First Timers' Guide to River Cruising

To all you ocean cruisers and even the anti-cruisers…it’s time to give river cruising a chance! It has been all the buzz in travel and not just for the traditional cruisers – families, couples, and friend groups of all ages are heading to the rivers. And now after experiencing it for myself during a cruise with Uniworld, I can attest to the truly delightful nature of exploring interior lands via boat. Learn more about my adventure and more in my first timers guide to river cruising below.

 

Who should take a river cruise?

The whole family will love taking a cooking class together!
The whole family will love taking a cooking class together!

Social, active travelers who have a passion for culture, history, food and wine are the big winners when it comes to river cruising.

 

The itineraries tend to be more active so the average guest is generally younger than a large ocean liner. People who really enjoy river cruises are destination focused and love the idea of being centrally located in a city and using their downtime to transition from location to location.

 

Families and multi-generational groups are some of the newest demographics onboard river cruises. Many of my river cruise partners feature family-focused sailings (AmaWaterways has a partnership with Adventures by Disney!) and some new ships have connecting rooms, so river cruising is a great way to create lasting memories that can meet everyone’s needs.

 

Why a river cruise?

Think of a river cruise as a floating, centrally-located, five star hotel. You can easily see multiple destinations without the dealing with transfers, checking-in and out, and other logistics. Plus, you only have to unpack once! You can discover some of the most charming and interesting cities and towns and then relax and enjoy the view as you cruise to the next location.

 

What Itinerary?

Now here is the fun part! Europe used to be the main river cruise destination but now many of my partners offer exotic destinations like Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and even Africa. Many experts will say a good place to start is still a French river cruise or Blue Danube sailing from Prague (or even Amsterdam) to Budapest. I say…start with a destination that inspires you!

Which cruise line?

Uniworld has a very Old World European feel that I just loved!
Uniworld has a very Old World European feel that I just loved!

There are many options out there when it comes to river cruising, but just like hotels and resorts, there are different levels of quality and service as well as styles and experiences. Just because one itinerary looks similar you could have vastly different experiences. My inaugural river cruise was with the lovely Uniworld Boutique River Cruise line, and I was simply spoiled – the service, amenities, cuisine, and activities were top notch. Some of our favorite luxury partners include:

When looking at different lines, be sure you are comparing apples to apples. At first glance some may seem more expensive, but it might be an all-inclusive model that includes an incredibly high staff to guest ratio, 5-star cuisine, complimentary transfers, top notch guides/local experts, alcohol on board (with bartenders who remember your order after the first night!), 24/7 room service and more!

 

It is important to look at the complete experience and what is included with the price – you may pay less to get on some ships but you’ll end up paying more to get off. 

 

River Cruising vs. Ocean Cruising

Oceans take you to countries, rivers take you through them.

 

  • Destination: Though river cruise ships are gorgeous, it is more about the destination than the ship itself. You will meet many ocean cruisers who choose an itinerary because it is on a new ship. The ship is literally the focus of the trip. For river cruising, you are definitely more focused on the culture, history and culinary aspects of a given port/itinerary.

 

  • Port Location: The ship can take you right into the middle of a city or town so you can immediately start exploring the destination. They often dock walking distance from the main sites so you could even pop back to the ship for lunch or an afternoon nap before late afternoon shopping and an aperitivo or glass of champagne.

 

  • Size: Forget traveling with thousands of other passengers; most river cruises are less than 200 passengers and some even max out at 130. That means the staff gets to know you and your preferences for an even more personalized experience. Plus you can make friends with like-minded travelers that often result in lasting friendships beyond the time on the water.

 

  • Flexibility: Unlike many large ships, there lives a feeling of spontaneity on a river cruise. In many cases you don’t decide your days activities until the morning you are leaving the ship (following an overview of options the night before). Often the ships fitness instructor will add an early morning yoga session or afternoon bike ride to a day in port. You will not have to decide on each and every day’s activities months in advance.

 

These reasons and more (did I mention unpacking once?!?) are why I have fallen in love with river cruising. I can’t wait to take my children on their first one as their introduction to Europe!

 

And don’t forget – when you work with Catherine Parkin Travel, we will help you find the cruise line and itinerary best for you plus you can access exclusive amenities such as unique excursions, private cocktail parties and even shipboard credits. So what is holding you back?  Reach out now for us to start planning an amazing holiday!

 

 

Destination Nicaragua – Morgan’s Rock

Have you ever dreamed of discovering an untouched destination? A stunning location that offers the finest of life’s simple pleasures? A culture that embraces the land they live on and works to protect its beauty?

 

The amazing view of the sunset from our room
The amazing view of the sunset from our room

 

 

Good news: this destination does exist – it’s Nicaragua!

 

 

I had the absolute pleasure of spending six incredible nights at an ecolodge in Nicaragua called Morgan’s Rock, a 5-star luxury ecolodge near San Juan del Sur. It is located on nearly 4000 acres of Nicaraguan Jungle but only has 19 bungalows spread over 400 acres as the main business here is conserving the environment. Though a world away from big city luxuries, they leave no touches undone when it comes to service.

The trip felt like a bit of the risk taking my 6 and 8 year olds who are relatively plugged-in and used to vacations that involve some sort of manufactured fun but we had an amazing time. Though there is great Wi-Fi on property, the bungalows are TV free. I like to think of it as glamping with the most comfortable bed in the world, your own private plunge pool, indoor/outdoor showers, and amazing views for miles.

 

How about this view?!
How about this view?!

On arrival, our party of 16 was greeted by the staff with a welcome drink and a table reserved for us to have dinner. They whisked our bags away to our bungalows and encouraged us to eat before getting to the rooms even though it was getting late. Escorted by the hotel manager, we were given an overview of how everything in the room worked and most importantly the Breeze Bed, an amazing piece of technology that looks like a canopy over the bed but provides an intermittent cool breeze to keep you comfortable throughout the night (so important since the rooms do not have AC). We were there in the hot/dry season and we never had trouble sleeping.  I miss that Breeze Bed! See photos of the rooms below. 

 

 

 

The next day we looked out from the bungalow, and we couldn’t see anything but jungle and the gorgeous bay below – it was simply stunning. I loved the natural noise machine, which included waves to put you to sleep and birds and monkeys to wake you up (a pair of earplugs is advised if you are a light sleeper). A morning walk across a suspension bridge took us to our delectable [complimentary!] breakfast.

 

 

 

Activities on the property included relaxing on the mile long private beach, snorkeling and sport fishing trips, shrimp farm visits, making an authentic Nicaraguan breakfast (including milking the cow and gathering your own eggs), yoga on the most gorgeous of yoga platforms, spa treatments, drinks by the pool and horseback-riding. Plus, spotting monkeys, sloths, birds and reptiles if all that is not enough!

 

 

 

The culinary experience defined in a word is fresh – 60% of the food served at Morgan’s Rock is sourced on the premises! The most outstanding things for us were the cocktails (I’m still dreaming of the fresh passion fruit margaritas), the fresh pressed juices, and the ceviche.

 

 

But what stands out above the rest is the outstanding service. From the guides to the servers to the housekeepers to the hotel manager, we were impressed at every turn. From day one they knew our names (and were never referred to as “Room XYZ”) and we all felt like family by the time we left.

 

 

Tanner driving the fishing boat Samantha and Tanner waking up in paradise Tanner, Samantha, and I with Andrea Samantha looking over Morgan's Rock 

 

I wasn’t sure we were going to be an ecolodge kind of group, but Nicaragua is now at the top of my list. I can’t wait to go back! Their tagline, “Disconnect to Reconnect” couldn’t be more genuine in my experience.

The practical stuff…

Getting There:

1. Fly into Managua in Nicaragua and drive about 2 ½ hours.

 

2. Fly into Liberia in Costa Rica and drive about 2 ½ hours (note: It does require a border crossing which can easily add a couple hours to your journey.)

 

3. Fly from either Liberia or Managua to a small airstrip on the property via chartered aircraft.

 

Catherine Parkin Travel Exclusive Amenities:

  • Upgrade at time of arrival, subject to availability
  • Complimentary A la carte Breakfast for two daily for duration of the stay
  • $100 USD equivalent Resort or Hotel credit to be utilized during stay (not combinable, not valid on room rate, no cash value if not redeemed in full)
  •  One bag of 100% pure Nicaraguan Gourmet coffee
  • Early check-in/late check-out, subject t o availability
  • Complimentary Wi-Fi

 

RATES:

Double rooms from $265 including breakfast.

 

Other spots in Nicaragua:

If you just can’t wrap your head around the ecolodge idea…below are a couple of Ultra Luxury Nicaraguan Alternatives.

  • Mukul Beach, Golf and Spa: a luxury boutique hotel and spa perched on a private beach
  • Nekupe Sporting Resort and Retreat: an 8-room countryside resort situated on a 1300-acre nature reserve

 

7 Myths of Small Group Travel - Debunked!

7  Myths of Small Group Travel - Dubunked!

I’ve always been more of a “do-it-yourself” traveler. The idea of a guided tour group immediately made me imagine a flag-yielding guide herding swarms of fanny-pack wearing tourists jockeying for the best photo-op. Not the authentic, exciting travel experience I prefer.

 

However, since starting Catherine Parkin Travel, I’ve learned so much more about small group tours and decided I needed to try one for myself.

 

Enter Backroads.

 

I traveled with this incredible company on a hiking adventure through the Italian Dolomites and had the most incredible experience.

 

So forget what you think you know about small group tours. I’m dispelling seven myths (some even I believed!) below.

1. Group tours = Only for 85+

 

The demographics of small group tours are getting younger and younger, especially on the active itineraries like I did. When you work with a travel advisor to find a tour that matches your interests, you will be surrounded with like-minded travelers. The average age in my group was a few years older than me, but we all enjoyed active travel. And even those that had a decade – or two – on me were in fabulous shape. The program offered adventures for all levels, so some days travelers chose an extremely challenging hike to a summit and others opted to stay in town and shop or just to enjoy the truly spectacular hotels.

 

All smiles on Day 1!
All smiles on Day 1!

2. Group Travel is only for Adults

 

Now that we’ve cleared up that small group tours aren’t strictly for the elderly, let’s take it a step further and get the whole family involved! Many of my top tour providers have incredible family travel itineraries. And no, this isn’t just a normal itinerary with a babysitter playing movie after movie for the kids. These companies expand the itineraries and have a few more people in the group to make it interesting for everyone. Imagine dancing with your daughter in a grand palace in Europe. Or white-water rafting as a family in Alaska. These experiences create memories that last longer than any birthday or holiday gift will.

 

3. Tours are Monotonous 

 

Now this myth takes me back to my personal vision of group tours – the leader with a flag or umbrella waving a group through crowds and sharing the same standard information you could get with a pre-programmed audio guide. We’ve seen these herds in front of the Mona Lisa, Lincoln Memorial, Buckingham Palace…all the hot spots. Well forget that. The companies I work with are specialized in their destinations and have exclusive access, like taking the group to the Sistine Chapel after-hours. On my trip, Backroads surprised us with an 8-course dinner with wine pairings at a 2 Michelin Star restaurant – the perfect end to our hiking trip!

 

4. Uninspiring Itineraries

 

The itineraries on the small group tours aren’t just hitting the highlights with the rest of the tourists. You can choose one based on your interests and things you really love to do. We love outdoors + food and wine, and we got to hike and then enjoy wine tastings at beautiful castles (see photos above). Whether its food and wine, biking, wildlife, or anything in between, I can help you find an itinerary that will deepen your experience because it includes activities you love!

 

Enjoying the view
Enjoying the view
We didn't just eat food prepared by a Michelin-star chef -- we met him!
We didn't just eat food prepared by a Michelin-star chef -- we met him!

5. I can plan it cheaper.

 

This myth stretches beyond just small group tours but also using a travel advisor (I dispelled that part here). But for now, let’s focus on the tours. If you price it out, you might be able to get it cheaper than the tour rate (but do keep in mind you can’t access contracted rates and perks that add value on your own). However what people overlook are the intangibles…

 

The guide who explains that although you can, most Italians wouldn’t dream of having a cappuccino after 11 AM. 

 

The multitude of turns I didn’t miss while hiking because someone was with me and providing me step by step instructions (literally would have been lost so many times!). 

 

The opportunity not only to dine at the Michelin star restaurant but to get a tour of the kitchen and a special tasting where the chef explains how he came up with the dish!

 

A guide’s insider knowledge and exclusive access is just about impossible to get on your own, no matter how hard you Google. Many people on my trip had traveled with Backroads multiple times…if it was so easy to recreate, why would they come back again and again?

 

6. Traveling with a group is stressful.

 

You may think getting around with more than your immediate family is overwhelming, but I found it to be just the opposite. Professional travel advisors know that even the most carefully planned itinerary can have hiccups when life – travel delays, weather issues, you name it – happens.  The logistics involved in a trip are extensive. Transfers, luggage, directions, tips, payments, check-in, check-out, and more can cause quite the headache. But with the group tour, there is someone with you taking care of all that and ready to answer any questions. Often, you don’t even have to worry about paying because it is included. You can fully enjoy the trip and have peace of mind that you’re taken care of!

 

7. You don’t need a travel advisor for a small group tour.

 

I’ve shared all the reasons why a small group tour is not what you think, so where does my role as a travel advisor come in? Helping you choose the right tour and tour provider. Your leisure time is one of your most precious – and nonrenewable – resources, and I want to make sure you get the most out of your vacation.

 

The benefits I named come from experienced, well-connected travel partners…not just the first thing that comes up in a Google search because one company does more marketing than another. I’ll work with you to understand your budget, preferences, travel style, and more, and then research options that work with you. I have personal contacts at the top companies and work with them to determine if they’re the right match. In addition to the tour, I can arrange pre- or post-trip experiences, flights, transfers, and more to assure the entire experience is seamless. 

 

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The Essential Riviera Maya Travel Guide

Located on the Yucatan Peninsula, the Riviera Maya boasts long, white-sand beaches, ancient Mayan ruins, and hidden freshwater cenotes. This area on Mexico’s Caribbean coast is perfect for romantic getaways, family vacations, and fun adventures. Use this essential Riviera Maya travel guide to help plan the perfect trip!

 

When to Go

November – April: perfect for escaping the winter cold! 

 

Avoid September & October...it's their rainy season

 

WHAT TO DO

The famous Mayan pyramid Chichen Itza
The famous Mayan pyramid Chichen Itza

Though the region is known for beautiful beaches, there is so much to see and explore in this area outside of a resort.

 

Culture & History:

 

·         Explore Tulum, a well-preserved coastal Mayan site

 

·         Climb Nohuch Mul, the Yucatan’s tallest pyramid

 

 

 

Adventure

 

·         Scuba dive in the Belize Barrier Reef

 

·         Explore Aktun-Chen, a cave with cenotes inside

 

·         Snorkel in Cenote Dos Ojos

 

·         Venture through Punta Venado ecological reserve on ATV and/or wave runner

Where to stay

My son and daughter enjoying the pool
My son and daughter enjoying the pool

GRAND VELAS RIVIERA MAYA

 

·         About: Grand Velas Riviera Maya is a fabulous luxury all-inclusive property

 

·         Accommodations: 539 huge suites (they start at 1100 square feet!) in three sections: the Zen Grand, Ambassador, and Grand Class

 

·         Dining: 8 restaurants on property, including one 5-Diamond restaurant and two 4-Diamond restaurants

 

·         Things to Do:

 

o   Relax in the spa, voted best spa in the world in 2010

 

o   Kids Club for 5 and up and a Teen Club

 

o   Watersports

 

o   Golf

 

o   Kite surfing

 

o   Swim with Dolphins

 

·         Why I Love It: Grand Velas is the tip top of all-inclusives. The service is outstanding, food and beverages are fabulous, and the property is gorgeous. And while you’re on property there is so much to do (or not do) that parents won’t have to deal with anyone saying “I’m bored!”

 

 

 

The beautiful beach at Grand Velas Riviera Maya
The beautiful beach at Grand Velas Riviera Maya
The view from the lobby - how serene!
The view from the lobby - how serene!

NIZUC RESORT & SPA

 

·         About: Formerly a presidential retreat for world leaders, Nizuc is a private beachfront escape where you can watch both the sunrise and the sunset from your room!  

 

·         Accommodations: 274 suites and villas

 

·         Dining: 6 restaurants on property ranging from Traditional Mexican to Modern Asian Fusion to Unforgettable Mediterranean to Tantalizing Peruvian

 

·         Things to Do:

 

o   30000 square foot spa

 

o   Tennis

 

o   Watersports

 

o   Snorkeling

 

o   Winik’s Kids Club

 

o   Yoga

 

o   Culinary classes

 

·         Why I love It: With its sophisticated and serene architecture and design plus the fact that it borders a nature preserve, you feel like you’re nowhere near the hubbub of Cancun. But it’s actually a quick cab ride to the airport and the shops, making it so easy for a romantic weekend or a quick girls’ getaway! (Plus Cancun has lots of nonstop flights!)

 

Insider Tip

Avoid crowds at the Mayan sites and cenotes by using a guide. I can arrange for one that is knowledgeable and fits your needs so you can make the most of your adventure!

 

 

Don't MIss

·         Relaxing in the spa at your resort. You’re on vacation – treat yourself!

 

·         Visiting Mayan ruins. This region has such a rich history, so take time to learn more and explore.

 

·         Snorkeling or scuba diving in the cenotes, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, or Akumal with sea turtles.

 

What to pack

The Riviera Maya has a tropical climate and casual dress code. Pack bathing suits, cover-ups, breezy dresses, shorts, and shirts. Don’t forget sneakers for hiking through ruins, bug spray, and plenty of sunscreen – the sun is strong!

 

Sunset at Nizuc
Sunset at Nizuc

Contact me to start planning your trip!

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3 Trips to Book Now

3 Trips to Book Now

Winter is winding down, but before you jump into spring activities get your travel plans in order. When you plan ahead, you get first dibs of room types, restaurant reservations, top guides, and more. Even better, you can relax as the year moves forward knowing that I’m taking care of your travel arrangements!  So take time right now to get the ball rolling on these three trips.

 

 

1. Summer Family Trip

 

The clock is ticking to get your summer family trip nailed down, but there is still availability at some of the top properties. Whether you want to relax on the beach on an island, saddle up for a Western adventure, explore the winding streets of Europe, or anything in between, summer is the perfect time to experience a new destination with your family.

 

2. Weekend Away

 

No matter the season, a weekend away is always a good call. And trust me – I know it’s easier said than done. My husband and I took time to spend the weekend in Beaver Creek, and it was absolutely worth it (read about our trip here!). Through my Virtuoso affiliation with Brownell, I can access exclusive promotions and amenities that make even two nights away a special occasion. I can help you find the perfect getaway within a couple hours of your home base.   

 

3. Holiday Escape

 

I know what you’re thinking – December is still nine months away! However, the holiday festive season is one of the most popular times to travel. If you want to secure a villa or connecting rooms for your family, it’s never too early. Winter break is also a great time for family bucket list adventures, like the Galapagos or a ski trip…you just have to get on it!

 

 

 

PS – Don’t forget about Thanksgiving! Sometimes it’s easier to get the entire family together before everyone is caught up in the holiday craziness. We can plan a Thanksgiving trip, and let someone else do the cooking and cleaning while you enjoy quality time with your entire family.

 

 

 

Contact me to start planning your next trip! (And learn more about why book with Catherine Parkin Travel here!)

 

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