Best Sunsets

No matter what destination your travels take you to, sunsets seem be a reason for people to gather, drinking in the cloud art and colorful sky. Sunsets form rituals. On my recent boating vacation sunrise and sunset were the big events of the day. We set our daily rhythm and schedule around them, and I watched other travelers and animals do the same.

Sunsets seem to be the cue for vacationers to gather for dinner, take in those happy snapshots for family photo albums, retire from the day and hunker inside boats, houses, hotels, restaurants for pre-sleep activities. 'Tis our cue for winding down. And the soft-light hues are radiant, often an explosion of colors like a big bang punctuating the day's end. No two sunsets are alike. I'm sure of it.

Best sunsets from my travels (based solely on personal opinion, as there's no way to be objective about such ethereal, transcendent beauty):

  1. Ia on the island of Santorini, Greece
  2. 2nd Beach in the Olympic National Park
  3. Sucia Island in the San Juans
  4. Marinas anywhere (picture shown is at Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands)
  5. Jerusalem
  6. Via del'Amore in Cinque Terre, Italy
  7. Kauai's western-most beach (I can't recall the name)
  8. Manuel Antonio Beach, Costa Rica
  9. Kerry Park, Seattle, WA (amazing cityscape and Puget Sound views for sunset)
  10. Rehoboth Beach, Delaware (for the memories alone)

Where have you seen the best sunsets?


Get Ready to Ski

Prepping for winter with deep lunges to get those quads in shape for swooping down the mountain? Waxing your skis? If your idea of adventure includes snowflakes, slopes, and skiing, this guide's for you.

2006-07 ski season is only a couple of months away, but there are book early ski deals already percolating, and dozens of resorts getting reading for a snowy winter. Travelocity has the most comprehensive list of North American ski resorts I've ever seen. Clean and simply indexed with links to all the key/basic info you need (including resort phone numbers, vertical feet of skiing and boarding terrain, and more). Have a look and start planning your snowboarding or skiing trip.

10 top ski resorts for groups (in no particular order):

  1. Whistler - British Columbia, Canada
  2. Vail - Colorado, USA
  3. Steamboat - Colorado, USA
  4. Breckenridge - Colorado, USA
  5. Banff - Alberta, Canada
  6. Mammoth Lakes - California, USA
  7. Park City - Utah, USA
  8. Beaver Creek - Colorado, USA
  9. Heavenly - Lake Tahoe, California, USA
  10. Killington - Vermont, USA

 


10 Tips: How to Choose the Right Group Tour

By guest blogger Phyllis Stoller

If you're considering going on a professionally-arranged group tour, there are key things to ask about in the first ten minutes of your research. Here are the 10 most important things to consider:

1. References: Make sure the references the wholesaler gives you are for similar groups to yours. Example: if they only take European travelers, you might find group needs differ from those of Americans.

2. Small print averse? At least read cancellation penalties and figure how much you can lose if your trip does not meet its numbers. Airline ticket cancellations are usually the surprise loss. Note: a substantial group organizer will have some pull and flexibility with your hotel/airline choices.

3. Hotel quality: Google the hotel used in the capital city on the itinerary for a general flavor. If the hotel is a condition of your contract, make that clear up front. Many group contracts only specify X hotel or similar.

4. Red flag the word "from" on pricing. It means you are looking at the lowest price.

5. Trip pace: If breakfast, lunch, and dinner are included, you'll be on a leisurely moving trip. I recommend usually 2 meals a day for groups over 25; it moves the trip along. Ask where the meals are held: hotel or restaurant.

6. Financial security: Most group deposits are payable by check only, so credit card acceptance will not gauge financial stability of your wholesaler. But check for travel insurance availability and, if the group tour organizer/operator offers insurance, make sure you know the name of the insurer.

7. Trip length: Forget number of days, most wholesalers include "travel days."

8. Check trade association memberships like ASTA, BBB, and length of time the company has been doing groups exclusively. Many agents doing individual reservations will tell you they also do groups. Other gauges: a 24-hour emergency number, ability to issue tickets themselves, country specialists, pre-printed customized labels, luggage tags, etc. will tell you this is a real company.

9. Prompt responses from the company mean they are group-friendly. Prompt email responses means they cater to Internet savvy travelers.

10. Customer service: Check that the company has a street address and more than one person in their group department.

Get a few quotes and don't be shy to ask for more information on any issue.

Phyllis Stoller has been a group tour organizer for 15 years and is currently President of Women's Travel Club, wholesale operator and largest such group for women in North America. For 15 years Women's Travel Club has run group trips for women.


Family Reunion Myths Revealed

My family has been having reunions since I was little girl with goldilocks. For the third in a row, we've gotten together on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. Over the years, I've discovered a few myths that I hope will help any reunion planner in preparing for that next family reunion.

Myth 1: I won't drink too much
Be honest. Unless you're making a conscious effort to not drink at all, chances are you'll drink more than usual.

Myth 2: I won't eat too much
Family reunions are all about the food. Obviously, the reason to get together is to reconnect. But more effort goes into meals for this occasion than most other parties. Here are summertime recipes for family reunions.

Myth 3: I won't get a sunburn
Chances are you will, unless you're extra careful to apply sunblock throughout the day, and stay out of the sun during peak midday hours.

Myth 4: I will get ample sleep
It always seems that something is disrupting a perfect night's sleep: varying hours of going to bed, staying up late, getting up early for scheduled activities, kids over-excited, etc.

Myth 5: I will visit with everyone
Chances are slim that you'll have meaningful conversations with all attendees. But the connections you make are important, a link to your past, and a way to keep in touch with extended family. Make a mental list of the top three people you really want to reconnect with and make an effort to do so. You'll thank yourself.

Myth 6: Like other vacations, I'll relax as much as I want
There's an air of formality in a family reunion that is unlike friends traveling together or immediate family taking a vacation. Relatives come together who are genetically similar, but often live very different lives, in different places. You may feel the need to connect with select (extended) family members, while others are interested in visiting with you. This can be tiring, albeit rewarding.

Myth 7: Recycling will take care of itself
People tend to be much more lax about following recycling rules when at a big gathering like a family reunion. A mini tragedy of the commons. Luckily for my family, I have one highly type A uncle who takes big plastic garbage bins, labels them each with his neat hand writing ("plastics," "trash," "glass"), and strategically places them around the main eating/gathering area. We tease him, but appreciate his orderly tendencies.

Myth 8: Injuries are avoidable when family gathers
As for all other vacations (and life in general), safety is important. Have a first-aid kit and phone handy for emergencies. If you have any doctors in your family, the trip organizer may want to locate that person ahead of time and ask if they could wear a cell phone during the reunion just in case.

Myth 9: All the in-laws will fit in
All in-laws are not created equal. Pay attention to spouses or significant others who aren't socializing as much as others and make an effort to include them in conversations. Ask them about their family reunions, family dynamics, family heritage. Or learn more about what they enjoy doing in their free time. Family reunions can be intimidating for the non-genetically related.

Myth 10: My kids (grandkids, nieces/nephews) are the cutest
All kids are adorable in their own quirky or beautiful ways! Careful of becoming that obsessive family member who talks only of your kids (grandkids or nieces/nephews) and has no interest in any other subjects, or continually draws conversations back to your kids. It's wonderful to see such love and devotion to the kids, but even the kids (if they could speak up for themselves) would blush at all the gush.

What are other family reunion myths? Share your stories.


Top 10 U.S. Beach Destinations

TripAdvisor recently released a list of their choice for top 10 U.S. beaches. How do you narrow best beaches down to 10? Most are the usual suspects; some are destinations with multiple beaches (the list isn't beach-specific, but it is still makes you drool). Reading the list makes me daydream of booking a ticket (or road tripping) to the coast, and sinking my toes into the sand after a refreshing dip in the water.

Daydream away....

1.  Maui, Hawaii 
2.  Miami Beach, Florida 
3.  Kauai, Hawaii 
4.  Clearwater, Florida 
5.  Hilton Head, South Carolina 
6.  Naples, Florida 
7.  Carmel, California 
8.  Nantucket, Massechusetts
9.  Laguna Beach, California 
10.  Southampton, New York


Best Nude Beaches

Going along with my previous post on the rising nude travel trend, the next logical question is "where are the nude beaches?" since it seems like a natural combination - beach and bare buns. (Unless, of course, the subject makes you uncomfortable as hell and you'd rather go to your happy place and pretend you aren't intrigued. Understandable.)

The Travel Channel has compiled a list of what they call the best beaches for naturalists. Have a look. Then walk, don't run, to plan a trip with friends (even family), if you dare to go bare.

  1. Centre Helio Montalivet in Bordeaux, France
    Best for purists
  2. Couples Resort in Ocho Rios, Jamaica
    Best for couples or groups of couples new to going nude
  3. Wreck Beach in Vancouver, British Columbia
    Best for young adults
  4. Samurai Beach in Port Stephens, Australia
    Best for anyone
  5. Hedonism II in Negril, Jamaica along the famous 7-mile beach
    Best for hedonists and swinging singles (pun very much intended)
  6. Pinho Beach (Praia do Pinho) in Santa Catarina, Brazil
    Best for anyone
  7. Red Beach in Crete, Greece
    Best for rustic naturists
  8. Haulover Beach near Miami, Florida
    Best for organized group activites such as nude volleyball, nude swimming
  9. Red, White, and Blue Beach in Santa Cruz, California
    Best for groovy, bohemian nudists
  10. Little Beach in Maui, Hawaii
    Best for body surfing in the buff

Any other note-worthy nude beaches? How do y'all feel about nude beach-going?


10 Reasons to Plan a Family Reunion Cruise

By guest blogger Jacquelin Carnegie

Cruises offer a unique opportunity to spend quality time with family. You can get pampered, take part in your favorite activities and try new feats, all while visiting some of the most beautiful or exotic destinations in the world.

Here's what you have to look forward to:

1. Quality Time: A wonderful aspect of being on a cruise is the opportunity to spend quality time with the family. Cruises slow down the rush of day to day life. While floating at sea, there's plenty of time to lounge on the deck, visiting like there's no tomorrow.

Cruise ships provide a unique environment for families. The varied activities allow you to spend time together (and apart!) making this kind of trip ideal for a special occasion (birthday, anniversary or family reunion). You'll get to be together in a way you never had time for before.

2. Total Relaxation: Bliss. Utter bliss. Nothing gives you the sense of being away from it all as a cruise. You can walk onto the ship a frazzled heap of nerves; and, after a week of sun, relaxation, a little exercise, and a few spa treatments, emerge a new person.

A cruise ship is a floating resort with all the things a fine resort has to offer and more. While you can just relax and do nothing, today's ships are well-equipped to keep sports oriented travelers busy from sunrise to sunset.
   
3. Built-In Value: The ticket price includes all of your meals and in between snacks onboard; your stateroom, activities, parties and entertainment; plus, an exciting voyage to interesting places.

Since you pay for almost everything up front, you'll know pretty much what the trip will end up costing before you go. (Your only extra expenses will be drinks, optional shore excursions, and personal services such as a massage or a new hairdo.)
 
4. Divine Destinations: One of the many benefits of the cruising experience is the ability to visit more than one place during a trip. Some of the most popular cruise destinations are: the Caribbean, Alaska, Mexico, the Panama Canal, Canada/New England, Europe and the Mediterranean. But, with over 1,800 ports-of-call around the world, there are plenty of choices.

On a cruise, you don't really notice the traveling because you spend the day exploring an interesting port and, while you sleep, the ship takes you to the next day's destination.

5. Enriching Experiences: As well as the discoveries you'll make in the various ports-of-call, many cruise lines feature seminars hosted by distinguished, guest speakers. Along with lectures on the sights you’ll be visiting, you can attend presentations on topics ranging from Renaissance art to financial planning to the secrets of French cooking.

6. Theme Cruises: Do you and your family have a particular interest or hobby such as golf, photography or architecture? You can go on a cruise filled with other enthusiasts and experts offering seminars and demonstrations on your favorite topic. Whether your passion is for gardening, wine tasting or 50's music, there's a theme cruise that suits your interest(s).

7. Activities for Kids: If you bring your children along, you can truly relax while the kiddies have a blast because all the activities for children are specially supervised. These fun and educational activities are designed with specific age groups in mind.

8. Food, Glorious Food: Cruises are known for their elaborate meals from bountiful buffets to midnight menus. You'll have the opportunity to "taste test" new specialties or enjoy some favorites such as roast beef and lobster. Each meal is a savory, multi-course affair.

For those with special dietary requirements, there are spa-cuisine offerings, low-sodium, low-cholesterol, kosher and vegetarian meals. There are even special children's menus to suit the tastes of the pickiest eater in the family.

9. Entertainment: On a cruise, the entertainment is practically non-stop. There's dancing, cabaret shows, feature films and parties. After dinner, there's often dancing to Big Band sounds and, for the night owls onboard, there’s entertainment in the nightclubs and lounges. Many ships also have casinos.

10. The Art of Sitting Still: Besides the food, the entertainment, and various on-board activities, one of the best things about being on a boat is just sitting still and looking out at the horizon. With the sun glistening on the water and the work-a-day world far away, there is something deeply soothing about it.
 
With the busy lives we all lead, it's difficult to make the time to connect with family (and friends). However, cruises make connecting with people natural. And that's what makes it perfect for a family reunion or any kind of group trip.

Jacquelin Carnegie is a contributing travel editor to Accent magazine. For the past 15 years, she has covered international travel destinations for both consumer and business publications.


Top 10 U.S. Attractions

You're thinking it. I'm thinking it. The kids are definitely thinking it. Summer's virtually here and a flurry of warm-weather activities are on the mind as peak travel season to and within the United States has arrived.

TripAdvisor just announced the top 10 United States attractions based on traveler popularity on TripAdvisor.com. Drum roll, please...

  1. Walt Disney World, Orlando, Fla.
  2. Universal Studios Orlando, Orlando, Fla.
  3. Discovery Cove, Orlando, Fla.
  4. South Beach, Miami, Fla.
  5. Disneyland, Anaheim, Calif.
  6. Cirque du Soleil, Las Vegas, Nev.
  7. Epcot Center, Orlando, Fla.
  8. Grand Canyon National Park, Ariz.
  9. Hana Highway, Maui, HI
  10. Georgia Aquarium, Atlanta, Ga.

Many will flock to these hot-spots, but many others will flee to avoid crowds and escape to quiet retreats such as national park wilderness and memorable beaches of their own. We won't hear as much about the latter because they'll flee to disparate destinations.

Why are these top 10 attractions so popular? They offer insta-fun for people of all ages, they hold the "wow" factor (biggest canyon, biggest theme park, most intense roller coaster, largest aquarium... super size phenomena) and accommodate groups well, welcoming friends or family who gather in one central location. I'm not surprised to see Disney top the list. But I was surprised to see Hana Highway in Maui (partly because I'm relatively new to Maui) even though it is increasing in popularity as a vacation destination for weddings, honeymoons, family escapes, and other trips. Maui has much to offer, but here's hoping it doesn't sprout an over-crowded area like Oahu's Waikiki. (Sorry, Waikiki fans!)

Whatever attractions bring your group of family or friends together, planning the trip is made simple with TripHub's online collaborative tools.


10 Gas and Money-Saving Road Trip Tips

Every American should bookmark Gas Buddy. As gas prices skyrocket with no end in sight, finding cheap gas can make a wallet full of difference on road trips.

Gas Buddy makes it easy to locate the least (and most) expensive neighborhoods for gas and individual gas stations. Simply enter your zip code at the top of the home page, hit enter, and you’re on your way to a wealth of up-to-date (within the last 48 hours) pricing on gas stations near you. Stations are conveniently ranked by lowest price to highest.

Also, consider Gas Buddy's 10 essential tips for saving money on gas.

  1. Avoid High Speeds: As your speed increases, your aerodynamic drag increases in an exponential fashion. Driving 62 mph (100 km/h) vs 75 mph (120 km/h) will reduce fuel consumption by about 15%.
  2. Do Not Accelerate or Brake Hard: By anticipating the traffic and applying slow steady acceleration and braking, fuel economy may increase by as much as 20%.
  3. Keep Tires Properly Inflated: Keep tire air pressure at the level recommended by your vehicle manufacturer. A single tire under inflated by 2 PSI, increases fuel consumption by 1%.
  4. Use A/C Sparingly: When the air conditioner is on it puts extra load on the engine forcing more fuel to be used (by about 20%). The defrost position on most vehicles also uses the air conditioner.
  5. Keep Windows Closed: Windows open, especially at highway speeds, increase drag and result in decreased fuel economy of up to 10%.
  6. Service Vehicle Regularly: Proper maintenance avoids poor fuel economy related to dirty air filters, old spark plugs or low fluid levels.
  7. Use Cruise Control: Maintaining a constant speed over long distances often saves gas.
  8. Avoid Heavy Loads: Remove the sand bags from your trunk in the spring and pack lightly for long trips.
  9. Avoid Long Idles: If you anticipate being stopped for more than 1 minute, shut off the car. Restarting the car uses less fuel than letting it idle for this time.
  10. Purchase a Fuel Efficient Vehicle: When buying a new vehicle examine the vehicle's rated fuel efficiency. Usually choosing a small vehicle with a manual transmission will provide you with great fuel economy.

Gadling also has money and gas-saving tips, including road tripping with friends to split the cost of gas as a wise money-saving plan.

Any other helpful hints for saving money at the gas pumps?


10 Hot Summer Festivals for Groups

By Jim Shanklin, guest blogger

Festivals are perfect for enjoying vacations with friends or family. You can incorporate a festival into a family or class reunion, or organize a group for a road trip around a theme (such as a music or film festival).

Here are several summer festival ideas:

Portland Rose Festival, Portland, Oregon
Two parades, a rose show, two sports car races; Oregon's biggest and oldest festival.

Chicago Blues Festival, Chicago, Illinois
The world's largest blues festival; great acts on six stages in the heart of downtown Chicago.

Texas Folklife Festival, San Antonio, Texas
Belgian, Italian, Swedish, German performances; all proud Texans! A great festival.

Huck Finn's Country and Bluegrass Jubilee, Victorville, California
Family fun and games, bluegrass performances in a small town setting.

Seafair, Seattle, Washington
A full month of neighborhood events, parades, unlimited hydro-racing and air shows.

Mammoth Lakes Jazz Jubilee, Mammoth Lakes, California
Hot and cool jazz high in the mountains.

Finger Lakes Wine Festival, Watkins Glen, New York
New York wines, food, fun at historic Watkins Glen race track.

Country Thunder USA, Twin Lakes, Wisconsin
Country music; headline performers; overnight accommodations for motor homes, camping.

Fisherman's Feast of Boston, Boston, Massachusetts
One of America's oldest festivals in downtown Boston; started by Sicilians in 1910 and still going strong annually.

Minnesota Bluegrass and Old Time Music Festival, St. Cloud, Minnesota
Bluegrass and other acoustic music in the Minnesota forest; camping, of course.

Jim Shanklin is founder of Festivals.com, the largest online resource for finding festivals all over the world, and EVP of Festival Media Corporation.