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At Home Luxury Travel

5 Hotel Comforts You Can Get for Your Bedroom

I can’t tell you how to get turndown service every night, but I can show you the best ways to make your bedroom feel like a hotel room. It’s easier than ever to find the same sheets, mattresses, and more that your favorite hotels use. Follow these tips to get five-star-worthy sleep every night.

Recreate Your Favorite Hotel Bed

Marriott hotel mattress.

Want to recreate the feel of your last Marriott stay at home? You can buy the same experience at Marriott’s online shop, which sells the same brand of mattresses, bedding sets, and pillows that are used in the hotels.

Want to find your favorite hotel’s beds at a more affordable price? It’s fairly easy to find what mattress the property uses with a quick online search. For example, Westin touts its world-famous Heavenly Bed, but it’s a widely known secret that the Heavenly Bed is just a Simmons Beautyrest mattress, which you can find for much cheaper at places like Wayfair.com. Added bonus: Wayfair allows you to return mattresses for free for up to 100 days after you buy it, so you can really sleep on your decision.

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Pillows

Marriott pillows

Discovered your new favorite pillow on a hotel’s pillow menu? Find out which pillow it was using DOWNLITE’s hotel bedding finder search engine. The brand makes pillows for a number of different hotel chains, so you can find the exact model you want and then purchase your pillow on Amazon. Or go directly to the hotel’s website—like Marriott, many other brands have their own bedding shops.

Sheets and Blankets

Garnet hill down alternative

Even if you don’t splurge on a new mattress, topping off your old bed with luxurious new sheets can transform your sleep. The majority of luxury hotels use all-white bedding for that crisp and clean look, so emulate that style for upscale impact. Look for high-thread-count sheets made from percale, which tends to feel lighter and airier than other materials. The Company Store’s 400-Thread Count Supmia Percale Sheet Set is made from American-grown cotton that feels amazing—the set has an option for an extra-deep fitted sheet so you don’t have to fight with a fitted sheet that slides off the corners of your mattress in the middle of the night.

Luxury Hotels use duvets rather than old-fashioned comforters—this helps rooms look cleaner and more pulled-together, and allows just the cover to be washed in between guests, rather than the whole comforter. Garnet Hill’s Signature Down-Alternative All-Season Comforter is the perfect choice, thanks to its cruelty- and allergy-free filling, which gives you weight without overheating. This duvet manages to be light in the summer months but still cozy during the winter.

Top off the bed with an extra blanket for warmth (or just for style). Garnet Hill’s Twisted-Rib Cashmere Throw is made from an indulgent 100 percent cashmere knit that’s sourced from purebred Kashmir goats in Mongolia to make the softest blanket I’ve ever felt. For something a little lighter, The Company Store’s Cotton/Bamboo Blanket is the perfect layer for summer months when most other blankets are too hot.

Blackout Curtains

Remote control blackout blinds

The best hotels have blackout curtains that leave your room pitch black, no matter the time of day. Splurge on remote-controlled blackout roller shades that can open and close without you needing to get out of bed. Or, for the more frugal and less lazy among us, a good pair of blackout curtains will not only block light but also insulate the room in winter and keep the heat of the sun out in summer.

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Decor

Dimmable light

Dimming the lights before bed lets your body know it’s time for sleep. A dimmable table lamp for your nightstand allows you to read or relax with minimal light.

Hang a calming photo across from your bed to help you unwind and clear your head before going to sleep. Photo-printing site Fracture will print your photos on glass for a luxury look with no frame required.

Add a plant that doesn’t require much light or maintenance to your bedside table—studies have shown that plants can help purify the air, helping you breathe better at night.

Some of Our Favorites Bedroom Essentials

For info on these editor-selected items, click to visit the seller’s site. Things you buy may earn us a commission.

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Caroline Morse Teel is a Principal Editor at SmarterTravel. Follow her on Instagram @travelwithcaroline.

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.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2019. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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Adventure Travel Experiential Travel Group Travel Island Luxury Travel

10 Rules for Sailing the Seychelles

Remote, wild, lush—when the first European explorers discovered the 115-archipelago that is the Seychelles, they thought they had found the Garden of Eden.

Upon arriving at these pristine, white sand, palm tree-fringed islands populated with gorgeous creatures that don’t roam the earth anywhere else, I wasn’t sure that they were wrong.

On my island-hopping cruise around the Seychelles with Zegrahm Expeditions, I learned a few valuable lessons that apply to the Seychelles or any adventure.

Always Get Off the Boat

Our Zegrahm Expeditions cruise director wanted to manage expectations. The snorkeling wasn’t as good as some of the other times, the announcement warned. There was a light chop in the water, and we might not see as many fish as before. Not needing more of an excuse to stay in bed for a long post-lunch nap, many people opted to stay on the boat. I dragged myself out and had one of my favorite snorkels of all time, thanks to two sea turtles that joined me (apparently they didn’t get the announcement). Sure, I swallowed some seawater due to the waves, but I would have always wondered what I’d missed if I didn’t go out.

Take a Trusted Guide (or 14)

Me, on this trip: “I saw a fish; it was shaped like a potato but a bright yellow color.” “What’s that crazy thing that looks like it’s embedded inside a rock but has teeth and moves?” Rich Pagen, a conservation biologist and one of our designated marine life guides/”fish guys” onboard always had an answer for me, no matter how odd my description sounded.

We had a team of 14 expedition guides on this trip, with expertise in microbiology, ornithology, anthropology, and more—it was like having access to a highly specialized (and fact-checked) Wikipedia of the Seychelles. The experts dined with us at every meal and were always socializing in the ship’s lounge at night, so we could corner them with more questions at any time.

Perhaps most importantly, we had Gemma Jessy, a naturalist and native Seychelloise. Gemma grew up on the island of Praslin and was invaluable for her knowledge of the Seychelles’ history, culture, and best places to go.

If you try to do this trip alone, you’ll miss out on the knowledge, stories, and expertise that make it so memorable.

Ask Questions

Don’t be afraid of looking dumb. Ask the question. The experts onboard won’t judge you, and you’ll learn things in a way that you’ll remember for the rest of your life. It’s better to say “hey, what’s that?” any time you see a unique bird or animal and get an instantaneous answer (usually along with a few fun facts) rather than try to Google it yourself later.

However, if you’re the person who asked (while we were on a boat) what elevation we were at, the other guests might judge you a little. Blame your mental lapse on the altitude sickness.

Never Miss a Sunset

On a cruise, your daily life can be a bit regimented. There are set times for meals and activities, with repeated announcements to get you to the right place at the right time. But sunset is an extracurricular that you’ll have to plan for on your own.

Make it a priority to figure out what time the sun sets each day and which side of the boat will be best for viewing. Be settled in well before the sun dips below the horizon, so you can watch the sky gradually change from a golden glow to a fiery red—the show is spectacular, wildly unproductive, and different every night.

Saving time for simple joys in life like a sunset can remind you to slow down and appreciate each day.

Bring SPF 50…

…and a sun shirt, swim tights, and a bandanna. The Seychelles are only a few hundred miles from the equator, and the sun is merciless down here. Any inch of exposed skin gets sunburned after an hour or two in the water, so covering up is the way to go. Just make sure that any sunscreen you wear is reef-safe.

Covering up is a reminder that sometimes, there’s an easier and simpler solution to what you’ve always done (slathering yourself in sunscreen).

Don’t Forget to Look Up

Change your viewpoint from what’s in front of you and you’ll find more stars than you’d know the sky contained. Birds you won’t see anywhere else on the planet, eyeing you with confusion and curiosity but no fear. Clouds lit up by the setting sun. Stunning, clear blue skies with an unbroken horizon that you could lose yourself in.

Sometimes in life, we’re so focused on what’s in front of us, or watching our feet so we don’t trip, that we forget to look up and appreciate the bigger picture.

Minimize Your Impact

The Seychelles are special because they are so untouched by humanity. Follow the “leave no trace” rule by packing out anything you bring in and never stealing anything (like sand or shells) for a souvenir.

Protect the wildlife by keeping your distance from animals, who can catch diseases from humans or learn bad behaviors. Never touch a coral reef (the oils from your skin can cause destruction), and avoid kicking or walking on coral, which can kill it.  

Many of our Zegrahm guides on this trip made their own reef-safe sunscreen, picked up marine trash, and even took home plastic water bottles for recycling—emulate that behavior. 

Don’t Give up the Moment for the Photograph

I could have taken a million photos and videos and never quite accurately recreated the delicate light here, the sparkling emerald-turquoise color of the waves, or the softness of the sand. If I spent the whole time trying, I would have missed out on the real-life moment.

Snap a photo or two and then put the camera down, so you can fully embrace this moment in time that you’ll never have again. Feel the heat of the sun warming your skin. Smell the unpolluted fresh air. Taste the salt spray on your lips. Run the sand through your fingers and marvel at its softness. Be fully present, and the memory will stick with you much longer than any photo.

Leave Your Plastics at Home

The Seychelles have banned plastic bags, cups, plates, and cutlery. Remember that as you’re packing and leave your Ziploc bags behind—and think about how you can replace them with eco-friendly alternatives. It was an eye-opening lesson to me as I was packing for this trip just how much I rely on one-time use plastic bags for travel, and I’ve now replaced them with reusable alternatives.

Be Flexible

The Seychelles are wild, and you can’t plan your trip down to the minute, unless you want to miss out on an amazing snorkel because you refused to wait for the right tide. No matter where you go, you can’t plan every minute of your trip, or you’ll lose the chance for spontaneous adventures to occur.

Be flexible in your plans, release your expectations, and give yourself up to the flow of the islands—you’ll be rightly rewarded.

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Caroline Morse Teel was hosted by Zegrahm Expeditions on its Ultimate Seychelles Tour With Aldabra Atoll. Follow her on Instagram @travelwithcaroline for pictures of the tour and more.

Categories
Booking Strategy Luxury Travel

The World’s 6 Most Incredible Luxury Train Trips

There’s something timeless about traveling aboard a luxury train: the white-glove service, the exotic scenery rushing by, the rhythm of the rails rocking you to sleep in your own comfortable private berth. While luxury train trips operate all over the world, only a few rise to the top as being truly unforgettable.

Luxury Train Trips

Below I’ve picked the six best luxury train trips, taking you to places as far-flung as Bangkok, Cape Town, and Moscow. These trains provide all accommodations in private compartments for two or more, plus inclusive dining and other onboard services.

Legendary: The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

Easily the top of the top, this modern incarnation of the world’s most famous train, the Orient Express, evokes images of the colorful Middle East, mysterious Eastern Europe, and, of course, classic mystery with Agatha Christie character Hercule Poirot. Recently reopened rail connections allow the train to complete its original itinerary between Paris and Istanbul, which it does  once a year; overnight stops include Budapest and Bucharest. The base price for Paris-Istanbul is about $20,300 (per person, double occupancy). Unlike other luxury trains, the Orient Express does not have onboard showers, so the five-night schedule involves three nights on the train and two in hotels along the way.

The train is owned and operated by Belmond; it consists of historic cars restored to modern requirements. Twin cabins, with upper and lower berths, include washbasins; lavatories are at either end of the car.

If you don’t want to go as far as Istanbul, Belmond offers dozens of routes around Europe and the U.K., on itineraries lasting from overnight to six days. Pricing generally starts around $3,500 per person for a two-day, one-night trip, although Belmond offers occasional promotional deals.

Distance Champ: The Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express

Eight times per year, May through September, this luxury train trip takes you between Moscow and Vladivostok over 12 nights by way of Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Lake Baikal, and Ulaanbaatar. The train stops for local sightseeing at several places along the way. The base price in 2020 starts at $16,995 per person, double occupancy.

The Golden Eagle train consists of modern equipment with three cabin classes, all including private toilets and showers. Silver cabins offer either small double beds or bunks; higher categories are larger with full beds.

The Golden Eagle folks run four different trains over a range of other itineraries, including several through the “Silk Road” areas of central Asia. They also run a separate Danube Express on a wide variety of European itineraries. As with Belmond, pricing generally starts at around $1,000 per person, per day. Some trips include use of steam locomotives over part of the journey.

Most Varied Attractions Along the Way: Pride of Africa

On the Pride of Africa train, Rovos Rail provides five luxury train trips a year on a 15-day itinerary from Cape Town to Dar Es Salaam or the reverse, passing through Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Tanzania, and including stops at a game reserve and Victoria Falls. Prices for the trip start at $12,820 per person (double occupancy).

The Pride of Africa uses mainly older equipment updated to current standards. All compartments include double or twin beds, toilet, and shower. Some trips are pulled by steam locomotives.

Rovos Rail operates the Pride of Africa on a wide range of other itineraries in South Africa and adjacent countries, some including safari stops.

High Altitude: The Andean Explorer

Belmond Andea Explorer luxury train interior.

The Andean Explorer, another Belmond operation, runs weekly two-night trips linking Cusco with Arequipa via Lake Titicaca, with a lake excursion included. Prices start at around $2,100 per person for the two-night, three-day trip. This is literally the highest of the deluxe trains, reaching altitudes up to 14,000 feet along the way, however, so you might want to skip this one (or bring medications) if you have problems with altitude.

The Andean Explorer train includes three levels of cabin, all with private shower, plus an observation lounge, and spa cars. Belmond also operates the deluxe day train Hiram Bingham between Cusco and Machu Picchu.

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Exotic Asia: Eastern & Oriental Express

Oriental Express Belmond luxury train.

Belmond’s East Asian luxury train travels between Bangkok and Singapore twice monthly. The two- and three-night itineraries run through some of Thailand’s top scenic areas and take a detour to the famous River Kwai bridge. Prices start at $3,630 per person for the trip. You can also start or end the trip in Kuala Lumpur rather than Singapore.

The Eastern & Oriental Express train consists of modern cars built to luxury standards. It offers three levels of cabin, all of which include private shower and lavatory, plus dining and observation cars. Belmond also runs other regional excursions with the train.

Most Frugal: Palace on Wheels

The Palace on Wheels and its four siblings cruise through northern and southern India. The Palace on Wheels, Maharaja’s Express and Royal Rajasthan on Wheels cover mainly seve-day loop itineraries to and from Delhi, with a few Delhi-Mumbai trips; most include a stop at Agra for the Taj Mahal. The Deccan Odyssey and Golden Chariot operate similar patterns centered on Bangalore and Mumbai.

Pricing is seasonal, starting at $500 per person, per night, on the Palace on Wheels. The several trains also run occasional promotions, such as seven nights for the price of five and 50 percent companion discounts.

Deluxe Indian trains use modern equipment, generally with decor inspired by Bollywood’s best extravaganzas. All cabins include a private toilet and shower.

What to Wear on Your Luxury Train Trip:

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Beach Health & Wellness Island Luxury Travel

9 Remote Spa Getaways Where No One Can Bother You

Forget sightseeing, walking tours, and signing up for adventures you don’t have the energy for. It’s time for vacation to mean vacation again, and there’s no better way to escape completely than by taking a trip to a spa—preferably one in the middle of nowhere. These days, the only way to truly relax is to get off the grid and emphasize in your out-of-office message that you’ve set off for somewhere where the Wi-Fi is “very limited.”

If you’re looking for a vacation where no one can bother you, check out these luxurious and far-flung spa getaways and their most delectable treatments.

Naia Resort and Spa in Placencia, Belize

Although Belize is closer to the U.S. than most people think (just a two-hour flight from Miami), you’ll need to take another short flight on either Tropic Air or Maya Island Air to get to the Naia Resort and Spa in the small city of Placencia. The hotel itself is lovely on its own, located on a wild beach lined with ocean-view studios and villas, but the spa hidden away on a private lagoon is what makes this resort really worth the trip. Perched over a lily pad-speckled pond, each treatment room has a private deck perfect for enjoying the spa’s quiet serenity. You can book a treatment whether or not you’re staying at the resort, and you’ll also have day access to the spa’s pool area.

Top Treatment: The Maya Cacao and Cinnamon Wrap is one of Naia’s most famous and delicious treatments. Your body will be exfoliated with a mix of dark chocolate, brown sugar, and hydrating coconut oil, and then wrapped in warm towels to infuse. It’s the closest you’ll ever get to becoming a chocolate brownie.

dipiu at Hotel Giardino in Ascona, Switzerland

The Hotel Giardino is “located where the Alps meet Italy’s lemon trees” and is home to the dipiu Spa. Named for the Italian phrase “a little more,” you’ll be wanting a lot more when you see the facilities like the indoor pool and lovely treatment rooms. In the small town of Ascona, right on Lake Maggiore, the hotel offers a peaceful atmosphere halfway between the busy financial centers of Zurich and Milan.

Top Treatment: You can’t go wrong with the Fusion Stone Massage, a treatment that blends classic massage techniques with hot stones and aromatherapy.

Forest Spa at the Bwindi Lodge in Uganda

If you want the adventure of a lifetime and a remote spa getaway all in one trip, it’s time to think about Uganda. At the Bwindi Lodge, when you sign up for a gorilla trek, you’ll also receive a complimentary 30-minute massage upon your return. You can choose to have your treatment in the spa or in your room. There are eight private bandas, or bungalows, for guests, each with its own luxury shower, sitting area, and terrace overlooking the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

Top Treatment: Try the African Rungu Massage, which uses a rungu, a Maasai throwing club carved out of eucalyptus wood. This treatment uses long strokes and deep pressure to reduce soreness and improve blood circulation.

Maya Spa at Azulik in Tulum, Mexico

On a secluded beach in Tulum at the adults-only, eco-friendly resort of Azulik, the Maya Spa offers spiritually inspired treatments meant to reinvigorate your mind and body. From sound-bathing and biomagnetism to massages and facials, you’ll find the perfect treatment to suit your physical and emotional needs—whether you’re looking to relax or rejuvenate.

Top Treatment: For vitality, try the Ancient Traditional Massage. Using traditional Mayan techniques, this full-body massage utilizes lemons and herbs to detox your body, as well as cupping to help restore balance and give you more energy.

KurSpa at the Sparkling Hill Resort in Vernon, British Columbia

If you want to get away to somewhere quiet but don’t want to stray too far, check out the Sparkling Hill Resort, one of the most luxurious spa getaways you can get, where the 40,000-square foot-spa is the height of luxury. This wellness resort is owned by the Swarovski family and decked out in beautiful crystals everywhere you look, from the large chandeliers in the lobby to the decorative details in the guest rooms. At the spa, you have all the basic spa treatments available, as well as the opportunity to visit the Wellness Clinic, which customizes treatments for guests to address issues like chronic pain, inflammation, and slowing the aging process.

Top Treatment: For something on the colder side, test out the KurSpa’s three-chamber approach to cryotherapy. Guests pass through a series of chambers that get progressively colder. The cold treatment boosts the nervous and circulatory systems and is effective for treating arthritis, multiple sclerosis, blunt joint trauma, sleep disorders, and more.

The Arctic Bath in Harads, Sweden 

The trendy Arctic Bath is a floating spa that made waves when it opened in 2018. In Harads, Sweden, this timber- and ice-inspired building will feature four saunas, a pool, outdoor showers, and overnight lodging in rooms featuring large skylight windows for appreciating the northern lights in the winter months.

Top Treatment: The Arctic Bath might not be open yet, but there’s no way you won’t be able to get a classic Swedish massage when it does. Is there any place better in the world to get a Swedish massage than floating on a lake in Sweden underneath the northern lights?

Jawa Juu Spa in Pacuare, Costa Rica 

At the Pacuare Lodge in Costa Rica, Jawa Juu is a spa where you can experience the rainforest all around you. Treatments are inspired by the ancient traditions of the indigenous Cabecar culture, and the spa offers a menu of holistic massages, reiki, and rituals that combine aromatherapy, sound therapy, and yoga. Jawa Juu’s wellness philosophy has been instilled with all things restorative with an emphasis on using local materials.

Top Treatment: Costa Rica is famous for its coffee, so while you’re staying at the Pacuare Lodge don’t miss a chance to try the Invigorating Coffee Exfoliation. After the coffee bean rub leaves your skin silky smooth, the infusion of orange-essence body cream will have you feeling fresh and renewed.

Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain in Chengdu, China

Settled in view of the majestic Qing Cheng Mountains in China near the city of Dujiangyan, Six Senses is a decadent spa retreat with beautiful suites and villas. No trip to Six Senses is complete without a visit to the spa, where the architectural design of the facilities matches the natural beauty of the mountains. Every treatment is incorporated “with the purity of Taoism” and uses a variety of holistic therapies personalized to guest needs.

Top Treatment: While in China, treat yourself to the Bamboo Massage. This treatment uses different types of bamboo sticks to apply firm pressure to your back, legs, and arms. At Six Senses, it is followed by a face massage that will reduce signs of fatigue.

SpaTerre on Little Palm Island, Florida

Florida might be the last place you think of as remote, but in order to get to Little Palm Island Resort and Spa, you’ll need a seaplane. Located on an exclusive island in the Florida Keys, SpaTerre is inspired by Balinese spa treatments and Thai rituals.

Top Treatment: Order the Madrugada Water Massage for a blissful experience you’ll never forget. With your massage table located right in the water, you’ll be surrounded by the sounds and smells of the ocean while receiving a customized massage that makes use of seashells. Note that this massage is only available in the morning and when weather conditions are suitable.

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Jamie Ditaranto is a writer and photographer who loves a good facial while traveling. Follow her on Twitter @jamieditaranto.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2018. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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Adventure Travel Booking Strategy Experiential Travel Luxury Travel Outdoors

Tips for Planning an African Safari

An African safari is a true adventure—imagine thousands of zebras migrating across emerald grasslands, flocks of florescent flamingos creating a field of color across a shining lake, and lions feasting on a hard-earned kill.

With 54 different countries more than 11 million square miles between them, Africa is a very large and very diverse place. The types of safaris are endless. And while there’s no right way to go on safari (it all comes down to personal preferences), there is a lot to consider when it comes to picking out your perfect experience. Here’s how to make the right choice.

Many travelers trek to Africa in search of the “Big Five”: buffalo, lions, leopards, elephants, and rhinoceroses. The chance to get close to these animals in their natural habitats is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but your trip to Africa is anything but a trip to the zoo. Safaris can be physically taxing and strenuous, and you may not see all the animals you expected. Since most safari destinations are in developing sub-Saharan nations, travelers must take certain safety and health precautions. If you’re planning a safari (or just dreaming about it), be as prepared as possible. Get some good guidebooks, talk to friends who’ve been to Africa and research, research, research. We’ve outlined some important African safari tips, from choosing a destination to getting vaccinated, to help you start planning a successful adventure.

Types of Safaris

For the most part, safaris are a costly kind of vacation. But as with any other type of travel, you can tailor your safari to suit your personal budget. The length of your safari will affect its cost—although you may want to cut your trip short to save cash, the longer you stay, the less you will probably pay on a per-night basis. If you’re looking for luxury digs (think private butler or plunge pool) on your safari (or even just hot water and a comfy bed), prepare to pay more. Budget-minded adventurers should seek self-drive or overland safaris (see below) as opposed to all-inclusive package tours—but be prepared to camp in tents or navigate a 4×4 through the African bush. If you’re traveling alone, you’ll probably have to pay a single supplement, as most package pricing is based on double occupancy.

Also don’t be afraid to extend your vacation in Africa to include an island vacation in Zanzibar, a chance to see the thundering Victoria Falls, or discover ancient history in Egypt—many tour operators will offer extension programs to their safari offerings.

Luxury Safaris

A luxury safari offered by a well-known tour operator typically costs thousands (sometimes tens of thousands) of dollars per person, per week, with all-inclusive prices covering tours, food, drinks, and excursions. Fully catered luxury packages offer travelers the comforts of home in the wilderness. Accommodations range from air-conditioned suites to stylish tents (you’ll feel almost like you’re camping—aside from the hot running water, rich linens, and first-rate service). Ultra-luxurious safari lodges can cost more than $1,000 a night.

Belmond Safaris offers luxury safaris packages in Botswana. Orient-Express offers three safari camps, each with its own distinct character: Khwai River Lodge, Eagle Island Camp, and Savute Elephant Camp.

Book a tour with Abercrombie and Kent if you’re looking for a wider range of destinations, including Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, Zambia, South Africa, and more. This company has been operating upscale African safari tours since 1962.

African Travel, Inc. works in 17 destinations in Africa, the majority of which you can find the Big Five, as well as endangered species. For an affordable luxury safari trip, look towards Lion World Travel; at a $5,000 price point, you can enjoy luxurious lodges and incredible wildlife experiences.

Overland or Mobile Safaris

Overland (also known as mobile) safaris are generally the cheapest type of organized tour safari. An overland safari will involve campsite accommodations, and you will most likely travel in a group with other travelers. Overland safaris are usually participatory—you may be expected to pitch in with chores such as cooking meals or setting up camp.

Intrepid Travel sells a number of participatory camping safaris, including the Kenya Wildlife Safari with trips to tiny Tanzanian villages, the Masai Mara National Reserve, Lake Nakuru, and more. Tours range from seven to 27 days and can include game drives in Botswana, sliding down sand dunes in Namibia, a visit to the Khama Rhino Sanctuary, among other stops. G Adventures offers similar trips, including coasting along South Africa and trekking Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Acacia Africa is a reputable overland safari provider that offers a variety of affordable packages for different budgets and travel styles.

River Cruise Safaris

A river cruise might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you’re considering a safari, but spotting wildlife along the river banks is an amazing sight to see. The Chobe and Zambezi Rivers in Southern Africa are teeming with wildlife and are home to the largest elephant population on the continent. There are plenty of companies that sail on these rivers, but CroisiEurope’s African Dream boat and Amawaterway’s Zambezi Queen stand out as two of the most luxurious river cruise options in Southern Africa.

Self-Drive

Are you the adventurous sort? Pick a public game park, rent a car and tour the African bush on your own. Since self-drive safaris are only possible in public parks that usually have paved roads and signs, you need not worry about getting lost in the plains of Africa or becoming food for a hungry lion. For the cheapest possible safari, self-drive is your best bet. You can pay for a la carte for meals, tours, and accommodations, enabling you to opt for the most inexpensive lodging you can find or tour the bush on your own instead of hiring a guide.

One potential drawback of a self-drive safari is that without a knowledgeable local guide, you may miss some wildlife. To remedy this problem, read guidebooks on spotting wildlife in your destination, bring a field guide or stop and ask other travelers where they’ve seen the best game (this is easier to do in the popular public parks).

National Parks vs. Game Reserves

Whether you’re selecting a tour guide or planning the trip yourself, you’ll need to get more specific about the type of environment you want for your safari. You can’t just vaguely drive into the wild, so it’s important to know the difference between a national park and a private game reserve.

A national park is landmass protected by the government and can be quite large, like South Africa’s Kruger National Park (which is the size of Israel and has six different ecosystems). With a place like this, there’s no way you’ll be able to see it all on a short trip, so you’ll have to do your research to make sure you’ll be visiting the regions of the park that you want to see. The benefit of visiting a landmass of this size is the potential to see large herds of animals in their migration, like the Great Wildebeest Migration in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park.

On a private game reserve, the fenced-in land is much smaller than the national parks (though it should still be large enough for the animals to happily roam) and the population is mostly controlled by the owners. For example, the Karongwe Reserve offers 21,000 acres of land. Your game drives are included in the price of your lodging, and because the reserve works as one operation, the safari guides communicate with one another about the animals’ whereabouts, ensuring that you’ll see as many animals as possible. Private reserves also do not operate under the same rules as national parks, which means an opportunity to safari in an uncovered vehicle and even stay out past sundown.

Where to Go

Each country in Africa is different. We acknowledge that it is impossible to capture the spirit and culture of an entire country in one paragraph, but below is a brief overview of some popular African safari destinations to get you started. The best and most popular areas in Africa for safaris are East and Southern Africa, which offer vast plains and roaming packs of extraordinary wildlife. We talked to specialists from Lion World Travel, African Travel, Inc., and smarTours for their recommendations and tips.

Kendra Guild, Director of Operations & Product at smarTours breaks down where to go based on what wildlife you want to see: For elephants, head to Chobe National Park in Botswana; for gorillas visit Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda; for lions go to Serengeti in Tanzania; for rhinos go to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi and Kruger National Park in South Africa; and for rare birds, Kruger National Park has the largest and most diverse collection of birds in South Africa.

East Africa

Kenya: Kenya’s most abundant wildlife can be found in the Masai Mara National Reserve (a part of the vast Greater Serengeti), where massive herds of animals make an annual migration across the plains. But beyond Masai Mara and the Serengeti lie plenty of other quality parks with abundances of wildlife, including the soda lakes of the Great Rift Valley and Lake Bogoria, where thousands of colorful flamingos reside. You can also find the “Samburu Special Six” in northern-central Kenya which are Grevy’s zebra, the Somali ostrich, reticulated giraffe, the long-necked gerenuk, Guenther’s dik-dik, and the beisa oryx. Though Kenya is one of the more popular safari destinations, be sure to check State Department advisories before planning a trip to Kenya or any other developing country.

Tanzania: Like Kenya, Tanzania houses part of the Serengeti National Park—the best park in which to see great herds of wildlife in Africa. Other noteworthy sites include Mount Kilimanjaro; marine parks off the coast; and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, site of the Ngorongoro Crater and Oldupai Gorge (also known as the Cradle of Mankind). The Ngorongoro Crater is one of the largest volcanic craters on earth. Over 30,000 animals live in the crater; it has the densest lion population in the world.

Uganda: The most famous safari destinations in Uganda are the country’s many primate reserves. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Ngamba Island offer visitors the unforgettable opportunity to get a close look at gorillas, chimpanzees and other primates in their natural habitats. Travelers can also see crocodiles, hippos and exotic birds, and witness the thundering water of Murchison Falls at Murchison Falls National Park on the Nile River.

Rwanda: Most people safari in Rwanda for the country’s outstanding gorilla trekking as well as for the over 600 bird species. “There’s also the incredible comeback Rwanda has made after the genocide 25 years ago—that in itself, is reason to visit,” says Sherwin Banda, president of African Travel, Inc.

Southern Africa

Botswana: Probably the most expensive destination in Africa due to the government’s push for high-end tourism, Botswana has smaller crowds than most other safari destinations, and is a common locale for luxury packages. See wildlife in game reserves such as Chobe National Park, famous for an abundance of elephants, or Moremi Wildlife Reserve, which offers plenty of the famous “big five.” You can also visit the Okavango Delta in Botswana—look for crocodiles, buffalo, zebras, hippos and many other animals in the delta’s tangled waterways and islands.

Lucille Sive, president of Lion World Travel says her ultimate safari trip would be to Botswana, “it’s a bit rawer than South Africa or Kenya and Tanzania. Special experiences there include gliding along in a mokoro in the Okavango Delta, or hanging out with meerkats at Jack’s Camp, or staying at the ultra-luxurious Xigera Lodge. Probably the ultimate ‘second safari’ trip for anyone who has already been to Africa!”

Namibia: Namibia is under the radar for many safari travelers—expect less upscale game parks—and is dotted with incredible natural wonders from the Fish River Canyon to the Namib Desert. You’ll find more than 100 species of mammals in Etosha National Park, including endangered animals like the black rhinoceros, as well as the largest cheetah population on the continent. Desert elephants and zebra roam the arid landscapes of Skeleton Coast National Park in Nambia—the driest place in Africa.

South Africa: This is a particularly popular destination for safari travelers, so you can expect a well-organized and modern tourist infrastructure—as well as plenty of other travelers in the high season. Sive recommends South Africa as an ideal family destination since the game drives are shorter and there are malaria-free lodges and game parks. The best-known park is Kruger National Park, which is home to an impressive variety of African animals and is situated in the largest conservation area in the world. Go to a private game lodge if you want a less-traveled safari, but prepare to pay—these pricey digs can run well over $500 per night. Other parks outside of Kruger include Sabi Sands Game Reserve, Dinokeng Game Reserve and the Shamwari Private Game Reserve (located in the Eastern Cape).

When to Go

Africa is an immense continent with safari opportunities available across thousands of miles, so the best time to travel to Africa depends on your specific destination. Overall, it’s best (but most expensive) to travel in the dry season, which corresponds with the region’s winter. Since safari destinations are in the Southern Hemisphere, their seasons run opposite of North America. Winter is from June to September, and summer is from December to March. You’ll also want to consider the migration patterns of animals, such as the Great Migration through Tanzania and Kenya. Annual patterns of animal migration often vary, so it’s a good idea to research animal migration predictions for the season during which you plan to travel.

Some insider tips from Sive: “If you love baby animals and don’t mind hot weather—go to Cape Town, South Africa from December to February. But if you don’t mind the rain—go to Kruger National Park to experience its lush, wet season—balmy but perfect conditions for spotting migratory birds and newborn wildlife. Africa’s winter (June through August) brings just the opposite for both places.” And for those looking to go on a safari on a budget, Guild recommends traveling during the shoulder or low season, which for South Africa is in May and October. 

If you’re a bird-lover, it will be best to visit during wet-season (December to March), which is when birds make their nests and are more likely to be seen at home.

But if nothing could make you happier than seeing the adorable babies of the animals you’ve traveled so far to see, it’s best to time your trip accordingly. Most babies are born in November, so peak baby-watching season is December to February.

Also, ask about the “green season” for good value when you’re safari planning. This varies by each reason but “for East Africa, it’s the low season and a great time to avoid the crowds and the value of the dollar is higher so overall you can stay longer,” advises Banda. “Also, not all the animals are migratory so you will see wildlife and spend more time with your guide viewing animals. While there can be rain, it is scattered and that is why you work with a safari outfitter like us to tailor other experiences like high tea or spa treatments.” African Travel, Inc. even waives solo traveler supplements during the low season on certain trips, like this journey to Botswana and Zambia.

Visas and Vaccines

Of course, you’ll need a passport to travel to Africa. But for some other countries, like Kenya or Tanzania, you will need a visa too. Visit the State Department website for more information on visa requirements. Apply for a visa at least two months before your departure date.

Find a doctor who specializes in travel health care and tell him or her about your African travel plans, or visit a travel clinic. You’ll need to get certain immunizations before heading to Africa. Malaria is common there, but there is no vaccine for the disease. You can protect yourself from malaria by taking an anti-malaria treatment or avoiding mosquitoes; use a mosquito-repellent spray and mosquito nets. You will need a yellow fever vaccination for travel to East and Southern Africa. Other vaccinations you may need include hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and typhoid. Visit the Centers for Disease Control’s website for destination-specific health information. Keep in mind that many vaccinations take several weeks to provide full protection, so don’t put off your shots until the last minute.

Staying Safe on Safari

You may imagine that hungry crocodiles or packs of ravenous lions are the biggest dangers of a safari. The truth is that humans rarely get attacked by wild animals (just watch out for baboons if you have open food), but they routinely fall victim to safari scams, dehydration, illness, or crime while traveling to Africa.

Safari Scams

When selecting a package, beware of safari scams. Research your prospective safari package provider; ask them for references and if they belong to professional organizations such as the American Society of Travel Agents or the United States Tour Operator Association. Also, look for user reviews on sites like TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company) before you book. And keep in mind that if something sounds too good to be true (like a $50-per-night safari in luxury bungalows), it’s likely a scam. Finally, always be aware of your package provider’s cancellation policy (or lack thereof).

Staying Healthy on Safari

Safaris can be physically strenuous and mentally taxing with early morning wake-ups to see active wildlife and unpredictable weather. Travelers to Africa are at risk for dehydration while on safari; your body may not be accustomed to the hot sun and dry air of the bush and you may not even realize that you’re becoming dehydrated. Drink lots of water, protect yourself from the sun, get the proper vaccines, and wear bug spray. For more on staying fit and healthy on your travels, read our guide to health care abroad.

Sive recommends a rain jacket, a safari hat with neck cover or flaps, and to wear neutral colors, like khaki, brown, or safari green, to blend in with your surroundings.

Politics and Crime

Political unrest is an unfortunate fact of life for many African nations. Crime and violence plague many cities, so be aware of your surroundings when staying in major cities on either end of your safari trip. When traveling to populated areas, familiarize yourself with local customs and take measures to keep your money and valuables safe. And always check State Department advisories before planning a trip to another country. Also, be sure to ask about the company’s emergency assistance program so you’re aware in case of any emergency situations and register with STEP.

Insurance

Since you will be in a remote location and will probably be spending a significant amount of money on a safari, travel insurance is a necessity on an African safari. (Many safari tour operators actually require customers to purchase travel insurance in order to reserve a package.) Be sure to look for emergency medical coverage and financial protection when booking your policy. For more information, read our guide to travel insurance.

What to Pack for a Safari

For info on these editor-selected items, click to visit the seller’s site. Things you buy may earn us a commission.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Quotes have been edited for clarity. Jamie Ditaranto and Ashley Rossi also contributed to this story.

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Flight Price Trackers: 5 Sites That Will Find the Cheapest Airfare for You

Waiting for a really good airfare deal for a specific destination you know you’d like to visit? Your best bet is to subscribe to alerts from a flight price tracker that will tell you when a fare drops or when an especially good deal appears. These types of airfare alerts are not the same as the many general “deal” bulletins you can receive. Instead, they’re keyed to specific travel dates, air routes, and sometimes even airlines—a kind of “set it and forget” for travelers who don’t want to go hunting for the cheapest airfare.

The 5 Best Flight-Price Trackers

Several options generally rise to the top of most evaluations. Here are the top five, in no particular order, plus what makes each one stand out, followed up by some broader flight-tracking options:

KAYAK (part of the Booking.com empire) is a robust flight price tracker. You can tailor the tracking filters as tightly as you want: by destination, class of service, number of stops, and more. As with many online search systems, it does not include Southwest in its fare searches. KAYAK can also track prices of hotels. Both are possible by selecting the “Price Alerts” switch on the left side of the results page once you’ve searched for your specific dates.

Skyscanner, a London-based metasearch system, operates in much the same way as KAYAK. The “Get Price Alerts” button on the search results page enters your trip(s) into the system, and you can manage your account for details. As with KAYAK, this flight price tracker doesn’t include Southwest fares. And although it can search hotels, it does not offer a tracking function for them. Skyscanner’s “Get Price Alerts” option on the left side of the results page allows you to choose from email, Facebook, and Google to easily create an alerts account and start getting emails—all you have to do is enter an email address for them to be forwarded to.

Hopper is a mobile app for both iOS and Android phones. (Note: Hipmunk, often previously cited as one of the outstanding search system with a tracker function and a competitor for Hopper, recently went out of business.)

Airfarewatchdog, SmarterTravel’s sister site, distinguishes itself from the others by including Southwest in its airfare searches. That’s because it uses a combination of online search and searches by real people—airfare analysts—to dig out the best deals. Otherwise, it’s functionally similar to the others, and it also covers hotels as well as airfares.

Yapta, owned by independent software company Coupa, alerts users about price drops on airfare or hotel bookings that could get you a partial refund. It’s “powered by Skyscanner” (so shares most Skyscanner features) and its high ratings are based, in part, on the ability to notify travelers of refunds they might be due following fare cuts. But that’s of more useful to business travelers on flexible tickets than to leisure travelers on nonrefundable ones. (Unlike Skyscanner, it doesn’t track or even list hotels.)

Lastly: Not a website so much as a broader platform built into the internet giant Google, Google Flights provides an outstanding range of choices for tracking flight prices. For any trip of interest you can enter an origin/destination, travel dates, how many tickets you want, class of service, plus screening for the number of stops and other variables to track as many individual flights as you want. notifies you if the fare goes below the value when you first entered the search. It covers most airlines except for Southwest, which does not provide its fares to any metasearch systems. It notifies you by email on as many specific searches as you set it to. Google Flights does not include hotels. As an added bonus, Google Flights will also tell you the cheapest time to fly to a given destination, or the cheapest place to fly in a given time period, if you’re unsure of where and/or when to travel.

For premium fares (premium economy, business, and first class) you can use any ITA Matrix-based sites, which cover all fare classes. Those who want more detailed information on first- and business-class deals, however, can subscribe to several paid sources like First Class Flyer and Notiflyer, starting at $99 per year. Read more about where to find deals on premium airfare here.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

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Wish for Rain: The Elemental Splendor of Tofino

“I hope it rains every day you’re there.”

My friend says this as I’m leaving for Tofino, and I laugh. I’m not sure what to make of this unlikely send-off.

By the time I arrive in Tofino, this hope has manifested into dense rain that falls from a matte gray sky. I step off the plane and look up, curious about this wished-for rain, wondering what makes it the sort of guest you invite on vacation. Cold drops pummel my face, challenging the elasticity of my skin; if I were made of sand, the rain would already be carving channels down my cheeks. I shudder involuntarily as a trail of water slides past my ear and settles on the nape of my neck, sending a snaking sensation up my spine. I nestle back into my hood and wipe my face with my already-wet jacket sleeve.

The rain is steady but not dramatic—there are no thunderclaps, no lightning bolts. The impenetrable rainforest surrounding the small air strip signals that this storm is just another day of the usual water cycle commute, southbound.

I’ve packed strategically, and think I’m prepared for the weather. But I’m not. On the tarmac trudge from the plane to the one-room airport, my water-resistant jacket reaches maximum saturation. Soon, my toes are swimming inside my shoes. 

If the West, itself a frontier, has a frontier, this is it. This stretch of Vancouver Island the wildest, wettest, West—where thick forests invent new shades of green with each flicker of sunlight and you’re never far from the roar of waves that have been building strength for 4,500 miles of open Pacific before crashing into Tofino’s rocky shores. On this far left edge of North America, people rush out to meet the rain. In Tofino, home of storm-watching, cold-water surfing, and temperate rainforests, rain is the reason—it’s why people come, and why they stay. 

Tofino’s Alchemy of Rain

Tofino is the end of the road, and no one comes here accidentally. I am no exception—I’ve been dreaming of this place for years. At home in California, I live within sight of the Pacific, yet my daily glimpse is of an ocean tamed by straits and bays into tentative whitecaps or, at most, assertive lapping. In Tofino, however, the Pacific gets a true running start, and I’m ready to see this wild ocean unleashed.

In most places, storms clear a beach. But this is a place that comes alive with each deluge. Here, there’s an alchemy of rain and big waves. Roiling currents, torrential downpours, and surfers claiming every wave—this is Tofino life. Even non-surfers get in on the action; there’s no surer sight than storm-swept shorelines dotted with beachcombers suited up like New England fishing crews, savoring every minute of big weather.

Storm-Watching from the Inside …

Around here, there’s nowhere more famous for pairing wild and welcoming than the Wickanninish Inn, the hotel that invented storm season. I slosh to the hotel, leaving puddles in my wake, unsure about this adventure as I drip my way through the lobby and up to my room. But after a change of clothes and a warm drink beside a hot fire, I begin to understand the wisdom of my friend’s parting wish.

The Wick, as it’s known locally, sits deep in a forest on the edge of the continent; cradled by trees and holding tight to an outcropping that extends out over the Pacific. Inside, hand-carved wooden columns and windows angled for perfect sea views keep nature close. 

Settled inside the warm hotel, I get down to the serious business of storm-watching. I stretch out by the fire and watch surfers take on the storm. I stake out the lobby, which feels more like a living room lined with soft leather chairs and dotted with driftwood tables. I divide my time between watching the waves break around the point and casually inspecting guests—young families, Italian backpackers, retirees, urban sophisticates, honeymooners. I settle onto my sheltered balcony, watching the waves crash into the outcropping just below my room. Not a view goes uninspected, not an overstuffed chair untested.

And yet, the more I watch the rain, the waves, and the dark skies, the more the storm beckons. So instead of putting back on my still-damp jacket—total rookie-wear—I suit up in one of the hotel’s Tofino-grade rubber suits and knee-high galoshes, and set off to discover that the real place to be is not watching the storm, it’s out in the middle of it. 

… And Out

Some beaches are backdrop. Tofino’s take center stage. 

Clusters of rocks frame the long stretch of beach, guarding its edges like continental bastions. As soon as I step onto the sand, this place owns my every sense. The wind catches the ocean’s spray and anoints my forehead, my lips, my nose. My cheeks tighten and flush, awake to the tingle of warm and cold pressing in from opposite sides of my skin. The briny tang rushes in on the stiff breeze; I recognize scents that have relied on the same recipe of salt water, seaweed, and sand for millions of years. There is no horizon from here, just towering whitecaps riding a heaving gray sea. 

I walk for a while and then realize staying still is the only way to take all this in. I stop, crouch down next to a tangle of brown and orange seaweed knitted slickly together, and watch the ocean. The alternating crash of the waves and the waterfall rush of the retreating water creates a rhythm that slows my thoughts and softens my breathing. 

I’ve entirely lost track of time when something, some shift in the breeze, compels me to turn around. I catch sight of the trees at the sand’s border—the trees seem to inhale me, pull me toward it. I walk closer. Here, the tangled branching torrent of the temperate rainforest tumbles down to the edge of the sand.

Standing in this in-between place, I’m struck by the sound of the sea and the rain, these two instruments of Tofino. The symphonic deluge plays the densely forested land-—droplets making each leaf sing a slightly different note—and the crashing waves maintain the baseline for an audience of anyone willing to stop and listen.

I inhale again, and smell the trees as they swap volatile organics for fresh water, flooding the air with Sitka spruce, western hemlock, cedar, and fir. This is a place to feel the earth breathing. I follow a narrow path into the forest, finding my way around the ferns that carpet the forest floor. If I stand still for just a moment too long, I suspect the forest would start to grow up around me, claiming me back.

Hiking the Rainforest

Walking through the temperate rainforest of Pacific Rim National Park in the driving rain, shrouded in waterproof gear, I rediscover something I hadn’t realized was lost: the joy of rain.

I remember playing in the rain as a child and wondering why the adults didn’t join the fun. For a while, they’d hunker under an umbrella and watch us splash and jump, stomp and spin. And then, they’d grow impatient to get back inside, and that would be it. Fun over.

It seemed so strange to me at the time, to act like rain was a hassle instead of the sky inviting you to play. And then it happened: year by year, the delight faded. The thrill of tilting my face up to the rain, arms open to embrace every drop, was replaced by the power of forethought, of being able to imagine the stickiness of a wet jacket, the claustrophobia of soggy socks. Adulthood seemed to leave no room for the ancient pleasure of rain.

And yet, here in the forest, I discover a new form of playing in the rain. The falling drops tickle my face, but the rest of me remains responsibly dry, sheltered within this oversized fisherman’s suit. I wade through pond-caliber puddles and feel the weight of the water pushing up against my boots. I don’t go full Singing in the Rain, but I do stomp, sending out concentric waves and then watching as the water ricochets off the edges of the puddle and bounces back to meet me.

I clear the puddle and walk deeper into the woods. The rain continues, threading its way through the maze of the forest canopy. Drops shatter on leaves around me. 

Another puddle. A stream. A waterfall. The rain and the distant percussion of the ocean. I’ve stumbled onto a family reunion, water greeting the earth after a long trip. Feeding the churn of the seas, the green of the trees; creating congregations in creeks and channels—the land transforms the water, and the water transforms the land. And the water, it will continue to transform, through millions of years of precipitation, evaporation, and condensation. But for a moment, it’s home. I realize I’m holding my breath, and I don’t know why. Then I understand, I’m caught up in a wish. I’m wishing for rain. 

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Christine Sarkis experienced a version of the Ultimate B.C. package as a guest of the participating hotels and Visit Canada. Follow her on Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.

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10 Best Places to Go in Florida

The United States is home to more than a dozen cities and towns named Florida, but none can compare with the real Florida’s natural fun-in-the-sun appeal.

The Best Places to Go in Florida

From the coolest cities in Florida, like Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, to top theme parks like Busch Gardens and Disney World, these must-see attractions top our list of the best places to go in Florida.

Walt Disney World Resort, Orlando, Florida

Disney Magic Kingdom

It’s no exaggeration to suggest that Walt Disney should have named his Orlando theme park Disney Universe—or even Disney Galaxy. The Walt Disney World Resort is so large, in fact, that it’s difficult to narrow down which of the four main theme parks and two water parks to make time for, let alone whether to stay at a hotel within the resort confines or conserve costs with a nearby off-resort stay. Even selecting your preferred theme-park entry ticket can be daunting.

Here is some helpful Walt Disney World Resort information to get you started at this must-see Florida attraction:

Disney World ticketing options include single-day, single-park passes for Epcot, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and the Magic Kingdom. You can extend your Disney World family vacation with multi-day passes, which reduce the per-day rate significantly. For example, you can purchase two-day passes, three-day passes, seven-day passes, and 10-day passes. All tickets must be used within 14 days of your initial visit.

With multiday passes, you don’t have to limit yourself to just one Disney theme park. Tack on the Park Hopper option (with access to all four parks) to increase your ticket’s flexibility: Admission to Magic KingdomEpcotDisney’s Animal Kingdom, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios is included.

For some Florida visitors, it’s not a vacation without wild water play or tee time. Disney knows how to round out the visit with two water parks (Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon and Disney’s Blizzard Beach), a nine-hole golf course, two mini-golf courses, the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, and DisneyQuest Indoor Interactive Theme Park. Access to these extras is included in the Water Park Fun & More pass. You can also combine both the Park Hopper and Water Park Fun & More options for an additional fee.

Budget-minded travelers will easily find an array of accommodations options, with thousands of hotel rooms from “budget” to “luxury” within driving distance of Disney World. Consider a stay at a Disney Resort such as the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin if you want to take advantage of early-morning and late-night access to select theme parks. Guests of Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista also have an added hour of play before the general public is allowed in and three hours after the parks close for the evening.

With so many parades and shows, peruse the Disney calendar to find scheduled events, plan your itinerary, and work around park closings. No matter what, you’ll find there’s plenty to do in Orlando—one of the coolest cities in Florida.

South Beach, Miami, Florida

lincoln road miami beach.

Lovingly dubbed SoBe, South Beach’s reputation as a gregarious scene for the fun-loving is well deserved among young and old visitors alike. From laid-back lounges to racy dance clubs, South Beach is world-renowned for its hot nightlife (many clubs operate until dawn). And while the robust club and dining scene is too caliente to sleep through every night, SoBe also knows how to play “grown-up” during the day.

Actually the southernmost tip of Miami Beach, South Beach is one of the best places to go in Miami Beach and home to many enriching cultural offerings, including Miami City BalletNew World SymphonyHolocaust Memorial of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, and Miami Beach Botanical Garden. And you’d be remiss to pass up a stroll along South Beach’s world-famous Art Deco District. This historical part of South Beach is easy to meander along—not only because of its vintage beauty, which is alive with more than 800 candy-colored art deco-style structures, but also because of its concentrated size: a single square mile. Learn about South Beach’s celebrated history by going on a guided art deco walking tour led by the Miami Design Preservation League.

On South Beach, both locals and tourists know how to share the sun, sand, and the occasional pickup volleyball game. Expedite a speedy hangover recovery with yoga lessons from 3rd Street Beach Yoga. Generous instructors facilitate donation-based “yoga from the heart” near the beach’s lifeguard hut.

Always a popular tourist destination, South Beach experiences its biggest influx of visitors in March (spring break), April (Pride festivities), and over Memorial Day Weekend (Urban Beach Week).

Everglades National Park, Florida

everglades national park

A visit to Everglades National Park isn’t just a must-see Florida attraction or one of the top things to do in Florida—it’s an adventure traveler’s dream. The Everglades offers canoe and hiking trails, airboat and tram tours, bird-watching expeditions, and camping.

Also a mecca for those seeking out wildlife sightings, the Florida Everglades’ ecosystem is one of the top attractions in Florida because it’s like no other in the world. Alligators, crocodiles, falcons, turtles, and even panthers are but a few of the many animals you can spot in the Everglades.

Not to be missed, Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge lies on the western edge of the Everglades. This 35,000-acre national refuge comprised of mangroves and islands provides refuge to endangered wildlife, among them West Indian manatees, bald eagles, and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles. There’s some debate about how many islands are actually in the Ten Thousand Islands area. Conservative estimates have it in the hundreds, while more robust assessments estimate at least 17,000 islands during low tide. The Everglades National Park as a whole spans about 1.5 million acres.

Fort Lauderdale

canals with large boats in florida

Ft. Lauderdale is known by many nicknames, among them the “Venice of America” (for its vast system of canals) and the “Yachting Capital of the World” (because locals collectively own 50,000 private yachts). Regardless of what you call it, there’s no disputing that this Florida must-see is a dream destination for boaters. For more than 50 years, Ft. Lauderdale has hosted the Ft. Lauderdale International Boat Show—the largest such event in the world.

But boaters aren’t the only ones docking in this local scene. Countless spring breakers flock to the city for hedonistic fun each March, beach bums bask on Ft. Lauderdale’s 23 miles of beaches, and snorkelers and divers seek out underwater adventures among the 75-plus artificial reefs.

Key West, Florida Keys, Florida

Key West Florida street.

The final stop on the Eastern Seaboard’s 2,369-mile Route 1, Key West really is the be-all and end-all. Geographically, Key West sits at the southernmost point within the continental U.S. and is closer to Havana than it is to Miami. In spite of its tropical climate (Key West boasts an annual average temperature of 77 degrees) and its low-lying land, Key West is hit by hurricanes less than other coastal regions.

While Key West is enthralling in and of itself, be sure to make it out to sea when in the area. Just a few miles off the coast is the third-largest coral-reef system in the world, the Great Florida Reef. Snorkeling, diving, and deep-sea fishing are popular area adventures. Man-made reefs offer wreck diving just a few miles offshore, too.

Key West was once home to Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams, among other celebrities of yesteryear. These days, its most famous residents come in a more natural variety: iguanas, feral chickens and roosters, and a clutter of cats, the latter of the excessive-toe variety, nestled in Hemingway’s former home.

Universal Studios, Orlando, Florida

Universal Studios, Orlando, Florida
(Photo: Universal Orlando Resort)

Just like Walt Disney World Resort on the other side of town, Orlando’s Universal Studios can hang with the big boys. And planning a visit in advance yields major savings.

Multiday tickets purchased online offer as much as $20 off gate rates. For single-park, single-day passes, you can choose between Universal’s Islands of Adventure or Universal Studios Florida. Single-park, multiday tickets are available two days, three days, and four days. Multipark, single-day passes are also available. Multipark, multiday options are available for two days, three days, and four days.

You can skip the lines while at the Universal Studios parks with the Universal Express Pass. A multipark, single-day Universal Express Pass option is also available; as are multiday and even annual pass options (with select blackout dates). Season passes are available that offer “red-carpet treatment.”

With so many theme parks, resorts, and other top attractions to choose from all in one place, it’s easy to see why Orlando is one of the coolest cities in Florida—not to mention one of the best places to go in the entire Sunshine State.

Sanibel Island, Florida

Sanibel Island

The beaches of Sanibel Island are revered around the world as one of the best places to go in Florida by conchologists (shell collectors). The practice of shell collecting is so popular on Sanibel Island’s shores that locals have nicknamed the act of bending down for a shell “the Sanibel Stoop.”

Sanibel Islanders celebrate the seashell with an annual three-day exhibit and festival that typically runs in March. Shell enthusiasts can also learn about shells and mollusks by visiting The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum. The biggest prize on the beach is the junonia shell, which can land you in the local newspaper.

While shelling is serious business on the island, so is conservation. More than half of Sanibel Island is part of a designated wildlife refuge.

St. Augustine, Florida

St. Augustine, Florida

St. Augustine isn’t nicknamed “Ancient City” for nothing. Juan Ponce de Leon first explored the area in 1513 and claimed it for Spain. It was later turned over to Britain, then back to Spain, and finally ceded (with the rest of the Florida Territory) to the United States in 1819. Today it’s one of the coolest cities in Florida.

You can see much of its rich history infused into St. Augustine’s architecture in places like Ft. Matanzas National MonumentCastillo de San Marcos National Monument, the oldest wooden schoolhouse in the country, the Hotel Ponce de Leon (once a regal hotel, now part of Flagler College and also a designated National Historic Landmark), and, of course, the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. (Folklore says that Ponce de Leon was searching for the elixir of life when he stumbled upon St. Augustine.)

St. Augustine is also home to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park. The park opened its doors in 1893 and now houses more than 20 species of crocodile as well as other reptiles, a bird collection, and many mammals.

Busch Gardens, Tampa, Florida

Busch Gardens, Tampa, Florida
(Photo: Busch Gardens, Tampa, Florida via Shutterstock)

For those seeking an up-close look at safari wildlife without the high price of an airfare ticket to Africa, Busch Gardens is one of the best places to go in Florida. Among the 2,700 animals that call the 335-acre zoological-themed park home are elephants, cheetahs, hyenas, hippos, kangaroos, meerkats, and lemurs.

Busch Gardens Tampa also features an adjoining water park, Adventure Island. Seek out some water-filled fun on the twisting Aruba Tuba, the 55-foot-drop Riptide, and the 700-foot-long Key West Rapids. Adventure Island closes from November through February and reopens in March; see the current calendar for more information.

All theme-park tickets provide complimentary round-trip shuttle transportation from several Orlando pickup/drop-off points.

Amelia Island, Florida

Amelia Island, Florida

Among the southernmost of the Sea Islands, Amelia Island is an easy drive from Jacksonville and only about five hours from Atlanta. Two bridges connect the island to the mainland.

Amelia Island’s seashore provides plenty of adventures for all. Scallop digging, snorkeling, and horseback riding are all quintessential Amelia Island activities. Watch for the shoreline’s playful dolphins and (if you’re lucky) perhaps even a right-whale sighting.

Amelia Island offers upscale resorts, spas, championship golf courses, a variety of festivals, and of course beaches. Amelia is routinely recognized among the top 10 U.S. islands in Conde Nast Readers’ Choice Awards.

More from SmarterTravel:

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on March 1, 2013. It has been updated to reflect the most current information about the top attractions and best places to go in Florida. 

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Beach Island Luxury Travel Romantic Travel

Bali's Wonders

Known as “Australia’s Cabo,” Bali is a hugely popular Southeast Asian destination known for its breathtaking beauty and fabulous resorts and beaches. To experience the “Island of Peace” the right way, consider these three lesser-known spots instead of tourist favorites like Kuta and Seminyak.

Uluwatu

You may feel like you’re at Bondi Beach in Australia, but this city, located on the Southern tip of Bali has some of the world’s best surfing—not to mention stunning views. Not a pro-Aussie surfer? Test out your skills on the calmer waters in Padang Padang Beach before heading out to Blue Fin with the pros.

Where to Eat: Surf’s up at Single Fin. Head here for a Sunday night drinking and dancing session to cap off your weekend, or enjoy a refreshing acai bowl between surfs.

What to Do: To beat the crowds, check out Pura Luhur Uluwatu before you hit the beach. Beware of dozens of tour buses later in the day, as the cliff-side temple boasts an amazing sunset view.

Where to Stay: Alila Villas Uluwatu brings you right to the water’s edge with an incredible infinity pool, perfect for sunbathing.

Ubud

Known as Bali’s cultural center, Ubud has a UNESCO World Heritage site, amazing restaurants, and a stunning temple. Be sure your first stop is the Tegalalang Rice Terrace, and leave yourself plenty of time to explore the tiered windy rice paddies.

Where to Eat: CP Lounge offers an eclectic indoor/outdoor atmosphere with live music and delicious tapas.

What to Do: Arrange a sunrise hiking tour to Mt. Batur, which has panoramic views of the island from its peak. If you’re not feeling up to a strenuous hike—or an early wake-up—take a trail through the rice paddies to Bukit Cinta (Love Hill) instead. After a restorative nap, check out the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary (yes, they bite) and Pura Tirta Empul (Water Temple).

Where to Stay: Bidadari Private Villas—Retreat offers the ideal romantic getaway, with private villas, massages, and daily breakfast and tea—much needed after a long day of touring.

Gili Islands

While these tropical paradises are off the coast of a different island, Lombok, you can still get to them from Bali. Here you’ll find Gili Trawangan, Gili Air, and Gili Meno—known as the Party, Romantic, and Honeymoon Island, respectively. No matter which one you pick, you’ll be living the island life.

Where to Eat: Most of the restaurants you’ll find in Gili T’s town are little beach shacks serving local dishes and plenty of seafood—these are great places to eat your meal with your feet in the sand. Just make sure you don’t accidentally order a mushroom shake! If you’re looking for some sophistication and fine dining, try MAHAMAYA on Gili Meno—although your feet will still be in the sand as you experience true island living.

What to Do: Snorkel, rent a bike, scuba dive, fish, and relax on any of the three islands. Make sure you take a day trip to the other islands —or book a night on all three. Transportation between islands is quick and easy—just hop on any of the longboats along the shore and ask to island-hop!

Where to Stay: Depending on the nature of your vacation, you can stay in anything from a remote yurt at Windy Bungalow to a luxury suite at Hotel Ombak Sunset or a party hostel in town at Gili Beach Bum.

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

Ashley Rossi is always ready for her next trip. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @ashley_stravel for more advice on travel hacks and destination ideas.

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Airport Booking Strategy Budget Travel Business Travel Luxury Travel Oddities Passenger Rights Travel Trends

What Fifth Freedom Flights Are, and How They Could Save You Money


If you’ve never heard the term ‘fifth freedom flights,’ you might be missing out on a lucrative way to snag a deal or use your frequent flyer miles. But to explain why, we have to start from the early days of airline regulation:

Back in 1944, airlines and governments from around the world got together in Chicago and designated a series of five official “freedoms of the air,” including that states have control over their own air space and ground landings. The fifth freedom, however, is an airline’s “right to fly between two foreign countries on a flight originating or ending in one’s own country.”

One example of a fifth freedom flight, according to SmarterTravel’s sister site Airfarewatchdog, is: “Singapore Airlines operates a flight from Houston (IAH) to Singapore (SIN) that heads eastward with a brief stop in Manchester, UK (MAN). With fifth freedom rights, a passenger can fly only the Houston to Manchester segment of that flight with no need to travel onward to Singapore.”

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These rights are not automatic: They’re negotiated between governments. And coupled with the third and fourth freedoms—flying between an airline’s home country and a different country—negotiated fifth freedom flights can benefit both airlines and travelers in a few ways:

Airline Benefits of Fifth Freedom Flights

On some very long flights, airlines make midpoint stops to refuel, maybe change crews and, often, to serve travelers headed to/from the midpoint stop: In the above example that’s Manchester, U.K. Fifth freedom rights allow an airline to gain extra revenue by selling fifth-freedom tickets from the midpoint to the final destination.

Example: On its Auckland-London flights via Los Angeles, Air New Zealand sells fifth-freedom tickets from Los Angeles to London along with its third-freedom tickets from Auckland to Los Angeles and London.

On other flights, traffic might be insufficient to support nonstop flights from an airline’s home base to a single distant city—but sufficient to support service to two cities by flying nonstop to one point and then a short connecting flight onward to a second, more distant city. Which then justifies selling fifth-freedom tickets between those two distant points.

Example: KLM sells fifth-freedom Buenos Aires-Santiago tickets on its flights running from Amsterdam to Buenos Aires to Santiago.

Traveler Benefits of Fifth Freedom Flights

Here’s why that all matters: Frequent flyer seats are often easier to come by on fifth-freedom flights than on local lines. Conversely, fares on fifth-freedom flights are sometimes (but not always) lower than local-line fares, which you might be more loyal to.

Here are some things to remember when checking for an advantageous fifth freedom flight to use your miles on or snag a deal:

In a few cases, a fifth-freedom flight is the only nonstop between two distant cities. See our original example: Houston to Manchester, England, on Singapore Airlines. In that case, you’re less likely to find a deal.

In other cases, a long-haul international flight may operate a short connecting flight with a wide-body plane, while local airlines use only smaller 737s and 320s. This difference is important mainly to travelers in business class, where long-haul planes typically have roomy, lie-flat seats while competitive single-aisle planes have only standard economy with a blocked middle seat.

Example: Emirates Airlines flies large Airbus A380s between Sydney and Christchurch, N.Z.

Search engines typically list fifth-freedom flights along with third-freedom flights, but there’s no way to identify a flight as fifth-freedom unless you know the airlines’ routes.

Are Fifth Freedom Flights Going Extinct?

Here’s a complete list of fifth freedom flights operating to/from the U.S. courtesy of RewardExpert.com. Overall, in the long run, the availability of fifth-freedom flights is a moving target. As long-haul planes gain additional range, tech-stop flights are disappearing.

Example: Air New Zealand will eliminate the Los Angeles stop on its Auckland-London flights later this year, and last year Cathay Pacific eliminated a Vancouver, B.C., stop on a New York-Hong Kong flight. As smaller planes stretch their range, separate nonstops are likely to replace multistep long-haul flights, and local airlines will start flying nonstops where only fifth-freedom flights operate now.

More from SmarterTravel:

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

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Active Travel Adventure Travel Beach Island Luxury Travel Packing Romantic Travel Senior Travel Women's Travel

The Ultimate Cruise Packing List: What to Pack for a Cruise

When deciding what to pack for a cruise, you’re really packing for three distinct sub-trips: your cruise ship, which is the equivalent of a large destination resort with a controlled environment; the ports of call, where you will get out and roam around the local area; and your flights to and from your departure port. Sometimes you can solve all three problems with a single wardrobe and accessory set, but sometimes you will need completely different sets. Scroll down to the cruise packing list below to learn how to pack for a cruise as well as what to consider during all aspects of your cruise vacation.

What to Pack for a Cruise

Click on the below image to edit and download the SmarterTravel cruise packing list:

cruise packing list

According to SmarterTravel’s sister site Cruise Critic: “As you may not have access to your cabin for a few hours after boarding and your luggage can show up anytime throughout the afternoon and evening … the items in your carry-on might be the only possessions you have on your first day onboard.”

Cruise Critic also advises considering the age-old problem of lost baggage: “Pack a change of clothes and important meds or toiletries in the carry-on bags you will take on the plane and personally transport onboard. This is important for two reasons: First, if your luggage gets lost by the airline on the way to your cruise, at least you’ll have some essentials with you. It can take a while for your luggage to be found and then shipped to the next port of call” Erica Silverstein writes. “Second, in case your suitcases are delayed in being delivered to your cabin, you’ll have a bathing suit or dinner attire on hand and can enjoy all the onboard activities right away, rather than waiting for your bags to show up.”

What to Pack for a Cruise: At Sea

Once upon a time, almost all cruise ships were pretty dressy, including some events calling for full formal wear. Now only a few upmarket ships still require a bit of fussing, but most of the mass-market ships, like those in the Royal Caribbean and Princess stables, are about as casual as you like. In any event, as long as you’re not out on deck, you’ll be in a comfortably air-conditioned space virtually all the time.

The first job of your cruise packing list is to determine just where on the formal-casual scale you want or have to be in, or if you want to prepare for both ends of the scale. Luckily, business casual attire (pantsuits, maxi dresses, khaki pants, and button-up shirts tend to fair just fine these days). And for those cruise lines that do have more formal nights, there are typically still buffet options for meals if you want to avoid fancier dress.

Then, decide how you want to play your wardrobe. I pack the minimum I’ll need to comply with the lowest degree of dressiness required. On the other hand, other couples I know are fully engaged with dress: The wife doesn’t want to be seen in the same outfit at dinner on any two different days, and the husband even packs his tux for the “Captain’s Dinner” event. But that’s not how everyone travels. Ultimately, it’s your call what’s most comfortable for you to wear on vacation, and therefore to pack.

Do you need to pack for the full cruise, or can you have your clothes washed or dry cleaned during your sailing? Although most big ships provide some kind of service, the specific answer to that question varies wildly among different ships: Some charge for laundry the way hotels do, some set a fixed price for a laundry bag full, some sell laundry packages prior to sailing, and a few offer self-service washers and dryers.

But no matter how you do it, you’ll definitely pay more for doing laundry while cruising than you pay at home. In general, large ships offer more options than small ones, and 200-passenger river cruises may provide only limited services. Again, check what your cruise ship offers before you decide how much you need to pack. Beyond the basic daily wear, pack whatever special recreational wear and accessories you’ll need. Even if you never leave the ship, you will probably want swimwear, and possibly some other specialized clothing and equipment as well.

What to Pack for a Cruise: In Port

The situation here is obvious: You need to pack for the climate in your cruise destination—and, for most people, being active in each port. You’ll be walking around during shore excursions, and many call for specialized equipment. That means you need to pack comfortable walking shoes and clothing on your cruise, even if you won’t need them on the ship itself. Make sure you pack appropriately for any off-shore excursions.

As to how heavy/light to travel, the Caribbean is hot and steamy pretty much all the time, and the Mediterranean in summer can come close. But weather in other popular areas such as Alaska, New England, and inland European rivers is a bit more variable. Your best bet is to check the weather forecasts just before you pack for your cruise, and always be prepared for rain. For Europe and Bermuda, you should more resort-causal clothing (fair warning: Golf courses in Bermuda have strict dress codes). Some other cruise itineraries that are more casual than the norm include Hawaii, the Mexican Riviera, the Caribbean, and French Polynesia.

What to Pack for a Cruise: Everything Else

Travelers sometimes forget that they don’t need to pack a full closet full of personal-care products and accessories in their travel toiletry kit. You can buy toothpaste, batteries, and tissues in most places around the world—and also on the cruise ship, albeit at stiff prices. Ships vary in what toiletries they offer onboard.

The latest packing challenge is with gadgets. I, for one, would have withdrawal symptoms if I couldn’t get online every day, so I would select a cruise ship with the latest internet connectivity and pack my laptop. On the other hand, if you want to get away from it all, a cruise ship is the ideal place—and you don’t have to pack any devices, converters, and such. Don’t forget your camera, and a travel extension cord can also come in handy.

Alcohol policies vary by ship (so do your research with your cruise line directly), but you may find it useful to pack a champagne corker or bottle opener.

When packing for your pre- and post-cruise flights, figure out what goes in your carry-on and what gets checked. For ideas, see 11 Must-Haves for Your Carry-on Bag. If you’re big on collecting souvenirs and buying local handicrafts, leave room in your suitcase for what you bring home. You don’t want to get hit with paying for another checked bag or hauling both your regular carry-on and a shopping bag of loot on your flight home.

A Final Consideration for Your Cruise Packing List

My most essential recommendation for what to bring on a cruise: Don’t get obsessive about it. Do your best and plan to cope with whatever problems you encounter along the way.

For info on these editor-selected items, click to visit the seller’s site. Things you buy may earn us a commission.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2016 by SmarterTravel’s Ed Perkins. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

Categories
Luxury Travel

5 Reasons to Sail with Viking Ocean Cruises


Travelers looking to explore the Yangtze River in China or the Danube in Europe may have already heard of Viking River Cruises, which offers dozens of small ships plying various rivers around the globe. But the company has expanded to include larger ocean-going cruise ships, with a fleet of six ocean vessels (the seventh is coming in 2021) as well as an Expeditions line that will sail in Antarctica, Canada, and the Arctic starting in 2022.

Our editors have experienced trips on both the Viking Star (from Barcelona to Rome) and the Viking Jupiter (from Stockholm to Bergen). All of the Viking Ocean ships are similar, if not identical, and hold 930 passengers with plenty of onboard dining options. Read on to learn what we loved about these cruises—as well as a few drawbacks.

Unique Itineraries

Viking Star sails all over Europe as well as to the Caribbean and the East Coast of the U.S., and it’s hard not to be enticed by some of the less-traveled ports the ship visits. The 14-night Cities of Antiquity & the Holy Land itinerary, for instance, starts in Rome and includes calls in Israel (Haifa and Jerusalem) and Cyprus as well as Naples and several Greek ports. Or head north to follow the 15-day Viking Homelands route, a journey that starts in Stockholm and passes through Russia, Finland, Estonia, Poland, Germany, Denmark, and multiple ports in Norway. Some of Viking’s Caribbean itineraries start in Puerto Rico (instead of Florida), minimizing days at sea and allowing passengers to explore islands like Tortola, Guadeloupe, and Antigua.

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(Almost) Everything Is Included

On most mainstream cruise lines you’ll pay extra for things like onboard Wi-Fi, dinner in an alternative restaurant, and beer/wine with meals—all of which are included on Viking Ocean Cruises. There’s always one free shore excursion in each port as well (typically an introductory bus or walking tour). Another nice perk? All cabins have balconies.

Note that a few things do cost extra, including spa treatments, gratuities for the crew, some shore excursions, and premium cocktails, wines, and spirits.

Tasteful Ambiance

If your vision of cruise ships includes cheesy, over-the-top decor and crowded buffets, rest assured; as befits its Scandinavian sensibility, Viking ships feel elegant and understated. Favorite spots included the quiet Explorers’ Lounge, where you can curl up on a couch with a book from the well-stocked bookshelves, and the Nordic spa, where you can cool off in a Snow Grotto between trips to the sauna or hot tub.

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Longer Days in Port

On the Mediterranean sailing, Viking Star overnighted in two different ports (Rome and Barcelona), and stayed late in most others; passengers didn’t have to be back on board until 8:00 to 10:00 p.m.—unusually late for the cruise industry. Similarly, on the Viking Homelands route, there were two late-evening departures as well and two days each spent in St. Petersburg and Bergen. That means you have at least 12 hours to explore each day, with the option to take multiple excursions or to eat both lunch and dinner ashore if you want to experience the local cuisine.

Enrichment and Immersion

Daily lectures (such as “The Restoration of the Sistine Chapel: What Went Wrong and Why?”) and informational port talks help passengers get to know each destination before visiting, and many of the shore excursions go beyond the usual major sightseeing attractions. For example, one offering in Rome takes travelers to the ancient Etruscan city of Tarquinia, which predates the rise of the Roman Empire. And an excursion in Tallinn, Estonia, on the Viking Homelands tour lets travelers visit Lahemaa National Park and the coastal village of Kasmu. Viking also offers a Kitchen Table experience that involves shopping with the ship’s chef at a market in port and then working with him to prepare local specialties (such as Spanish tapas).

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Caveats

Despite all of these benefits, there are a few important caveats to note about sailing with Viking Ocean Cruises. Most importantly, despite the overnights and longer days in port, these itineraries have the same major drawback as any other cruise, particularly in Europe: not enough time. Spending a single day in a city like Florence or Jerusalem will give you no more than a taste—especially in places where the port is a one- or two-hour bus ride from the city you actually intend to see. To avoid frustration, consider your cruise a sampler that will help you figure out which cities are worth a longer visit in the future.

Also, while the included shore excursions are a nice perk, independent travelers who chafe at the thought of shuffling along with 35 other tourists behind a guide holding up a Viking sign should book their own private tour (for a more personalized experience) or simply go it alone.

Cruises start at about $3,000 per person (not including airfare). Learn more on Viking’s website. For savings, check out the Last Minute Travel Specials page as well as multiple itineraries for Quiet Season Mediterranean Cruises.

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Editor’s note: Both Ashley Rossi and Sarah Schlichter traveled as guests of Viking Ocean Cruises. This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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Arts & Culture Booking Strategy Business Travel Entertainment Experiential Travel Food & Drink Luxury Travel Romantic Travel

14 Things a Hotel Concierge Can Do for You (And 6 Things They Can’t)


Few travelers think to contact the hotel concierge for much more than directions or restaurant recommendations—but if you don’t, you’re missing out on a wealth of local expertise. A good hotel concierge has impressive powers and can assist with almost any travel problem you might face, so you shouldn’t be afraid to take advantage.[st_content_ad]

That said, a concierge is not a magician. Below are 14 things your hotel concierge can do for you, six more they can’t, and four tips for maximizing your moments at the hotel lobby.

What a Hotel Concierge Can Do for You

Save You Money

The concierge can tell you how to get to the airport for less, where to find nearby happy hours, what the best free sights and activities are, and how much is a fair price for a taxi.

Recommend Fitness Facilities

If your hotel doesn’t have a gym or lacks the equipment you want, the concierge can usually point you to an affiliated hotel with better facilities, recommend a good running trail, or give you a list of nearby fitness centers that offer daily or weekly passes.

Get You a Ride When There Seems to Be None Available

If it is rush hour, raining, or really late, finding a taxi or Uber ride can be tough. The concierge can make this happen with a phone call in many cases. This can even work if you’re not staying at the hotel in question. I once saw a friend walk into the lobby of a New York hotel and offer the concierge a tip; within seconds, we had a ride.

Get Tickets for You

Many concierges are careful to say they can’t get tickets for sold-out shows, but the truth is they sometimes can. They may have relationships with brokers, or know season ticket holders who may not be using their seats, or even have tickets themselves; Michael Fazio, author of Concierge Confidential, started to purchase tickets to certain shows that he would then sell to guests, usually at a markup that matched the secondary market.

Keep You Safe

A concierge can offer advice on whether a neighborhood, park, or activity is safe to visit, and what you can do instead if your idea is iffy.

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Help You Celebrate

Are you proposing to your partner or celebrating a landmark birthday? Your hotel concierge can help with anything from filling your hotel room with flowers and balloons to organizing a rooftop proposal, complete with a photographer to document the occasion.

Help You Do Your Job

A concierge can assist with all kinds of work-related tasks, such as getting materials to a printer, setting up a courier service, mailing packages, and setting up a meeting space.

Help You Look Good

A concierge can get you an appointment with a barber or hairdresser, get clothes pressed, and more.

Fix Sticky Travel Problems

A concierge can help you find an expeditor or make an embassy appointment if your passport is stolen, or facilitate repairs if your smartphone goes on the fritz. They can also accept overnight mail or late-arriving luggage.

Get You a Table

Restaurants will often find a way to fit in customers who are recommended by their preferred concierge contacts. If the restaurant is truly full, the concierge can often get you to the front of a waiting list.

Recommend Local Service Folks

Need a babysitter, an auto repair shop, or a dog walker? Your concierge can help.

Create a Custom Itinerary

If you have a bunch of stuff you definitely want to do but are uncertain how to make it all fit together, the concierge can take your list of attractions and put together a coherent and achievable plan. He or she can also help you avoid pitfalls such as road construction or closed subway stations.

Help with Special Needs

If you are disabled, aren’t feeling well, or have other special needs, a hotel concierge can offer considerable assistance—like calling wheelchair-accessible taxis, finding English-speaking doctors, and recommending restaurants that can accommodate certain food allergies.

Provide Assistance Before You Arrive

The concierge can be a resource not just once you’re at the hotel but beforehand as well. For instance, he or she could help you plan out your first day, including a restaurant reservation for dinner.

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What Your Hotel Concierge Can’t Do for You

Gossip

Discretion is an integral part of a concierge’s job, so they tend not to talk about other guests, including which celebrities might be staying in the hotel.

Illegal or Immoral Activities

You shouldn’t expose a concierge to risk by asking him or her to help with illegal—or dubiously legal—activities such as obtaining drugs, forging signatures, finding “companions,” or the like.

Babysit

A concierge can help you find someone else to look after your child, but he or she can’t actually do the babysitting while on duty.

Float You a Loan

They’ll help you with money concerns, but concierges are not banks; don’t ask them to dig into their pockets for you.

Sell Stuff for You

Concierges are also not your personal eBay or Craigslist; they can’t sell tickets you no longer need or items you don’t want to take home. However, he or she may be able to recommend a place where you can do the sale yourself.

Book Tickets to Sold-Out Shows

Truly sold-out shows tend to be just that; however, you can ask if the concierge has any ideas or contacts to help get you tickets, and he or she might have a strategy for you. If there is truly no way to get certain tickets, the concierge will tell you so.

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Tips for Using a Hotel Concierge

Don’t Be Shy

You might feel as though the concierge is only there for the folks in the penthouse suite, but this isn’t the case; he or she is there to help all guests, so feel free to ask.

Give Them Some Time

Concierges can often pull off difficult tasks, but to do so on very short notice is tricky, and it distracts them from helping other guests. Give the concierge some notice if you need something beyond simple advice.

Present the Concierge’s Card

When a concierge sends you to a restaurant or other establishment, it is often his or her name, not yours, that is the attraction for the proprietor. So if a concierge asks you to show his or her card, do it; these relationships are what makes concierges able to help you now and in the future.

Not All Concierges Are the Same

Concierges at the very best (and most expensive) hotels are notorious for pulling off near-miracles; those at less prestigious establishments typically don’t have the same pull.

Traveling? Get a Carry-On That Does More

The Bigger Carry-On from Away

3 words: lightweight, durable, & multi-functional. The Carry-On from Away makes traveling that much easier, especially with its removable, TSA-approved battery for your electronics.

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Ed Hewitt is a seasoned globetrotter who brings you a biweekly glimpse into the latest travel news, views, and trends—and how they could affect your travel plans.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated with the latest information.

Categories
Beach Island Luxury Travel Outdoors

10 Amazing Overwater Bungalows You Can Sleep In

For most of us, staying in an overwater bungalow perched above some turquoise lagoon far, far away, is a dream trip, a once-in-a-lifetime thing. We scrimp and save so we can spare no expense. And it’s worth it—especially if you’re headed for one of the world’s best.

Escape with us to thatched-roof hideaways where colorful reefs await at the bottom of your ladder and glass floor panels and outdoor showers remind you that there’s no vacation quite like this.

Overwater Bungalows to Add to Your Bucket-List

overwater bungalows four seasons resort bora bora

Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora

Number of Bungalows: 108

What’s Unique: The classic magazine cover shot, Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora‘s picturesque string of bungalows arcs over turquoise South Pacific waters at the foot of Mt. Otemanu. The bungalows, fanning out from a lush private island, are some of the newest and most luxurious in French Polynesia. And, at the moment, they rank #1 on TripAdvisor for Bora Bora accommodations. Most thatched-roof bungalows have glass floor panels that look into the lagoon and some have private infinity-edge pools. The resort’s own marine biologist grafts coral and offers tours of the lagoon sanctuary.

Over-the-Top Services: Breakfast is delivered to you in a ceremonial Polynesian canoe and served with fragrant bouquets of flowers. As your table is being set, you can take a short canoe ride with a rower and wake to the sounds of Tahitian song.

overwater bungalow anantara kihavah villas

Anantara Kihavah Villas, Kihavah Huravalhi Island, Maldives

Number of Bungalows: 42

What’s Unique: Book a stay at the Anantara Kihavah Villas resort in the Baa Atoll region and you’ll arrive via seaplane from Male, the Maldives’ capital. Set out over crystal-clear waters are the resort’s one-bedroom and two-bedroom overwater villas, each with its own private infinity-edge pool. From your sunken glass-bottom bathtub (built for two) you can watch tiny fish swim beneath you while you soak. Other luxuries include his-and-hers walk-in wardrobes, a wine chiller, a hammock, a rain shower, an outdoor shower, and a personal villa host who is on call 24 hours a day.

Over-the-Top Services: Dine at the Anantara Kihavah’s underwater restaurant, then return to your villa for the Slumber Guru experience: a luxury milk bath by candlelight, a massage, homemade cookies and tea, mist for your pillow, lavender silk eye masks, and earplugs. It sure beats the standard “Do Not Disturb” door hanger.

overwater bungalows song saa private island

Song Saa Private Island, Koh Ouen And Koh Rong, Cambodia

Number of Bungalows: 9

What’s Unique: This resort is the first to be built on Cambodia’s mostly untouched islands in the Koh Rong archipelago. Song Saa spreads across two islands which are connected by a footbridge over a marine reserve, and with any luck, you’ll spot one of the protected sea turtles or seahorses during your stay. The resort’s ultramodern overwater villas have an air of always-been-here authenticity thanks to the reclaimed wood from retired fishing boats and local driftwood incorporated into the architecture and furnishings. The organic design manages to effortlessly blend luxuries like private infinity-edge pools, outdoor showers, and twin bathtubs into the surrounding rainforest.

Over-the-Top Services: Indulge in a Buddhist-inspired treatment at the resort’s rainforest wellness center or have local monks perform a traditional blessings ceremony for you. Staff can also turn your villa into a private cinema with a screen and projector for movie night.

overwater bungalows sofitel moorea la ora beach resort

Sofitel Moorea la Ora Beach Resort, Moorea Island, French Polynesia

Number of Bungalows: 39 overwater bungalows, with a total of 113 on the property on beaches and in the gardens

What’s Unique: On the northeastern coast of Moorea overlooking Tahiti, Sofitel Moorea occupies a coveted spot on one of the island’s most beautiful white-sand beaches. Snorkeling is popular here, and overwater-bungalow guests often have to shoo aside fish when climbing into the water from their private terraces. The bungalows—with glass floor panels, daybeds, stunning stone-tiled rain showers, and lavish bath amenities—define modern luxury with the French sophistication the Sofitel brand is known for.

Over-the-Top Services: You can book a lobster dinner right on the seashore. The resort’s K restaurant, with views of Tahiti and the peaceful lagoon, presents Te Vahine (The Woman), a Polynesian dance performance. Snorkeling-gear rental is free during your stay.

overwater bungalow cocoa island by como

Cocoa Island By COMO, South Male Atoll, Maldives

Number of Bungalows: 34

What’s Unique: Just a 40-minute speedboat ride from the Maldives’ international airport, this luxurious COMO resort on the private Cocoa Island (known locally as Makunufushi) is like no other. Cocoa Island by COMO‘s overwater-bungalow suites are built in the style of traditional Dhoni, the wooden boats used by local fishermen. They might look like mini Noah’s arks, but these suites don’t actually float. They’re fixed to stilts over the Indian Ocean and include private sundecks, luxurious bathrooms, and large windows with gorgeous views.

Over-the-Top Services: Wellness is a major focus at the resort, with therapies at the Shambhala Retreat center and Shambhala raw-cuisine options. Take a yoga or meditation class in the retreat center’s open-air pavilion, or experience India’s holistic Ayurvedic therapy in one of four massage-treatment rooms. Cocoa Island butlers often arrange intimate dinners for guests and give guided snorkeling tours.

overwater bungalow cayo espanto

Cayo Espanto, Ambergris Caye, Belize

Number of Bungalows: 1

What’s Unique: Cayo Espanto, on a private four-acre island in Belize’s Ambergris Caye area, is the next best thing to having your own Caribbean island. There are no more than 18 guests here at any given time, and the overwater bungalow and six beachfront villas are situated so that you need not see another soul during your stay if you don’t want to. As overwater bungalows go, Cayo Espanto’s one-bedroom is huge at 1,000 square feet. It sits alone at the end of a 150-foot dock. A glass floor panel looks onto the silvery bonefish below, and one of the world’s largest barrier reefs is nearby.

Over-the-Top Services: The chef customizes a menu based on the preferences you indicate in a pre-arrival survey. While you’re here, a personal butler is assigned to you.

overwater bungalows likuliku lagoon resort

Likuliku Lagoon Resort, Malolo Island, Fiji

Number of Bungalows: 10

What’s Unique: The first and only resort in Fiji with overwater bungalows (called bure in Fijian), Likuliku is built on the edge of a protected coral reef. Between the overwater bures and the shoreline is a tidal lagoon that fills at high tide and dries at low tide, which makes for interesting seabed exploring. Since there are only 10 overwater bungalows here, foot traffic on the boardwalk is minimal. The experience feels exclusive in this remote part of the Mamanuca archipelago, making the five-star resort especially popular with honeymooners.

Over-the-Top Services: The chef delivers a complimentary daily canape plate at sunset, exclusively to overwater-bure guests. Planning an engagement or vow renewal? Check Remarkable Honeymoons or Likuliku’s wedding page for packages that include everything from engagement-ring scavenger hunts to a Fijian-warrior guard and escort.

overwater bungalows hilton moorea lagoon resort & spa

Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa, Moorea Island, French Polynesia

Number of Bungalows: 54

What’s Unique: These bungalows perch above the wide, shallow lagoon that surrounds the island of Moorea, a seven-minute flight from Tahiti. Located on Moorea’s north side, Hilton Moorea Lagoon‘s bungalows are perfectly positioned for taking in views of sunrises, sunsets, and the island’s mountain ridges. Bedrooms feature a glass floor panel, and large Italian bathrooms include marble flooring, rain showers, golden claw-foot tubs, and dual vessel sinks made of stone. You can snorkel right off your deck. At night, sharks are occasionally sighted beneath the boardwalk at the resort’s Toatea Bar.

Over-the-Top Services: There’s private butler service to cater to your every whim. You can have breakfast delivered by canoe or a romantic dinner on your deck. When you order turndown service you’re greeted with lit candles, essential-oil aromas, soft music, and flowers on the bed and floor.

overwater bungalows intercontinental bora resort & thalasso spa

InterContinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa, Motu Piti Aau, French Polynesia

Number of Bungalows: 80

What’s Unique: This eco-friendly hotel pumps ice-cold seawater from depths of 3,000 feet to power the air-conditioning in overwater bungalows and throughout the resort. InterContinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa is also home to the South Pacific’s first thalassotherapy center and uses the deep-sea waters in spa treatments. In the overwater bungalows, very little separates you from spectacular mountain and lagoon views. There’s a glass wall in the bedroom, and the living room features a glass coffee table that opens up so you can toss pieces of bread to the colorful fish below. Even the bathtub offers a picture-perfect view of the water.

Over-the-Top Services: During a treatment at the Deep Ocean Spa, you can watch marine life pass below glass floor panels. Resort staff will deliver breakfast by a traditional decorated outrigger canoe.

view from the dive center misool eco resort

Misool Eco Resort, Raja Ampat, Indonesia

Number of Bungalows: 8

What’s Unique: On a private Indonesian island inside a protected No-Take Zone, this dive resort and conservation center treads lightly. Not a single tree was felled to create Misool, a Secret Retreats-member resort. It was built entirely of driftwood and naturally fallen timbers milled onsite in the presence of cockatoos, parrots, baby sharks, and sea turtles. Surrounding Misool are some of the richest reefs on Earth, in the waters of the Coral Triangle region. When you’re not diving, read a book on your verandah’s hammock or soak in the tropical vibe while showering in a Balinese-style bathroom that opens up to the sky.

Over-the-Top Services: Excellent service is a hallmark here. The resort’s maximum capacity is only 32 guests and the staff-to-guest ratio is three to one. Book the spa’s after-sun skin-rescue treatment, complete with a banana-leaf body wrap right on your verandah.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2016. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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SmarterTravel Spotlight: Monteverdi Tuscany, Castiglioncello del Trinoro, Italy


Monteverdi Tuscany isn’t just a hotel, it’s the revitalized heart of a village. And in many ways, it is the village. Created over two decades, Monteverdi Tuscany has arisen out of the proverbial ashes of a once-thriving but long-abandoned Tuscan hilltop town. Walking along the charming and well-preserved main street, you see a wine bar, a cafe, a restaurant. All are part of the hotel. Rooms and villas are scattered around the village, tucked into beautifully restored houses. The village piazza, which offers inspiring views out over the famed Val D’Orcia, is maintained by the hotel, and the former church has found new life as a concert space. Nearly all the people in the sleepy village are either guests or work for the hotel. The entire Monteverdi experience is charming and otherworldly; it feels outside of time, and simultaneously not quite real and utterly authentic.

The Location

Monteverdi Tuscany village aerial

Monteverdi Tuscany occupies a prime location in Tuscany’s Val D’Orcia. It’s just a few minutes’ drive from the famed garden of La Foce, and is driving distance to many of Tuscany’s most beautiful cities. From Monteverdi Tuscany, it’s 10 miles to Montepulciano, 56 miles to Siena, and 74 miles to Florence.

There are two ways to reach the town of Catiglioncello del Trinoro: the main route and the back way. If you want to avoid rutted dirt roads and a wild ride up the side of the steep hill, follow the very clear and helpful direction provided by Monteverdi Tuscany. This is one of those times when it’s better to not use Google Maps—if you do, you risk being sent on overgrown dirt roads.

The Rooms

Monteverdi Tuscany Room 4 interior

Monteverdi Tuscany’s rooms and villas are spread out in the town, offering a taste of village life with every stroll. Five luxury rooms and 13 suites (seven Village Suites and six Luxury View Suites) share amenities such as hand-dyed linens, rainfall showers, air conditioning, complimentary Wi-Fi, and flat-screen TVs. But each space is unique in a way that speaks both to the individual houses and buildings that have been lovingly converted into the Monteverdi Tuscany and to the design aesthetic that informs every inch of layout, every bit of the rooms’ individual color palettes, and each carefully selected piece of furniture.

In addition to the 18 rooms and suites, Monteverdi Tuscany offers three villas around the village. Villa San Pietro is a two-bedroom villa with a modern kitchen. Villa Amiata is a three-bedroom villa with a private garden. And Villa Muri Antichi is a six-bedroom villa with a library, large fireplaces, and outdoor terraces.

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Dining

Enoteca Dining in the Piazza Sant'Andrea at Monteverdi Tuscany

Monteverdi Tuscany totally reinvents hotel dining. There’s no dismal hotel dining room here; rather, the hotel’s dining options are the village’s restaurant, bars, and cafes. Oreade, the fine dining restaurant, offers breakfast and dinner. Enoteca is the wine bar in the piazza. The Library Bar, just across the street from Oreade, offers a cozy space with great views and plenty of books. And occupying a gorgeous vaulted room and grand terrace that looks out over the valley is the Lobby Lounge and Terrace Bar. For serious cooks (and the people who love them), there’s also the Culinary Academy at Monteverdi, a teaching kitchen and dining area in the village’s former school.

Activities

Monteverdi Tuscany Spa

The Spa at Monteverdi feels like a sanctuary and offers a range of unique experiences that sets it apart. The underground heated pool is carved out of the bedrock of the village, but still manages to offer an inspiring view out the large window that sits at one end of the pool. Hammam treatments take place on marble slabs in a heated room. Other treatments include wine therapy, Tuscan olive oil massage, and candlewax massage. There’s also a private terrace with two travertine tubs with views of the Val d’Orcia valley.

Monteverdi Tuscany hosts musicians and visual artists in residence as part of its Monteverdi Music and Arts Program. Concerts are held in the 14th-century church in the piazza, and exhibitions are on display at the Monteverdi Gallery, just off the piazza.

The Culinary Academy hosts cooking classes during which guests can learn classic Tuscan dishes like pici pasta, and then savor their new knowledge over lunch. There’s also a twice-weekly Chef’s Table, during which guests watch Chef Giancarla as she prepares a multi-course menu and pairs each dish with regional wines for the small group.

Price and How to Book: Nightly rates at Monteverdi Tuscany start at about 600 euros. To reserve, book online.

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Christine Sarkis visited Monteverdi Tuscany as a guest of the resort. Follow her on Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.