Radio Linkups for 1-31-15 – Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

If you are listening LIVE to the show on Saturday, January 31, 2015 on APH Radio 99.9 FM in the Shelby County, AL area and looking for the linkups to the show, well here you are! If you missed it, no worries, you can catch it on the APH Radio app (FREE download at your app store) and hear it in the archives…or find it on iHeart Radio! Search SHOWS for The Travel Voice by Becky and choose an episode.

Wilderness Wildlife Week™
One of the most popular events in Pigeon Forge each year is Wilderness Wildlife Week™. This weeklong event has been happening in Pigeon Forge for more than two decades. It’s open to the public and completely FREE!

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Wilderness Wildlife Week™ is made up of exhibits, performances, workshops, classes, walks and talks that are both informative and entertaining. These programs celebrate the features, creatures and cultures of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the surrounding region. Wilderness Wildlife Week™ offers activities for all ages and brings thousands of nature lovers to Pigeon Forge each year. The International Festivals & Events Association has recognized the event for its environmental and educational efforts.

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For music lovers there are different musical presentations each day which will highlight the Appalachian region. Attendees can listen to old-time mountain ballads, hymns, bluegrass, and traditional mountain instruments.

Children will also be able to enjoy Wilderness Wildlife Week™ through the KIDS’ TRACK! program which consists of a series of informative and activity-filled workshops where they will have the opportunity to learn more about nature in unique and fun ways. Hikers will find several opportunities for hiking presentations and outdoor events.

Programs typically start each day at 8:00 AM and run until around 7:30 PM when the day’s keynote program starts. Participants are encouraged to come and go as they please between the exhibits and programs. One could argue the only bad part of Wilderness Wildlife Week™ is that it’s impossible to see every program because there are so many wonderful selections to choose from!

For more information, please visit http://www.mypigeonforge.com/events/wilderness-wildlife-week/.

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The Old Mill Square
The Old Mill Square is the cornerstone to historical preservation in Pigeon Forge offering an authentic look at the Tennessee town of yesteryear. Eat in their two award-winning restaurants, tour the old mill and shop at one of the unique retail shops including the General Store. The Old Mill is a must-visit on your trip to the Smoky Mountains.

For a little history, visit http://www.old-mill.com/info/our-history.

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The Inn at Christmas Place
Right off the parkway in Pigeon Forge, you will find the beautiful Bavarian architecture of The Inn at Christmas Place. This 145-room four-star hotel celebrates Christmas 365 days a year with remarkable décor, unique experiences and plain ole southern hospitality. With a charm all its own, The Inn at Christmas Place invites guests to Sleep in Heavenly Peace…and believe me, you will on their amazing mattresses and bedding.

Hear Santa sing, enjoy cookies in the evening and feast on a breakfast fit for a king! There is no place like The Inn at Christmas Place in the Smoky Mountains! For more info, visit http://www.innatchristmasplace.com/.

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The Island in Pigeon Forge
Located just off the Pigeon Forge Parkway, The Island in Pigeon Forge is packed with things to do! Come see The Great Smoky Mountain Wheel – it is 200 feet tall and offers amazing views of The Great Smoky Mountains! Pull up a rocking chair and enjoy the beautiful Island Show Fountain or check out the unique retail shops, restaurants and eateries, rides and games, live music, attractions and much more! Open 10 a.m. daily year round.

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For more information, please visit http://islandinpigeonforge.com/.

Volkswagen Beetle – throwing it back to the good ole days!

2015 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible TDI
Class: Sub-Compact Cars
Fuel Economy: 30/40
Base Price: $30,195

Beetle Convertible Model  Photo courtesy of Volkswagen.

Beetle Convertible Model
Photo courtesy of Volkswagen.

Some of my greatest childhood memories were made in vehicles: traveling to ball games, carpool lines and trips to grandma’s house. And, among those memories are the car games I played with my family and friends…like the alphabet game, the license plate game and the best one of all…PUNCH BUG!!

Punch bug spared my parents many miles of “are we there yet” moments, but in some cases replaced them with “ouch he’s punching too hard!” No matter the reason, when I see a beetle bug car, my heart smiles. Volkswagen has a fantastic audience for this retro vehicle that resonates with many folks on different levels, creating Beetle excitement across the generations!

The 2015 Beetle, I must admit, is not your mama’s Bug. I tested the Convertible model and have nothing but good things to report. This diesel-powered sub-compact car handed me better fuel efficiency, more get up and go, more cabin space and more fun than I expected. That’s big if you know the big-car kind of girl that I am!

Exterior and under the hood…
The outward appearance of the Beetle continues to be very iconic for Volkswagen (the power of branding) and yet, it offers a slightly more sophisticated look in 2015. I prefer to think that the Beetle has grown up along with me…we’ve both aged…and like good wine, have only gotten better!

A 2.0-liter TDI Clean Diesel 4-cylinder engine is responsible for the increase in the horsepower of this Beetle (thank you turbocharge!), as well as thrifty gas mileage (a combined mpg of 34 is pretty impressive). I felt plenty of power to merge onto the busy highways that I traverse every day without hesitation. Big plus for this city girl!

What to expect: the 2015 Beetle is a four-passenger, two-door hatchback with a super cool convertible option. There are three trim lines that coincide with the engines: 1.8T, R-Line and the TDI. I spent my time tooling around in the TDI automatic which upgraded to chrome exterior accents, keyless entry (start/stop button), satellite radio and touchscreen audio interface.

Photo courtesy of Volkswagen.

Photo courtesy of Volkswagen.

Inside the Bug…
The controls, while up-to-date and innovative are straightforward and easy to use. I have not had to pull out the owner’s manual even once to figure out a control button. I love the Fender sound system – it offers premium quality and I would definitely purchase that upgrade.

The dashboard has good craftsmanship and it’s nice that you can still match your interior trim to the exterior color of the car. Some things never change…and they shouldn’t!

The seats are comfortable…and there is more cabin room than I remember in the Bugs of yesteryear. The only thing that you have to remember is checking your blind spots, especially in the convertible. I also advise purchasing the add-on of the rearview camera to help visually as I think this is an awesome safety feature anyway.

And, speaking of safety, Volkswagen has taken that into account, as they should. Standard options in this department include: traction and stability control, airbags (front, side and side curtain), antilock brakes, roadside assistance, stolen vehicle location and remote door unlocking. One thing that I think is pretty cook is geo-fencing which gives parents the ability to set some boundaries for little Jimmy and Susie in their teenage driving years. Smart Volkswagen, very smart!

Beetle Classic Model Photo courtesy of Volkswagen.

Beetle Classic Model
Photo courtesy of Volkswagen.

My overall impression of the 2015 Beetle is pleasing. I think it’s an eclectic mix of retro and modern that is appealing to multiple ages and genders. It’s perfect for commuters and sits well with me for a road trip down memory lane and beyond.

Radio Linkups for 1-24-15

Hey travel friends!

If you are listening today and wanting the links to the ski destinations I am talking about, well here you go!

Beech Mountain - Beech Mountain is easily reached from the Interstate system. Major approaches are I-81 and I-181 from the north; I-85, I-40 and I-26 from the south; and I-77 from the east. The main highways leading to the High Country of North Carolina from the Interstates are US 221, US 321, US 421 and US 19E. From either Boone or Linville, NC, follow NC 105 to NC 184. Take NC 184 to the top and you will be in Beech Mountain.

Be prepared when you visit Beech Mountain in the winter. Four-wheel drive vehicles are recommended or at least have a set of tire chains for your drive wheels. Hazardous driving conditions are a possibility in winter, and there may be times when four-wheel drive vehicles or tire chains will be required to reach Beech Mountain.

For more info, visit http://www.BeechMountain.com.

Courtesy of Sugar Mountain.

Courtesy of Sugar Mountain.

Sugar Mountain Resort – Check the Winter Value Packages and enjoy the convenience and affordability! Get away to the mountains and splendor in the savings on lodging, lift/slope tickets, rental equipment, even lessons for the whole family – all without the peak-season crowds. You’re guaranteed savings of 30-40%.

As if that wasn’t good enough, Sugar Mountain Resort is happy to announce that Winter Value Packages now include ALL-DAY tickets. That’s right! Buy your package for 2, 3 or 4 days and you’ll receive a multiday ticket good for ALL sessions on the days you choose to ski or snowboard! You can’t even buy those at the ticket window!

Drive to address: 1009 Sugar Mountain Drive Banner Elk, NC 28604. For more information, visit http://www.skisugar.com.

Carnival Foundation Donates $5 Million to Big Brothers Big Sisters

I love a little good news and this made me smile.

PRESS RELEASE PROVIDED BY CARNIVAL FOUNDATION.

Gift — the largest ever awarded to Miami chapter — will be used to provide expanded services at a new Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami headquarters and mentoring and educational facility

CARNIVAL FOUNDATION

Carnival Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Carnival Corporation & plc, is donating $5 million to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami to create the Carnival Center for Excellence. The donation — timed to celebrate National Mentoring Month — marks the largest gift ever received by the organization’s Miami chapter.

The Carnival Center for Excellence building at 550 Le Jeune Road in Miami will serve as the headquarters for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami and will provide facilities to support ongoing mentoring and educational activities for Big Brothers Big Sisters’ participants, often referred to as “Littles.”

“Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami makes a huge impact in the lives of so many kids in our community, and for years it’s been Carnival Corporation’s goal to take our longstanding relationship and make an even greater difference,” said Linda Coll, Carnival Foundation’s director. “The Carnival Center for Excellence will enable us to greatly expand the services both the Carnival Scholarship and Mentoring Program and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami can provide to students and families in South Florida.”

“We are a proud supporter of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami, and it is an honor to help them secure a permanent home at the Carnival Center for Excellence,” said Arnold Donald, president and CEO of Carnival Corporation, the world’s largest travel and leisure company with its headquarters based in Miami. “Through this facility and the contributions of our volunteer mentors, we will continue to work together to make a real difference in the lives of deserving South Florida students for many years to come.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami closed on the purchase of the building Tuesday, Jan. 20, and is scheduled to relocate there in the first quarter of 2016. The building will provide office space for more than 50 agency staff members, as well as house a digital learning center, library, meeting and tutoring facilities, and more. Various additional services will be rolled out in phases, with the digital learning center and library slated to be operational by the time the building opens. Other services and facilities such as tutoring and family classes will be introduced during the first year.

“We are honored to be selected by the Carnival Foundation for this very generous investment in shaping the lives of Miami’s kids,” said Lydia Muniz, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami. “Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami’s purpose is to provide a personal hero to every child in need. The new Carnival Center for Excellence at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami will enable us to awaken new possibilities for more of Miami’s kids, and to ultimately make this city one where kids can build a brighter future.”

The building was selected because it is conveniently located on a major thoroughfare with access to public transportation and free ground-level parking. BB&T Bank is serving as the financing bank for the acquisition from Keystone Property Management.

Carnival Foundation’s signature initiative, the Carnival Scholarship and Mentoring Program, pairs a Carnival employee with a South Florida high school student matched by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami. Currently, 95 Carnival management team members mentor 95 Miami-Dade County high school students through the in-the-workplace program sponsored by Carnival in partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami.

The program also awards four-year college scholarships to 15 participating students every year. For the past 12 years, Carnival Foundation has purchased STARS scholarships representing a collective value of more than $2.1 million. Since 2010, 75 scholarships have been awarded, and in 2014 several students from the first group of recipients graduated college.

Carnival Foundation is dedicated to creating positive change through empowering youth, enhancing education and strengthening families in the communities where Carnival Corporation employees live and work. Through monetary and in-kind donations, innovative philanthropic programs, employee fundraisers and hands-on volunteer initiatives, the foundation supports hundreds of organizations annually with primary funding focused in the areas of the arts, human needs, education and health.

Carnival Foundation partners include National YoungArts Foundation, New World Symphony, Florida International University, American Heart Association, Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis, Best Buddies International and Feeding South Florida. Its website is http://www.carnivalfoundation.com.

This travel girl offers her picks for compact cars that grab attention

I love driving and discovering cars that make me happy. I travel a lot, so the vehicles of choice must be comfortable and, above all, safe. Past that, I have different reasons for various vehicles easing me on down the road. These are a few of my favorite compacts and I encourage you to get out and test drive them. They are not in order of my favorites, but rather by price (that takes the pressure off of me, right?).

2014 Nissan Versa
Fuel Economy: 26/31
Class: Sub Compact Car
Base Price: $16,890

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First up, the second-generation Nissan Versa Sedan, now in its third year, Nissan continues to evolve this vehicle into more than an entry-level car. The exterior is classy enough for this segment of vehicle and the interior is well-appointed, not too fancy, but has the straightforward controls that are important. With four adults in the vehicle, my family was comfortable with ample back seat legroom.

This model year Versa weighs less having been built on Nissan’s front-wheel drive “V” platform. Basically, this means that the vehicle was manufactured with less platform components (roughly 20% less) and that shaves off about 150 pounds! The engine is a 1.6-liter 4-cylinder sporting lots of new innovation, 109 horsepower and 107 lb-ft of torque. More efficiency is garnered in the Xtronic CVT transmission by way of an auxiliary gearbox that uses planetary gearing.

Fuel economy is likely at the top of the list for those purchasing the Versa Sedan, now available in four models:
S (5-speed manual and 4-speed automatic)
S Plus CVT
SV CVT
SL CVT
Additionally, the Versa is available in a hatchback version.

2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE
Fuel Economy: 25/36
Class: Compact Car
Base Price: $19,995

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Next, I share with you the sixth-generation Jetta, Volkswagen’s best-selling car! Each year I see this vehicle get better and better, and it’s always at the top of my list for dependability as well as fuel efficiency.

Jetta

Let’s start with the change in engines. The 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine in the SE and SEL trim lines has been replaced by a new 1.8-liter turbocharged and direct-injection four-cylinder engine, carrying the EA888 Gen 3 designation. The new engine gives 170 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque, and the transmission is automatic. The EPA estimated fuel economy predicts an improvement of 5 mpg on the highway over the previous engine.

I thoroughly enjoy the ride and the drive of the Jetta, and I like that they are just so reliable. The interior is to my satisfaction as well, with enough room for a family and technology that we can’t seem to live without. Add all of that to safety and great gas mileage for a winning combination!

2014 Toyota Prius c
Fuel Economy: 53/46
Class: Compact
Base Price: $21,765

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Toyota will forever be on the list for top compact cars with their reputation for outstanding fuel economy. This hybrid model is no different and remains virtually unchanged from the previous year model. The pricing is highly favorable, especially for commuters and those looking for entry-level vehicles.

The Prius c is available in four trim levels and has a fair amount of standard equipment including automatic climate control, a full color TFT Multi-Information Display and keyless, illuminated entry. Steering wheel gizmos and gadgets make dealing with audio and climate controls convenient for the driver.

My favorite features on this car: the audio system including AM/FM/CD and auxiliary jack, USB port and, of course, the extreme gas mileage. It does have a bit of wind noise, but overall this is a nice product for Toyota with a good value for the money.

2014 Fiat Abarth
Fuel Economy: 28/34
Class: Mini Compact Car
Base Price: $22,195

2014 Fiat 500 Abarth

I felt like some kind of super hero driving around in the Fiat Abarth, and people treated me that way, too! I will have to say it’s not the most practical car on the list, but it’s Italian and it’s so much fun! Who needs practical anyway?

The Fiat 500 Abarth brought fun back to the driving experience…race-inspired with aggressive styling adds some excitement to this segment of vehicles through world-class performance. The manual drive is aggressive and more fuel efficient.

Features according to Fiat:
• Track-tested, turbocharged and twin-intercooled 1.4-liter MultiAir engine provides the Fiat 500 Abarth and Abarth Cabrio with 160 horsepower, up to 170 lb.-ft. of torque and is mated to a race-proven five-speed manual transmission
• Fiat 500 Abarth Cabrio (500c) features a clever open-top design for a high-performance four-passenger cabrio experience
• Abarth-tuned performance hardware delivers world-class ride and track-ready durability with a lowered ride height, beefier suspension, larger brakes and wider tires
• Continuous improvements: revised passenger seat sits 1 inch (25 mm) lower for increased headroom and now offers seat memory and arm rest
• Both Abarth models include a segment-exclusive full-day Abarth Driving Experience

2015 Audi A3 Sedan 2.0T Quattro S Tronic
Fuel Economy: 24/33
Class: Sub Compact Car
Base Price: $32,900

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I am always anxiously awaiting the new Audi lineup each year because this manufacturer does a superb job of keeping up with technology and innovation, and also continually creating beautiful vehicles.

The all-new 2015 Audi A3 model line-up is no exception offering new innovative technologies and the detailed craftsmanship found in larger flagship Audi sedans. I love the premium standard features: leather seating surfaces, power panoramic sunroof, Bluetooth technology, SiriusXM Satellite Radio (and HD Radio) and so much more. The A3 line-up will also feature (as standard options) the iconic Singleframe grille, bi-xenon headlights and LED taillights.

I love the comfy feel of the car itself and the connectivity for data services (4G LTE, no less)…the MMI dashboard tech is awesome…the driver has so many different ways to interact with their vehicle! I really like this vehicle for appearance (a little bit sporty) and luxury qualities in a small car package.

2014 Porsche 911 Carrera
Fuel Economy: 19/27
Class: Mini Compact Car
Base Price: $84,300

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Porsche really owns the performance car market, and with the more practical-minded 911, they also take a stake in the mini compact car segment as well! Meet the new Porsche 911 Carrera and Carrera S.

Ok, so what’s the big deal…what makes this one different? Oh, I am so glad you asked! The commitment to the Porsche Intelligent Performance philosophy is exemplified in this vehicle through improved performance using less fuel, reduced emissions and reduced mass. Almost all of the seventh-generation 911’s components are new or they are redesigned.

If a high-end sports car is in your future, this is the one for you! You, like I, will appreciated the precise handling Porsche is known for and seemingly effortless acceleration. Make this vehicle your own through various packages as it is very much a customizable vehicle.

What comes on the base model 911 Carrera? Here’s the lengthy list: 19-inch alloy wheels with summer tires, automatic bi-xenon headlights, heated mirrors, power accessories, dual-zone automatic climate control, adjustable power seats, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, leather interior, 7-inch touchscreen display, navigation, Bluetooth, nine-speaker audio system (with CD) and interfacing for USB/iPod.

As far as power, the base 911 Carrera models offer a 3.4-liter six-cylinder engine with 350 horsepower and 287 lb-ft of torque. And, a seven-speed manual is the standard transmission. How could this NOT make my list for favorite compact vehicles?

Photos courtesy of respective manufacturers: Fiat, Toyota, Audi, Nissan, Volkswagen and Porsche.

Radio show linkups for 1-17-15

If you are listening to The Travel Voice by Becky radio show (locally Saturday at 11 a.m.) and you are looking for the links to the different destinations, I’ve tried hard to link everything here. Thanks for listening (and reading)!

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Disney Cruise Line
This Disney video is a little dated, so lots of the deals have changed, but the general info is awesome! Check it out!

http://thetravelvoicebybecky.com/2013/01/15/disney-cruise-ships-which-one-is-for-you/

If you are looking to sail on a Disney Cruise and you can go without a ton of notice, I have found a couple that have been reduced! Check out February 6, 2015 on Disney Wonder from Miami and March 1, 2015 same ship. The price is 50 – 60% less than high season rates. I don’t see Disney cruises on sale often, so if you can swing this, take advantage! Here is the website to book your trip or use your local travel agent! http://disneycruise.disney.go.com/

King & Prince Resort 008

The King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort
If you have Georgia on your mind and are looking for a little piece of paradise, then head over to St. Simons Island, and particularly The King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort.

This seaside sanctuary offers sweet Georgia charm mixed with oceanfront accommodations (top notch I might add) and amenities galore. Choose from a room with an ocean view, a seaside cabana, or live smack in the middle of luxury with a beach villa or guesthouse.

Amenities at a glance:
a heated atrium pool and hot tub
four outdoor pools and two hot tubs
tennis courts
fitness center
oceanfront and poolside dining (seasonally).

If golf is your thing, bring your sticks and shoot a round at one of the St. Simons Island amazing courses. You can just relax and enjoy the serenity of the beach, get a massage, ride a bike or take a ghost tour! There are many activities available at the resort and the surrounding areas so you will lack for nothing to do!

The web site for this award-winning resort is overflowing with information on how to make your dream vacation a reality. Spend some time there and plan a trip. As for an incentive? Well, they do have some sweet deals going on! Just visit their web site and click on the SPECIALS tab to see what’s available – http://www.kingandprince.com.

Ariel Dunes Pool. Photo courtesy of Joe Mayer

Ariel Dunes Pool. Photo courtesy of Joe Mayer

Seascape Resort
Many coastal resorts are offering deals to pre-book your spring or summer stay. Check out one of my favorites…Seascape Resorts in Destin, Florida. As a journalist I have stayed as their guest and liked it enough to go back many times over as a paying guest. That speaks volumes.

The resort, situated partly on a golf course, consists of golf villas, tennis villas, and newer high rise condos such as Ariel Dunes I and II, and Majestic Sun. I love the high rises because the units are fairly new, well-kept, spacious and have all the modern conveniences.

Amenities are in abundance from tennis courts to awesome (and clean) pools, outdoor grills and tram service. Their packages most often include free beach service (two lounge chairs and an umbrella) which is a great value added amenity in itself!

Seascape is in close proximity to many local restaurants like Pompano Joe’s, one of my favorites, and Silver Sands Outlet Shops. The location is fabulous…a little further down the beach from the crowds and perfect for families, couples or girlfriend trips. Check out their specials at http://www.seascape-resort.com/Specials.aspx.

Emerald Beach Resort

Emerald Beach Resort

Emerald Beach Resort
Chances are if you’ve driven up and down Front Beach Road in Panama City Beach, you’ve likely seen the high rise, Emerald Beach Resort, conveniently located gulf side and only a block or two from the ever popular Pier Park. Emerald Beach Resort is right in the heart of PCB, in close proximity to restaurants and dining, activities, recreation and shopping. Read more at http://thetravelvoicebybecky.com/2013/07/12/emerald-beach-resort-florida-panhandles-fun-place-to-be/.

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Pensacola, Florida…More than a beach
As the weather warms up and daydreams fill with visions of sun and sand, summer vacation plans start to become more than passing thoughts. The Gulf Coast has many beautiful offerings, one of which is award-winning Pensacola, Florida, where there is so much more than a beach! Read more about Pensacola at http://thetravelvoicebybecky.com/2014/05/12/pensacola-more-than-a-beach/.

Celebrity Cruises Offers Celebrity City Stay Vacation Packages

Have you ever wanted to spend more time in your cruise departure port city? I know I have often thought how wonderful a couple of days would be in one of these fabulous cities either pre- or post-cruise. Obviously, Celebrity was thinking the same thing! The press release below explains the newest option available to cruisers of this elite cruise line.

Press Release courtesy of Celebrity Cruises

Guests can now begin their modern luxury vacation earlier with Celebrity Cruises’ new “Celebrity City Stay” vacation packages. Combining destination expertise with unbeatable value, the newly curated pre-cruise experiences will be available in 16 of the most intriguing and dynamic cities.

Celebrity City Stay packages bring vacationers even closer to the world’s must-see cities, including Athens, Abu Dhabi, Barcelona, Hong Kong, London, Singapore and Sydney. The one-of-a-kind packages are available in nearly every port city the cruise vacation company sails from.

Celebrity ship

Enhancing guests’ Celebrity vacations, City Stay vacation packages include:

· Three nights in four-star, luxury hotel accommodations, with complimentary breakfast
· Transfers to and from the airport, hotel and the booked Celebrity cruise
· Full day of an in-depth fully guided City Highlights Tour and lunch
· Half day with an in-depth fully guided tour and a farewell dinner
· Dedicated Celebrity Cruises Hospitality Desk at the luxury hotel, to provide personalized, premium service
· Classic Beverage Package for two, including wine and spirits, while sailing with Celebrity
· Families and friends in a stateroom as additional guests can receive a Classic non-alcoholic beverage package and a 40-minute internet package

“Our destination experts have specially curated each Celebrity City Stay so that vacationers can get even more up close and personal with the destination before departing on their cruise. Our guests can enjoy upscale and immersive three-night experiences in some of the world’s most beautiful and captivating cities,” said Bernardo Carrillo, Managing Director, Celebrity Vacations, Celebrity Cruises. “From authentic dining, in-depth tours hosted by local experts, free time to go off the beaten path, and four-star accommodations to come back to, there’s no better start to a modern luxury vacation than an early one.”

For full details about the new Celebrity City Stay vacation packages, visit celebritycruises.com/vacationpackages.

Valentine’s Day Travel

If you are thinking of a Valentine’s Day trip with your someone special, then this post is for you! From the sights and sounds of the Big Apple to Las Vegas and everywhere in between, I’ll highlight some special destinations that you might want to consider.

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1. New York, New York – Everyone wants to visit during the Christmas and New Year’s time frame, so prices are higher and supply is less. Why not go in February and celebrate Cupid’s holiday? You can still enjoy the ice rink at Rockefeller Center, horse-drawn carriage rides through Central Park, strolling thru Manhattan, Broadway shows and musicals, a walk through the unique High Line (elevated park) and reign it all in with a stay at the amazing Gansevoort Hotel in the Meatpacking District. Gansevoort offers fabulous views, luxury amenities and superb quality. The hotel’s Valentine’s Day package offers extras like roses, chocolate-covered strawberries and champagne. Get a late check-out and spend some time lounging by the heated outdoor rooftop pool. Find out more at http://www.gansevoorthotelgroup.com/hotels/gansevoort-meatpacking-nyc.

2. Las Vegas, Nevada – Many folks propose or marry in Las Vegas, so it only seems fitting to think of Sin City as a romantic getaway. What would make a special Valentine’s Day in the city for high rollers? Well, for starters the Bellagio Fountains! The romantic setting on the lake in front of the resort, beautiful music, the soaring fountains…the ambiance is certainly fitting! And, a little touch of Venice (one of the world’s most romantic cities) can be experienced in Vegas at none other than the Venetian hotel. Canals and gondolas modeled after Venice wind their way through the resort…and you can also hire a singing gondolier! Check out MonteLago Village, about 17 miles from the strip, a shopping and dining area in the essence of an Italian village. Guests can upgrade their cruises on gondolas to include roses, a disposable camera and more. For more Vegas-style ideas, visit http://www.vegas.com/valentinesday/.

3. Savannah, Georgia – The cobblestone streets of Savannah coupled with the Spanish moss and charm of the south make me feel comfortable with recommending this destination as a Valentine getaway. Enjoy brunch aboard a riverboat cruise and delight in the special flavors of Leopold’s Ice Cream (Rose Petal Cream and Chocolate Cherry Cordial) only available in February. For accommodations, choose a romantic inn or Bed and Breakfast rather than a hotel. More info can be found at http://www.visitsavannah.com/.

4. Grapevine, Texas – The Christmas Capital of Texas also offers a wonderful Valentine’s Day treat! The Sweetheart Wine Trail, February 14 and 15: Romance the day away with someone special along the Sweetheart Wine Trail in Grapevine. Featuring three tastings and food samplings at each participating Grapevine winery tasting room, a souvenir wine glass and a bottle of premium Grapevine wine, this is a unique and festive way to celebrate Cupid’s arrow. I recommend two accommodations in Grapevine: Gaylord Texas and Great Wolf Lodge. For more details, visit http://www.GrapevineWineryTrail.com.

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5. Orange Beach, Alabama – If you want to consider the beach as a Valentine’s Day destination, Orange Beach is an awesome choice! Hampton Inn & Suites says “Savor the Sweet Stuff” – Nothing says I love you like chocolates, bubbly and flowers. Add a free gift from Fusion Spa Salon and you’ve got a winner! Check out Hampton at http://hamptonorangebeach.com/orange-beach-romance-package/. Also, check out Life’s a Bed of Roses at Holiday Inn Express – A bed covered in rose petals says it all. Let them take care of setting the scene, including champagne and $25 toward a romantic sunset meal at Cobalt Restaurant. Two days advance purchase required. Must be 21 for champagne. Click here to book http://holidayinnexpressorangebeach.com/orange-beach-romance-package/. And, there’s the Just the Two of You Valentine’s package at Hilton Garden Inn! When was the last time you did anything for yourselves? Take some time for the two of you with sparkling wine, free breakfast for two, late check-out and a free gift from Fusion Spa Salon. Book it now at http://hiltongardeninnorangebeach.com/orange-beach-romance-packages/.

Look around the blog for other Valentine’s Day ideas such as the Sail Across the Sun Music Festival with Train on Norwegian Pearl and the Winter Romance in Blue Ridge, Georgia. Whatever you choose, enjoy your celebration and make some memories.

Norwegian Escape partners with Margaritaville

Press Release from Norwegian Cruise Line

Norwegian Escape to prominently feature Jimmy Buffett’s celebrated eatery, the first location at sea, along with 5 O’Clock Somewhere Bar and waterfront music venue

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Cruisers should get their Fins Up and shakers of salt ready, as the first-ever floating Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville restaurant and 5 O’Clock Somewhere Bar will soon set sail onboard the all-new Norwegian Escape. Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. Chief Executive Officer Kevin Sheehan announced the news at a company-wide event, with the help of a very special guest – the legendary Jimmy Buffett who performed for the crowd. Norwegian’s exclusive partnership with Margaritaville Holdings LLC extends to Norwegian’s island destinations including the new Harvest Caye in Belize and Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas, as well as other ships in the fleet.

“Jimmy Buffett is an icon who embodies the island lifestyle and his Margaritaville lifestyle brand which includes restaurants and bars in its portfolio is a perfect fit for Norwegian Cruise Line and the incredible new Norwegian Escape, that will sail the Caribbean and offer our guests the first and only Margaritaville experience at sea,” said Sheehan. “We are more than thrilled to form this exclusive partnership with Jimmy and his talented team and we know our guests are going to love the new tropical experiences.”

Margaritaville’s iconic name brings to mind the desire in everyone to kick back and escape the everyday, if only for a few hours or days. Norwegian Escape’s Margaritaville restaurant and bar will embody that essence of escapism with a laid back atmosphere inspired by the lyrics and lifestyle of Jimmy Buffett. Nostalgic island moments will come to life with a menu that invites guests to take a bite out of paradise with signature items like the Cheeseburger in Paradise and Who’s to Blame Margarita. This venue will be one of Norwegian Escape’s many complimentary dining outlets. In addition to the restaurant, Norwegian Escape will feature the 5 O’Clock Somewhere Bar, a music venue and outdoor bar on The Waterfront. The 5 O’Clock Somewhere Bar will feature live nightly performances so guests can enjoy the sounds of the tropics while sipping a signature margarita or “boat drink” and gazing out to the beautiful Caribbean Sea.

“This partnership is a perfect match between two brands that celebrate escapism, relaxing and having fun,” said John Cohlan, chief executive officer of Margaritaville. “Opening our first Margaritaville at Sea on Norwegian Escape will be a huge milestone for our company. We can’t wait to bring the Margaritaville experience to Norwegian guests and let the floating ‘fin’ begin!”

Along with the venues on Norwegian Escape, the partnership also includes Margaritaville branded food and beverage locations on Norwegian’s new island destination in Harvest Caye, Belize, set to open in fall 2015 and a 5 O’Clock Somewhere Bar on Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas, planned to also debut in 2015. In the future, the partnership will extend to other ships in the fleet.

Norwegian Escape will begin weekly seven-day cruises from her year-round homeport of Miami to the Eastern Caribbean beginning on November 14, 2015. The ship will be the largest to home port year-round in Miami, carrying 4,200 guests to tropical Caribbean destinations including St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands; Tortola, British Virgin Islands and Nassau, Bahamas.

For more information on Norwegian Escape, visit http://www.escape.ncl.com. To book a cruise on Norwegian Escape, contact a travel professional, call Norwegian at 888-NCL-CRUISE (625-2784), or visit http://www.ncl.com.

Make plans for Pigeon Forge’s 15th Annual Saddle Up

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Everyone loves an excuse to wear cowboy hats and boots, and here’s a good one that will also factor in some great travel! The 15th annual Saddle Up in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee promises a celebration full of cowboy poetry, western music, two-steppin’ and chuck wagon cooking! Make plans to attend the final major event of Smoky Mountain Winterfest February 18-22, 2015!

What is Saddle Up?
This event is a carefully formulated blend of big concerts, small shows, one-act dinner shows and (my favorite) a chuck wagon cookoff! Do you love old-time cowboy songs…dream of taking a western dance class or swing fiddle class? This is your chance! While most of the music programs do require ticket purchases, some events are totally free.

Performers for 2015 are cowboy poet Baxter Black, cowboy band Wylie and the Wild West, T. Scot Wilburn and the Shut Up-N-Playboys, Utah singer Brenn Hill, songwriter Chuck Pyle, the husband and wife team of Jean and Gary Prescott, singer and western and Celtic fiddler Skip Gorman, western radio show host Andy Nelson and cowboy poet and chuck wagon cook Kent Rollins.

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Three multi-act concerts will be at the LeConte Center at Pigeon Forge (3 and 7 p.m. on Feb. 20 and 6 p.m. on Feb. 21). Tickets are $21.95, tax included. One hundred passes covering all three concerts will be sold for $60.36, tax included.

Three “Intimate Evening” dinner shows are scheduled. Kent Rollins and Jean and Gary Prescott will perform Feb. 18 at Mama’s Farmhouse. The other two are Feb. 19 at the LeConte Event Center, one with Brenn Hill and Andy Nelson, and the other with Wylie; the Wild West. Each is limited to 50 tickets ($54.88, tax inclusive).

“Stories and Strings” is a special daytime show on Feb. 20 that will feature eight of the performers as they talk about their special connections to their music. That show is at the Stages West store on the Parkway. Tickets are $21.95, tax included.

A new program for 2015 is Cowbucks Café on Feb. 19. This is a mid-morning meet-and-greet session with Saddle Up entertainers at the Pottery House Café and Grille in Old Mill Square. Fifty seats are available ($15, tax included). Guests will receive the 2015 Saddle Up commemorative poster and a limited edition Saddle Up coffee mug.

Free programs include a Skip Gorman symposium about old-time cowboy songs on Feb. 18; a western swing fiddle class with Paul Anastasio on Feb. 18; a western dance class featuring a reunion of dancers from cable television’s “Dance Club” on TNN; and “Tales and Tips from a Cowboy Cook” featuring Kent Rollins on Feb. 20.

One of Saddle Up’s major activities is the annual chuck wagon cookoff on Feb. 21 at Clabough’s Campground. Chuck wagon cooks prepare lunch for guests and evaluation by a panel of judges. Tickets for the noon lunch are $12.50. Beginning at 9 a.m., visitors can hear cowboy entertainers and participate in cowboy-themed activities free of charge.

The Saddle Up Cowboy Dance ($5), with music by T. Scot Wilburn and the Shut Up -N- Playboys, follows the Feb. 21 concert at the LeConte Event Center.

The weekend concludes with a chuck wagon breakfast ($5) Feb. 22 at the LeConte Event Center, followed by Cowboy Church at Stages West. Cowboy Church is free.

A detailed schedule of Saddle Up activities is at MyPigeonForge.com/saddleup. Tickets are available online. Remaining tickets will be sold at the event.

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The Island in Pigeon Forge
While you’re there, check out the new entity, The Island in Pigeon Forge, located just off the Pigeon Forge Parkway. The Island has so much to do and you can’t miss it…just look for The Great Smoky Mountain Wheel (modern day Ferris Wheel of sorts)! The Wheel, standing 200 feet tall, offers an awesome view of the Smokies that you will not want to skip. The Island also has a fabulous fountain that syncs music to a guitar-shaped fountain water show. It is spectacular!

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Top off your visit to The Island with great shopping at specialty stores (Tervis is a favorite for me) and fabulous eateries like Timberwood Grill where the genuine taste of the Smokies captivates your tastebuds. And, The Island has its own 4-star hotel, Margaritaville. For more information, please visit http://islandinpigeonforge.com/.

Get your FREE 2015 Tennessee Vacation Guide

Is Tennessee travel in your future? If so, you’ll want to get your hands on a recently released 2015 Official Tennessee Vacation Guide featuring actors Chip Esten, Will Chase and Chris Carmack, stars of ABC’s hit television series, Nashville, performing at the world famous Ryman Auditorium. The guide is compliments of the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development.

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Where can you find a guide? The state offers some 14 Welcome Centers where the guides may be picked up for FREE, and also tourists may request one at tnvacation.com or 1-800-GO2-TENN. The e-guide version may be found at tnvacation.com/guide and the iPad app of the guide will be available shortly.

Esten, a transplanted Tennessean who portrays singer-songwriter Deacon Claybourne on the show, is featured in the guide, talking about his favorite restaurants and nightspots in and around Nashville.

“We’re thrilled to showcase three of the stars of the hit TV show Nashville playing at the Ryman Auditorium on the cover of our 2015 Official Tennessee Vacation Guide, which celebrates all that Tennessee offers as the global music destination of choice,” said Commissioner Susan Whitaker, Tennessee Department of Tourist Development.

Tennessee music icons like Dolly Parton and country music superstars Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert, as well as up-and-coming artists such as Amy LaVere, The Apache Relay and The Black Cadillacs are also featured in the guide.

The guide also includes commentary from second and third generation Tennessee musicians including Shooter Jennings (son of the late Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter), Holly Williams (daughter of Hank Williams, Jr. and granddaughter of Hank Williams) and Ashley and Shannon Campbell (children of Glen Campbell).

The 2015 guide additionally offers some features showcasing Tennessee music, food, spirits, outdoors, festivals and the diverse network of Discover Tennessee Trails & Byways include can’t-miss stops along each one. Add to that a list of annual events, regional overviews and best bets, maps, attraction listings and more, and potential visitors have everything they need to plan the perfect Tennessee vacation.

Carnival adds a new port of call – Amber Cove in Dominican Republic

Are you an avid cruiser and looking for new ports of call? If yes is your answer, then you’ll be excited to read this official statement from Carnival Cruise Line regarding the newest port of call Amber Cove in the beautiful Dominican Republic!

Eight Carnival Ships, Featuring Five New Itineraries from Four U.S. Homeports, Will Call at Amber Cove During the Port’s Inaugural Season

Amber Cove, an exciting new destination located in the heart of the Dominican Republic’s breathtaking North Coast, known as the Amber Coast, just outside the historical town of Puerto Plata – will welcome its first cruise ship when the Carnival Victory arrives on October 6, 2015, for a day-long call.

Looking along the Malecon, Puerto Plata.

The visit by Carnival Victory is the first of 37 calls by eight different Carnival ships that will take place between October 2015 and April 2016, accounting for more than 100,000 guests during this period.

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Amber Cove will be a featured port on select sailings of Carnival Breeze, Carnival Glory, Carnival Splendor and Carnival Victory from Miami, Carnival Conquest from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Carnival Sunshine and Carnival Valor from Port Canaveral, Fla., and Carnival Fantasy from Charleston, S.C.

“Amber Cove is destined to become a cornerstone in creating new itineraries from several U.S. home ports,” said Terry Thornton, Carnival’s senior vice president of itinerary planning. “It will provide an unmatched combination of ‘fun in the sun’ activities and eco-tourism opportunities along with unique sightseeing, dining and cultural experiences to create a lifetime of wonderful vacation memories for our guests,” he added.

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Designed to serve as the gateway to one of the world’s most beautiful cruising regions, Amber Cove features dramatic architectural elements that echo the area’s storied Colonial past. The port is situated in a picturesque cove that serves as the backdrop for soaring mountains and lush tropical landscape. Its cobblestone plazas will be lined with a wide variety of retail offerings, including themed restaurants and bars and a marketplace with locally sourced crafts and souvenirs, recreational amenities, and a transportation center for access to land and sea adventures.

The facility will offer two berths that can accommodate up to two large post-Panamax cruise ships simultaneously.

Amber Cove will feature one of the most extensive shore excursion programs available in the Caribbean, offering a wide array of landside experiences including beautiful beaches, exciting water sports and special culinary, cultural and adventure options. Nearby Ocean World, which is one of the region’s largest marine adventure parks, will offer guests many great ways to experience and interact with a variety of marine animals.

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Dozens of shore excursions will be available, from cross-country adventures in 4×4 Terracross buggies that traverse the rugged countryside and horseback riding on the beach to snorkeling in crystal-clear waters and swimming in a pristine natural river pool. Guests can also travel via speedboat to beautiful Paradise Island, one of the Caribbean’s top spots for snorkeling and scuba diving, or visit rural coffee plantations and sample traditional Dominican cuisine, rum and seasonal fruit. Or for the ultimate luxury experience, guests can reserve their own private beachside bungalow with the services of a personal chef, bartender and staff.

Amber Cove will also provide easy and convenient access to the nearby historic town of Puerto Plata, named by Christopher Columbus when he discovered the island in 1492. Puerto Plata is home to the first fort built by European settlers in the New World. Visitors to the city can shop in the bustling downtown area featuring numerous artist studios and rum and cigar factories or stroll along the famed Malecon, a three-mile-long open air beach-side boardwalk dotted with bars, restaurants and shops.

For more information, please visit http://www.carnival.com.

Carnival Miracle gets a facelift in dry dock Spring 2015

Carnival Cruise Line has slated the Miracle ship as the next big recipient of a massive facelift. Guests can expect significant innovations, new bars and more entertainment options following the March 2015 renovation period. Below is the official word from Carnival regarding the exciting project.

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Carnival Miracle will undergo an extensive refurbishment this spring that will add an array of new and exciting on-board innovations, from unique bar concepts like RedFrog Pub and Alchemy Bar to fun entertainment choices such as Playlist Productions and Hasbro, The Game Show, and the family-friendly Seuss at Sea program.

The new features – part of the line’s ongoing Fun Ship 2.0 product enhancement initiative – will be added during a two-week-long dry dock that will take place March 7-21, 2015.

The enhancements include:
· RedFrog Pub – a Caribbean-inspired watering hole featuring the region’s best rums and beers – including Carnival’s own ThirstyFrog Red – enjoyed in a distinct British-West-Indies-meets-Key-West atmosphere

· Alchemy Bar – at this vintage-themed cocktail “pharmacy,” mixologists “prescribe” concoctions from different elixirs and ingredients with creative names like “Forty is the New Twenty” and “Restorative Basil Drop”

· Playlist Productions – these four spectacular shows – 88 Keys, 80’s Pop To the Max, Getaway Island and Heart Of Soul – combine captivating live performances of recognizable pop and rock songs with dazzling special effects to create unforgettable evenings of entertainment

· Seuss At Sea – part an exclusive partnership with Dr. Seuss Enterprises, Seuss at Sea brings the whimsical world of Dr. Seuss to life with fun activities like the Green Eggs and Ham Breakfast with the Cat in the Hat and Friends, Seuss-a-Palooza Story Time, and more

· Hasbro, The Game Show – this audience-participation favorite features larger-than-life adaptations of the company’s iconic and popular games with titles like Connect4 Basketball, Sorry Sliders, and Yahtzee Bowling

· Cherry On Top – this “candy and more store” celebrates the joys of simple indulgences with bins of bulk candy, fun fanciful gifts and novelties, custom apparel and more

· New SPORTS Bar – at this sports lovers’ paradise, guests can catch live sporting events and check out scores on the real-time 24/7 sports ticker

· Spin U – developed in partnership with legendary DJ IRIE – Carnival’s official DJ who has entertained crowds from South Beach to Las Vegas – this fun DJ academy provides aspiring spin-masters ages 15-17 all they need to know to “hit the decks” and rock the club!

These innovations complement a wide range of existing onboard features such as the Punchliner Comedy Club presented by George Lopez, a Serenity adults-only retreat with magnificent ocean vistas, a classic American-style steakhouse serving prime cuts of beef and other gourmet cuisine, a nine-hole miniature golf course, a 14,500-square-foot health and wellness center, and The Taste Bar offering bite-size samples from popular Fun Ship 2.0 dining venues.

“We’re really excited that the Fun Ship 2.0 product enhancement program that began rolling out three years ago continues to bring innovative, fun and memorable dining, bar and entertainment options to the entire Carnival Cruise Line fleet and to the millions of guests who sail with us annually,” said Mark Tamis, Carnival’s senior vice president of guest operations. “The fantastic renovations on Carnival Miracle will also provide our valued travel agent partners with an exciting new cruise experience for their clients.”

Carnival Miracle operates year-round departures from Long Beach, Calif., encompassing three different week-long Mexican Riviera cruise options: a three-port itinerary featuring Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas; a two-port option that includes a stop in Cabo San Lucas, along with a two-day overnight stay in Puerto Vallarta; and a third choice featuring a day-long visit to Puerto Vallarta, along with a two-day call at Cabo San Lucas.

Carnival Miracle will also offer 15-day Hawaii cruises round-trip from Long Beach departing Oct. 17 and Nov. 28, 2015, and Jan. 16, 2016, along with a special one-time 13-day Mexican Riviera cruise departing Jan. 31, 2016.

Reservations are currently being accepted for all of Carnival Miracle’s seven- to 15-day departures from Long Beach.

For additional information on Carnival Miracle or any of the line’s cruises, contact any travel agent, call 1-800-CARNIVAL or visit carnival.com.

Sail Across the Sun Festival with Train on Norwegian Pearl

As if you needed another reason to set sail with Norwegian, Sail Across the Sun: Music, Food & Wine Festival hosted by Train is back for 2015! Gather your friends and make plans now to enjoy a long weekend getaway onboard Norwegian Pearl departing Miami on February 13, 2015 for a four-night itinerary including stops in Key West and Great Stirrup Cay (Norwegian’s private island in the Bahamas). Experience the best in music, food and wine while enjoying all of the luxurious amenities on Norwegian Pearl.

Photo courtesy of Will Byington

Photo courtesy of Will Byington

This is a unique opportunity for Train fans to enjoy an entertaining cruise with the added bonus of hearing groundbreaking artists, tasting the culinary delights of celebrity chefs and having a hearty chuckle with comedy acts as well. What better way to spend a long February weekend!

About the ports
Key West, also known as “The Conch Republic,” is always a treat with the only coral reef ecosystem in the continental United States! Take in the natural beauty of the city and its local fare, shopping, city tour’s (The World Famous Conch Tour Train is fabulous), and don’t miss places like Ernest Hemingway’s home and the Key West First Legal Rum Distillery. Grab a cup of Cuban coffee and a Key Lime Pie on a stick to be an authentic tourist and enjoy Florida’s southernmost city.

Great Stirrup Cay is Norwegian’s own private island resort with great opportunities to snorkel, parasail, relax on the beach or nap in a hammock. Enjoy the shade of palm trees or the embrace the Caribbean sun – the choice is yours!

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About the ship
Norwegian Pearl is full of amenities that make a vacation complete. Enjoy options like 13 bars and lounges, 16 dining venues, a massive spa, pool, hot tubs, fitness center, the Aqua Kid’s Club, kiddie pool, bowling alley, rock climbing wall and try your luck in the casino! Whatever your pleasure, Pearl can satisfy your needs!

CRUISE ITINERARY
(Subject to change)

Friday, February 13, 2015 – Depart Miami, FL (approx. 4:00pm ET)
Saturday, February 14 – Day at Sea
Sunday, February 15 – Key West (8:00am – 4:00pm)
Monday, February 16 – Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas (9:00am – 6:00pm)

For more information including lineups, booking info, ship info and transportation questions, please visit http://www.sailacrossthesun.com/festival/ or call your local travel agent.

Make 2015 a Florida beach New Year

This post courtesy of Sterling Resorts via The Idea Boutique Public Relations.

New Year’s Eve packages available in Panama City Beach, South Walton and Destin

If you are still deciding where to ring in the New Year, fireworks celebrations last longer when they’re reflecting off the emerald seas at any of Sterling Resorts’ beach vacation rentals along Florida’s Gulf Coast.

A beach getaway for New Year’s with Sterling Resorts offers the combination of a relaxing escape and festive New Year’s Eve celebrations. With special packages at Laketown Wharf and Sterling Resorts properties, and rental home specials from Beach Rentals of South Walton, you can’t miss this New Year’s deals and steals all along the emerald coast!

Sterling Resorts
Sterling welcomes all guests with a complimentary bottle of champagne and flutes, as well as late checkout at noon on the day of departure. Special rates start at just $109/night at properties in Panama City Beach and Destin and along Scenic Highway 30-A. The upscale properties of Sterling Resorts offer plenty of room for holiday gatherings of any size, from cozy beach cottages to high-end, three-bedroom condominiums overlooking the beautiful Gulf of Mexico. Family entertaining is easy with Sterling’s amenities that include full kitchens, washers/dryers, flat-screen TVs, spacious living and dining areas, free DVD rentals and private balconies. Log on to http://www.SterlingResorts.com or call toll-free 1-888-627-1607.

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Laketown Wharf Resort
Laketown Wharf offers a warm toast to 2015 with its New Year’s Eve package, featuring a three-night getaway in our beautiful condos with rates starting at $89/night. Adding sparkle to the occasion, guests receive a complimentary bottle of champagne. Call 855-318-5875 to book your New Year’s Eve package or use promo code LTWNYE when you book online. Arrival date must be between 12/30/2014 and 1/3/2015. A minimum stay of two nights is required.

Beach Rentals of South Walton
If you need a little more space to celebrate the holidays, consider booking a rental home on the beautiful beaches of South Walton along Scenic Highway 30-A. Guests will receive 25 percent off a three-night stay for the New Year’s Eve holiday, plus a welcome bottle of champagne and a 30A brand welcome gift! Visit http://www.brswvacations.com to browse all properties and call 888-965-1247 to book!

Panama City Beach New Year’s Eve at Pier Park
Panama City Beach rings in the New Year at Pier Park, where revelers gather for a wealth of live entertainment, family-friendly activities and the ball drop. Festivities begin at 5:30 p.m. and end at 1:00 a.m., allowing ample time to stroll Pier Park’s eclectic mix of local shops and restaurants and popular national chains. New York City may have its brightly lit ball, but a beach party calls for beach balls—10,000 of them will drop at 8:00 p.m. as a special New Year’s ball drop for kids, with fireworks immediately following. For adults, a giant 800-pound LED beach ball descends a hundred feet during the New Year’s countdown at midnight. A second fireworks show keeps the light display going. This year’s entertainment includes the popular Barry Fish Band, DJ Alex Angelo, Loud Planet, Tim Gagnon, and the Celebrity AllStars. Complimentary shuttle service is provided to Pier Park from select Sterling properties.

Destin’s 7th Annual Harbor Ball Drop
A little further west, Destin hosts its own New Year’s Eve celebration at the Harbor Walk Village beginning at 7:00 p.m. Located in the heart of Destin, this festive street party features live music, a ball drop at midnight over the Destin Harbor and two spectacular fireworks shows (8:00 p.m. and midnight). This year’s headlining concert is Departure, the nation’s top Journey tribute band.

Countdown Seaside!
The Dirty Guv’nahs will ring in 2015 at the Seaside Amphitheater on 30-A! This six-piece brotherhood from Knoxville, Tennessee, is called “a fiercely soulful band” by the Boston Globe and has been affirmed by Paste magazine to “know rock and roll from the inside out.” No strangers to Seaside, the Dirty Guv’nahs will be joined by Nashville group MamaDear as the opening act. Festivities begin at 8:00 p.m. A signature of the Seaside NYE celebration, fireworks over the Gulf of Mexico will ring in the New Year at midnight.

Keep up to date on other exclusive offers by becoming a Sterling Resorts fan on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sterlingresorts.

Celebrate NYE with Sterling on Florida’s Gulf Coast

This post courtesy of Sterling Resorts.

Sterling offers a warm toast to 2015 with its New Year’s Eve package, featuring a three-night getaway on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Adding sparkle to the occasion, guests receive a complimentary bottle of champagne and glass flutes, as well as late checkout at 12:00 p.m. on the day of their departure. Rates start from $109/night.

In Panama City Beach, enjoy complimentary shuttle service from select Sterling properties to Pier Park, where revelers gather for a slew of family-friendly events, live entertainment and the evening’s highlight – the annual New Year’s Eve Beach Ball Drop. At 8 p.m., local dignitaries will release 10,000 inflated beach balls along Pier Park’s beachfront boardwalk. This awe-inspiring activity, heralded as the nation’s only family beach ball drop, will be followed by a dazzling fireworks display.

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At 8:30 p.m., the official Countdown Celebration will begin with live musical performances. Just before midnight, attendees will countdown to 2014 as an 800 pound LED lighted beach ball descends nearly 100 feet. This symbolic occasion will be followed by a stunning, second fireworks display.

In Destin, from 7:00pm to midnight, celebrate New Year’s Eve in the heart of Destin at the HarborWalk Village New Year’s Eve street party, where you can enjoy live music at the HarborWalk Village main stage as well as throughout HarborWalk Village. Also, you’ll enjoy the exciting ball drop over the Destin Harbor, and a spectacular choreographed fireworks show.

The Sterling Resorts New Year’s Eve package is available at select properties with a minimum stay of three nights. Call 888-627-1607 to book your New Year’s Eve package!

Ring in 2015 at Callaway Gardens

This post provided by Callaway Gardens.

Celebrate the New Year with Fun and Frivolity with Two Great Party Options

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This New Year’s Eve get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and ring in the new year at Callaway Gardens. There are two options:

The first option is the traditional New Year’s Eve Dinner Dance. Revelers on this New Year’s Eve package will enjoy:

·Reception with passed hors d’oeuvres
·Gala celebration with live music by “The Fabulous Brass Masters Orchestra” featuring The Musical Flamboyance and Outrageous Emcee Antics of Peter Petty
·Plated dinner** with wine prepared by the Callaway Gardens culinary team led by Executive Chef Michael Gonzalez
·Complimentary drink coupon
·Party favors
·Champagne toast at midnight
·Transportation to and from your Callaway Gardens accommodation and the New Year’s Eve Celebration
·Admission Monday, Dec. 31, to our world-class Gardens featuring the Day Butterfly Center, Sibley Horticultural Center, Callaway Discovery Center, live Birds of Prey Shows, seven miles of nature trails and our 10-mile Discovery Bicycle Trail and more.
·Choice of accommodations from our charming Mountain Creek Inn, relaxing Southern Pine Cottages or secluded Mountain Creek Villas

Starting at only $399* per couple in the Mountain Creek Inn, rates also are available in the Southern Pine Cottages, Mountain Creek Villas and Vacation Homes. For those wanting to attend the New Year’s Eve dinner and dance only, the price is $300 per couple or $150 per person.

The second option is the Fantasy & Fireworks New Year’s Eve Party. Partygoers will have a bonus 2014 opportunity to drive their personal vehicle through Fantasy In Lights between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. When they return to the Robin Lake Beach area, they can park to begin the evening’s celebration. The band Final Answer will take the stage at 9 p.m. As the excitement builds toward the midnight hour, a big screen will showcase “the” countdown from New York. Fireworks will welcome in 2015 with a bang! Tickets are only $15 per person. They can be purchased online or by calling 800.863.6990. A special Fantasy & Fireworks New Year’s Eve overnight package also is available beginning at $119* per room.

Make your New Year’s Eve reservations now by calling call 1.800.463.6990 or visit http://www.callawaygardens.com.

* Rate is per room, per night based on double occupancy in a Non-View Room in the Mountain Creek Inn. Rates also are available for additional Mountain Creek Inn views, Cottages, Villas and Vacation Homes. Tax not included. Based on availability. Some restrictions may apply.

**New Year’s Eve Dinner Dance Menu:
Saturday December 31, 2013
Starter
Butternut Squash and Parsnip Soup with Smoked Duck BBQ and Chive Crackers

Entrée
Roasted Angus Beef Tenderloin and Lump Crab Cake with White Truffle Potato Puree, Roasted Baby Vegetables, and Champagne Butter

Dessert
Dark Chocolate Custard with Red Raspberries, Maple Crunch, Banana Mousse

Champagne Toast at Midnight

A beachy way to ring in the New Year

If your holiday down time allows you to travel to a destination to celebrate the New Year, take a look at the Orange Beach and Gulf Shores area! Perfect for couples, families and even those traveling solo, the Alabama Gulf Coast offers entertainment, a superb culinary scene and plenty of lodging options.

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The Wharf
Reeling in the New Year at The Wharf is an annual street party event taking place on Main Street. It’s FREE to the public and features LIVE music throughout the evening along with games and activities for everyone in the family.

The family can participate in awesome activities at The Wharf’s Winter Wonderland such as the REAL ice skating rink located in Palm Plaza. The large ice skating rink is the cornerstone for all of the family-friendly holiday season activities. Skate from 10 a.m. to midnight (cost is $10 for a two-hour session or $12 for a two-hour session and Ferris Wheel ticket).

If you are a family with smaller children, you are in luck! Children have the opportunity to participate in fun activities just for them: face painting, bouncy houses and so much more on the Eve starting at 5 p.m. Ride a mechanical bull or the gyro machine and get into the spirit of the season with Holiday SPECTRA playing at 6 p.m., 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. each evening.

Opening Act for Reeling in the New Year is local favorite 4 Barrel Funk from Mobile, Alabama. Come party to the familiar tunes from Motown, top 40 hits, classic rock and more. Dee Jay Silver (who recently toured with Brad Paisley’s 2014 Country Nation World Tour) is the Headlining Act and is a well-known, top-touring DJ/remixer/producer featuring a unique brand of party rock and country style of music mixing. Performing from 10 p.m. until midnight, Dee Jay Silver will countdown to 2015 with the “Marlin Drop” at midnight!

There is also an option to upgrade your experience with VIP tickets to the Jim Beam Kentucky Fire VIP Club for $90. This gives guests access to a comfortable lounge area with club seating located in the Palms, hors d’oeuvres, adult beverages (wine, beer and mixed liquor4), party favors and more! Purchase your tickets at ticketmaster.com or The Wharf Box Office. VIP tickets give you the best views of the midnight fireworks and to see all activities along Main Street.

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Flora-Bama New Year’s Eve Bash
The Flora-Bama is a really happening place on New Year’s Eve! This well-known lounge offers LIVE music on three stages, lots of food, party favors and champagne to help you ring in the New Year the Flora-Bama way!

Pricing:
$35 in advance up to December 30th.
$40 at the door or gift shop on December 31st for ages 21 & up.
$50 at the door for ages 18-20.
$10 at the door for ages 18-20 who purchased an advance ticket at $35.

Ticket Includes: All you can eat buffet from 7pm until 12pm, free breakfast sandwiches out of the gift shop bar starting at 12:30am, free champagne, party favors and live music on three stages.

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Also, enjoy the Flora-Bama official New Year’s Polar Bear Dip celebration by taking a dip into the Gulf of Mexico at high noon! Dress up or just show up and delight in the traditional New Year’s Day culinary feast of black-eyed peas, cornbread, ham and more!

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NYE Hangout Peace Out
The Hangout is one of the most lively places on the beach for fun, festivals and music venues. From local favorites to world renown bands, this place always rocks in the new year. This year’s event is from 9 p.m. on the eve (December 31) to 2 a.m. on New Year’s Day and features Kristy Lee & Dirt Road Revival, The Mulligan Brothers with special guests The Hussy Hicks. Enjoy a midnight buffet, a champagne toast and a balloon drop!

Tickets are $35 in advance and $50 for VIP (limited quantity for VIP). VIP guests have a private, no wait bar with appetizers and drink specials, meet and greet with the performers…all in your very own VIP lounge. Special lodging deals are available, just visit the web site below for more information.

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LuLu’s Gulf Shores
Lucy Buffett’s fabulous restaurant on the marina not only serves fresh seafood every day, but also knows how to celebrate! The folks at LuLu’s have a NOON Year’s Eve party starting at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, December 31st and it is packed full of family-friendly activities like a sandcastle building contest, arts & crafts, LIVE music, zoo animals, face painting and more! Did I mention delicious food…yep, there’s that! And, to count it down to NOON, LuLu’s celebrates with kid-friendly fireworks and a HUGE beach ball drop. Kathleen Rees and Pelican212 are the scheduled entertainers (a kids-based band from Nashville). . .and your family is sure to enjoy this fun-filled family celebration!

For ideas and deals on lodging, area restaurants and other important details, visit http://www.gulfshores.com.

The Gulf Shores and Orange Beach area has so much to offer in terms of New Year’s Eve celebrations. There is something for absolutely everyone, so come join the fun and excitement of ringing in the New Year on Alabama’s Gulf Coast!

If you go…
The Wharf

4830 Main Street
Orange Beach, AL 36561
(251) 224-1000
http://www.alwharf.com

Flora-Bama Lounge & Oyster Bar
17401 Perdido Key Drive
Perdido Key, AL 32507
Alabama (251) 980-5118
Florida (850) 492-0611

http://www.florabama.com

The Hangout
101 East Beach Blvd
Gulf Shores, AL 36542
(251) 948-3030
http://www.thehangout.com

LuLu’s
200 East 25th Ave
Gulf Shores, AL 36542
(251) 967-LULU (5858)
http://www.lulubuffetts.com

Grapevine – the Christmas Capital of Texas

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This week I am learning about the Christmas capital of Texas – Grapevine! This holiday mecca is adjacent to Dallas and full of family-friendly Christmas activities! My travel radio show this week is all about Grapeview, so I wanted to get some information on the blog for your planning purposes. Let’s get started!

Gaylord Texan Resort
The Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center is my home for a few days and it is a city within itself with spacious atrium walking spaces, restaurants, gift shops and lots of rooms. My room is super comfy with down bedding and modern amenities. The property is just beautiful, especially with all of the holiday decorations and it is fully equipped with a pool, fitness center, jogging track and pretty much anything else you can think of. For meetings, the adjacent convention center is perfect!

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As part of the Gaylord Texan holiday experience, you must see the ICE! exhibit. Join Frosty, everyone’s favorite snowman, and his friends on their quest to the North Pole in a colorfully frozen retelling of this original Christmas classic! Favorite scenes come to life in more than TWO MILLION pounds of hand-carved ice sculptures, including two-story tall ice slides.

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ICE! is an indoor winter wonderland featuring:
Walk-through holiday attraction, kept at a chilly 9 degrees
Two million pounds of hand-carved ice sculptures
Four ice slides
Six individual rooms depicting the story of Frosty the Snowman
The Frostbite Factory — a live carving zone

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I cannot begin to tell you what breath-taking displays are part of this awesome experience. It truly brings Christmas to life to kids, old and young alike! For more information on Gaylord Texas and ICE!, visit http://www.marriott.com/hotel-info/dalgt-gaylord-texan-resort-and-convention-center/lone-star-christmas/udp3ura/ice.mi.

Downtown and Town Square
Grapevine is a town of only 48,000 folks, but with tourism as a prime industry, you’ll find many more than that walking the quaint streets…ducking in and out of boutiques…sipping the local wines…and just enjoying the town square Christmas carolers! Restaurants are abundant with local flavors, not chains. And, you’ll find some treats along the way at places like Dr. Sue’s Chocolate where daily hot chocolate tastings are offered.(www.drsueschocolate.com)

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Don’t miss Main Street Bistro and Bakery for a breakfast or lunch treat! This lovely restaurant specializes in hand-crafted breads, pastries and gourmet cuisine using traditional methods from France and Europe. If you want the “Best Croissant in Dallas Fort Worth” as chosen by Dallas Morning News, then you must visit Main Street! (www.themainbakery.com)

Chill (www.chillgrapevine.com) is a super place to grab some appetizers or, well, just chill with your favorite beverage. It’s a sports bar atmosphere so watching sporting events here is a great option!

If you are looking for true Texas cuisine, look no further than Tolbert’s Restaurant on Main Street. You’ll make plenty of walking trips down Main Street anyway to see all the sights and sounds of Christmas, so plan on stopping in for Tolbert’s Bowl of Red (chili) or a char-grilled steak or burger. Casual atmosphere and good food…now that’s Texas!

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One more Grapevine eatery that’s a don’t miss is Love & War in Texas. Dubbed an epic name for an epic restaurant, Love & War’s concept is to promote Texas, Texans, Texas food and Texas Heritage. Fresh Texas Gulf seafood is on the menu, as well as other authentic Texas recipes. You’ll find Texas singers and songwriters and a wine list that, you guessed it, all Texas. Find out more about this classic restaurant at http://www.loveandwarintexas.com.

Wine Tasting Anyone?
I attended tastings at two distinct, local wineries on this trip. Both were amazing, but had their own ambiance and flavors. Messina Hof Winery is a family-owned business and one of Texas’ most awarded wineries. Choose from more than 50 wines (from some 28 varietals) with favorites including Private Reserve Papa Paulo Port, Private Reserve Cab Franc and Solera Sherry. Check them out at http://www.messinahof.com for more information.

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Sloan & Williams Winery (www.sloanwilliams.com) is an excellent choice for top-tier Texas wines. Ex-military friends Alan Kunst, Jr. and Ralph Mattison, Jr. co-own this winery producing fabulous blends that feed their passion for wine making and drinking. Integrity and respect are the cornerstones for their business and in everything they do.

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Christmas Wine Train on the Grapevine Vintage Railroad
This seasonal event is a grownup way to escape and enjoy an adult holiday activity. Purchase a ticket, board the train and enjoy food, fun and fellowship…oh, and wine! Participants must be 21 or over.

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The Christmas Wine Train showcases different caterers and wineries offering an unusual experience for locals and visitors during the holiday season. My train car was all decked out and the only thing livelier was the group of folks enjoying their fun-filled evening.

Vetro Glassblowing Studio & Gallery
Vetro, a state-of-the-art studio specializing in handblown and lampworked art glass, has created a wonderful little hands-on holiday activity where guests make their own ornaments! Choose your colors and get a lesson in glassblowing! Not only is it a great experience, but it is also a fabulous keepsake. Find out more at http://www.vetroartglass.com.

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Texas Star Dinner Theater
What a fun way to laugh the night away solving a murder mystery! Dismay in the Manger is the adequately named holiday dinner theater production and it is packed with holiday havoc and Texas pageantry. Enjoy a better-than-average dinner theater-type meal (mine was a lovely tilapia with veggies, asparagus and rice…and strawberry cheesecake to top it off) coupled with your favorite beverage and a setting just large enough to allow everyone to feel involved. Characters roam the room and interact with guests. You can find out more by visiting http://www.texasstardinnertheater.com.

Great Wolf Lodge
Great Wolf Lodge offers a magical twist to Grapevine’s holiday scene! Snowland is fun for the entire family with Santa visits, North Pole University activities, holiday carol sing-alongs, a life-size Gingerbread House, Santa’s letter-writing Depot, the Polar Wolf Walk, holiday shows, evening Snowland-themed Story Time and much more! Did I mention it snows…right in the lobby? Yea, there’s that.

Great Wolf Lodge is a family-friendly resort with an 84-degree indoor waterpark. Super cool and sure to please the masses. To plan your trip there, visit http://www.greatwolflodge.com.

Other great experiences in the area are more extensive Grapevine wine tours (www.grapevinewinetours.com) which take you on a tour to sample all the best on the Grapevine Urban Wine Trail and learn about North Texas history of wine-making. Lunch is included on this tour as well.

LEGOLAND Discovery Center is not to be missed by families! The 35,000-square-foot attraction known as LEGOLAND is a child’s dream! Interactive, educational and just plain fun…your kid’s will have a blast exploring all things LEGO! (www.legolanddiscoverycenter.com)

SEA LIFE Grapevine Aquarium is a two-story, 45,000-square-foot aquarium housing more than 30 displays of marine life! From shrimp and starfish to seahorses, sharks and rays, enjoy this fabulous look at marine life, and it’s stunning centerpiece – the tropical ocean tank with walk-through underwater tunnel! (www.visitsealife.com/grapevine)

You can’t visit the Christmas capital of Texas and not see the Main Street Live Christmas show at the Palace Theatre! High-energy performances of your favorite holiday songs help folks celebrate the season or you might take in a classic holiday movie. Either way, it’s a winner! (www.palace-theatre.com)

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As you can see, Grapevine offers a plethora of activities to keep your family busy for a week or a weekend. The unique celebration of the Christmas season is phenomenal and I highly recommend it. Keep it on the forefront of your mind for planning travel next Christmas season. It’ll be well worth the effort.

Also, see Becky’s story about Grapevine in Focus Daily News at http://focusdailynews.com/grapevine-christmas-capital-of-texas-p14255-86.htm.

Travel Follies with the Volvo XC60

I am a traveler. And when that dictates a road trip, I am always interested in three main characteristics from a vehicle: safety, reliability and roominess. Recently a 13-hour (each way) adventure to Miami landed me in a mid-year 2015 Volvo XC60 which I was thrilled to check out up close and personal.

Volvo

I don’t think many would argue with me regarding the near perfect crash testing of Volvos across the board, so I can check safety off the list. Rear cameras and lane alerts are icing on the cake. Honestly, Volvo has set the bar year after year when it comes to vehicle safety, and having one daughter who drives the XC90, I am already aware of just how state-of-the-art Volvo safety features are.

The look…
The exterior of any Volvo, while it may be slightly updated to appeal to new generations of owners, is still iconic in the automotive industry and therefore, you can always pick them out in a crowd. The trim level options are easy enough with a premier and a platinum option. The keyless system is now available as a standalone option in addition to a convenience package (rear park assist camera – a personal favorite, Homelink remote garage door opener, digital compass, grocery holder and power retractable outside mirrors). Want to upgrade to platinum? It will include the keyless driving plus bi-xenon headlamps and the innovative technology package.

Under the hood…
T5 Drive-E offers a turbocharged four-cylinder engine with plenty of power which is always appreciated on merging highways (and my metro city is full of them by the way). This is more and more important to me when choosing a vehicle that adequately handles the road with the way my family travels. The T6 Drive-E model is supercharged adding so much power and quick response time along with respectable fuel economy. Front wheel drives standardly house an eight-speed automatic transmission while all-wheel drives get the six-speed automatic transmission. Fuel efficiency on the base model is a cool 24/31 mpg (city/highway respectively)…that’s a bonus in a crossover luxury travel vehicle for me!

Volvo XC60 Ocean Race Edition

Enter the cabin…
There were four of us embarking on this journey to Miami…four adults. The spaciousness of the rear seating area almost made me jealous of those riding back there. Front and back alike were roomy and comfy. If there is ever a time for comfort inside a vehicle, it’s on a LONG road trip!

Fifth generation Volvo Ocean Race Edition

The center and dashboard, although it has evolved a bit, is still very classic to previous Volvo experiences. The craftsmanship is not fancy, yet offers a high-quality feeling. Straightforward controls, a 7-inch display screen, superb audio and other cutting-edge, tech-savvy amenities (Bluetooth, satellite radio, navigation and lane departure warning) keep this Volvo in the excellent category for me as far as needs inside a vehicle.

Cargo space is typically an issue for travel regulars like myself, and I will say the four of us (all taking luggage for a week-long cruise, laptops and the like) packed the cargo area like true road warriors. And it all fit! Sweet!

Fifth generation Volvo Ocean Race Edition

What’s new…
Volvo is coming off of a major product refresh, the launch of the more fuel-efficient Drive-E powertrains and the introduction of the V60 sportswagon. You would think that would be enough to tackle in one model year. But no, there’s more…and this really caught my (travel) eye.

The mid-year updates included the Volvo Sensus Connect which is a connected car platform, and Volvo On Call telematics solution which offers comprehensive connectivity AND puts Volvo in a category by themselves as the only manufacturer to have these features standard across the entire lineup!

So, what is all this connectivity stuff? It is actually quite simple. It is a means to offer Volvo customers cloud- and app-based services to make their travels more enjoyable! Are you kidding? Volvo knows me! I want my travel experiences to be easy and enjoyable with super cool features that I can access via the Volvo On Call smartphone app. I can start the engine from my smartphone…I can unlock the doors…I have access to stolen vehicle tracking and theft notification! Impressive. Very impressive.

My favorites…
I love the look of the Volvo XC60. It’s small enough to offer superb handling, yet large enough to take me on comfortable road trip. It has amazing sound spilling out of the speakers, gizmos and gadgets, and spaces for my charges and various other devices that I cannot leave home without.

When off the travel path, I love the grocery bag holder in the cargo area…no more chasing random cans of rolling beans. It fits neatly into average parking spaces and navigates my neighborhood like a champ.

Photos courtesy of Volvo.