperka told me in a post-trip interview via Skype. “And, of course, guests must be shown how to capture animals in motion. I start with the camera set-up and can tailor my instruction for those who are already more advanced.”

Like me, a lot of guests come to Sperka for instruction on capturing wildlife photography with an iPhone. “I do a lot of work with smartphones,” Sperka told me. “And even there, it’s possible to greatly improve people’s photography. Many people have no idea how to get the most out of their phone’s camera, for example.” Others in my small group brought small and medium-sized SLRs as well. Sperka’s course offered tailored instruction for each camera.

Sperka can also take interested guests out in a remodeled Land Rover he’s dubbed The Green Mamba—a luxurious game-viewing vehicle that’s been custom-built for photographers. “I wanted to create a vehicle that’s more than a typical game drive vehicle: one that has everything that I as a wildlife photographer of 17 years would like to have. And a bit of extra luxury, too,” Sperka told me.

Among the special features: extra-space seating for two photographers to allow for taking wildlife photos from many angles, a canvas floor for kneeling to shoot at eye level, movable padded armrests to allow for additional shooting options over the side of the vehicle, and a built-in iPad to refer to for information about the game reserve’s many species of mammals and birds. And because this is a luxury safari experience, The Green Mamba also features a martini bar (for martinis and other drinks, including the signature Thanda Martini and the Thanda Gold Long Drink) and a built-in Nespresso coffee machine and milk frother (for those early morning game drives).

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Elephant at sunrise.

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Why Choose a Private Game Reserve

Most people think of the big national parks, like Kruger, when they think of a South Africa safari. But if you only have a limited time to visit, a private game reserve may offer the better safari experience.

Thanda Safari, at 14,000 hectares (roughly 35,000 acres), is just the right size for guaranteed wildlife sightings. I saw elephants moving freely across the landscape, a pack of lions stalking a herd of Cape Buffalos in tall grass at sunset, and zebras and giraffes and rhinos all in their natural environment. And I didn’t have to search for days to see them, either.

Thanda’s open-top safari vehicles, and the opportunity to venture off-road for better sightings, are also typical of the kind of private game reserve experience that’s not widely available at the larger national parks—to say nothing of the guided bush walks and rhino tracking expeditions that put you up close with the wildlife.

Accommodations at Thanda Safari Private Game Reserve

Thanda offers three lodging arrangements tailored to different interests, group sizes, and budgets: a safari lodge featuring nine private bush suites and a shared common area, a private villa for large groups (perfect for multi-generational families, for example), and a tented camp (think: “glamping”) for a true luxury bush experience.

Located in the heart of KwaZulu-Natal, on the eastern side of South Africa, Thanda is situated in a low-risk malaria zone. Generally speaking, bug spray is a sufficient precaution, rather than prescription malaria pills. No cases of malaria have been reported in the area in decades. This is an especially great consideration for those with young children. (Another Thanda perk: It welcomes children, a rarity on safaris.)

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Young lioness at rest.

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Getting to Thanda Safari

I flew from New York to Johannesburg on South African Airways and continued on via another South African Airways flight to Durban, a lively little beach town just a few hours by car or bus from Thanda.

Johannesburg is a 15-hour flight from New York; it’s about 20 hours from Los Angeles. No matter how you slice it, that’s a long time to travel. Build in a day or two in Durban either before or after your safari to offset the long travel time. I stayed at the historic Oyster Box hotel, right on the Indian Ocean, where the sunrise views were a great way to cap a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

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Bucket-list walking safari ☑️

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Executive Editor Josh Roberts believes the best trips involve long hikes and muddy boots. His life goals haven’t changed much since he was a kid: He still wants to be Indiana Jones when he grows up. Follow him on Instagram at @jauntist and on Facebook @JoshRobertsBooks.

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Iridium 9555 Satellite Phone Review: Now You Can Stay in Touch Anywhere on Earth


It’s not easy being a travel writer and a dad. I’m not complaining—I love my job. I get to travel to the ends of the Earth, sometimes literally, on my “business trips.” (My wife insists I add the quotation marks there.)

But those same trips often involve a week or more of trekking in remote mountains where getting even one bar on my cell phone is a pipe dream. My son is nine; my daughter, seven. It’s hard for me to be away from them, and even harder being in a place where I can’t check in to make sure everything is okay at home. And when I’m at risk of plummeting off a mountaintop “for work,” my wife and kids like to hear that everything is fine with me, too.

Enter the Iridium 9555 satellite phone. For my most recent trip, a long trek through the Andes in Peru, I rented the Iridium 9555 from satphonestore.com with the hope of being able to check in with my family once a day.

I contacted the rental company and told a customer service representative about my planned trip. My question: Would I be able to get reception on the satphone in a mountainous region where I’d be a hundred miles from the nearest cell tower?

“The Iridium 9555 would be a great choice for your trip to Peru,” the representative told me via email. “And the phone does both voice and SMS messaging.”

All right, I thought. Let’s give it a try. Here’s how it worked out for me.

Iridium 9555 Satellite Phone Review

Price and Where to Buy the Iridium 9555 Satellite Phone: I rented the Iridium 9555 satellite phone from satphonestore.com. The base price for the rental is $49 for one week, with the option to rent for additional weeks or up to six months ($625). You also buy prepaid airtime (I bought the least expensive package, 50 minutes for $77, with the option to go as high as 300 prepaid minutes for $357) and can choose to add additional accessories like a solar charger, spare battery, etc. All told, my three-week rental came to about $280 for the phone, the prepaid minutes, a case, a spare battery, rental insurance, and a prepaid return slip. You can buy the phone outright for about $1,000.

How the Iridium 9555 Satellite Phone Rates:

Usefulness: 9/10. Every night around 7:00 p.m., I turned on my phone, waited a minute for it to find the network, and then dialed home. Nothing beats hearing your kids’ voices when you’re camping in the mountains 4,000 miles away. The phone also has voicemail and texting, neither of which I used beyond testing for the sake of this review, but they also worked as expected. It can receive calls, too, but I kept it turned off except when I wanted to make a call in order to preserve the battery life.

Reception was inconsistent—I’d get the occasional choppy voice, and the sound was a bit tinny at times, but I didn’t expect 4G service. My average calls were just a few minutes long: Enough to say “hi” and hear about everyone’s day, but not long enough for in-depth conversation. The calls would often cut off after a few minutes, and if I wanted to call back I’d have to wait for the phone to find the network again.

Value: 8/10. Can you put a price on peace of mind? The phone rental is expensive, no question, but in this case there were truly no other alternatives for keeping in touch. I feel like I got my money’s worth.

Portability: 10/10. The Iridium 9555 satellite phone is fairly light and about the size of an old-school cellphone circa 2005. The whole kit—battery, charger, and all., couldn’t have weighed more than a pound and took up almost no room in my bag. It’s worth noting that the batteries are lithium ion, though, and cannot be packed in checked luggage for flights, per TSA regulations.

Final Verdict: I recommend the Iridium 9555 satellite phone rental to anyone who plans to be outside of cellphone range and wants or needs to stay in touch for personal or safety reasons. I’ll definitely use it for future hiking, trekking, and camping trips when “work” takes me to the remotest regions of the world. Everest Base Camp, here I come.

Editor’s Note: Reviews are based on usefulness, portability, and value. Some review products are sent to us free of charge and with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions, positive and negative, and will never accept compensation to review a product. If you have any questions or comments concerning our reviews, or would like to suggest a product for review, please email us at editor@smartertravel.com.

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