Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee: 2012’s other major British event

queen elizabeth's diamond jubileeIn London, signs of the coming Olympics are everywhere. Barclays Cycle Hire docking stations have begun to expand into East London toward key Olympics sites, billboards urge drivers to begin to think about how they’ll deal with increased traffic, and the Prime Minister is busy warning unions that the prospect of a strike during the Olympics would be “unacceptable and unpatriotic.”

Meanwhile, outside of London, a number of cities have banded together as Heritage Cities in part to lure those tourists brought to London by the Olympics away from the capital.

But the Olympics are not the only event drawing visitors to the UK this year. 2012 is also the year of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, the 60th anniversary of her coronation as Queen. The Diamond Jubilee will reach its peak during what is being called the Diamond Jubilee central weekend, from June 2 through 5. The weekend will be characterized by some serious pomp and circumstance. Events will include a 1000-boat pageant on the Thames on June 3, a BBC Concert at Buckingham Palace on June 4, and a special Service of Thanksgiving at St. Paul’s Cathedral followed by a carriage procession on June 5.

In addition to this peak period, there are a number of other events planned in the lead-up to the weekend and beyond.

For example, members of the Royal Family are traveling around the UK, the UK’s Crown Dependencies, the UK’s Overseas Territories, and Commonwealth to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Currently, Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex and his wife the Countess of Wessex are on a two-week commemorative Caribbean visit, taking in St. Lucia, Barbados, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, Anguilla, and Antigua and Barbuda. Locals and tourists alike in the region might just run across Edward and Sophie through March 7.

The Queen and Prince Philip’s travel schedule begins March 8 in Leicester and finishes off on what looks like a very busy July 25, taking in Cowes, the Isle of Wight, New Forest, and Hampshire.

There is an official website for taking stock of Diamond Jubilee events. There’s also a handy Google map allowing visitors to see where various members of the Royal Family will be celebrating the Queen’s reign throughout the year. (Spoiler alert: Harry got Jamaica.) Visitors can play with an interactive timeline of the last 60 years and also send a message to the Queen. And there’s the crucial bit of information that Andrew Lloyd Webber is co-authoring a Diamond Jubilee song.

[Image: Flickr | quinn.anya]

Hilton launches “Authentically Local” programs in the Caribbean and Latin America

Can a mega-corporate hospitality chain with 3,750 hotels provide authentic local experiences to travelers? Select Hilton Worldwide hotels are giving it a shot with the just announced “Authentically Local” packages. Available through the end of the year in the Caribbean and Latin America, the packages are aimed at introducing travelers to local cultures and languages through experiences such as dinners featuring local flavors, dance lessons in the local style, destination and tour suggestions hand-picked by locals, and more. There is even the opportunity for hotel guests to choose wearing a “language immersion pin” that identifies them as someone hotel employees will only speak to in the local language.

Options under the new package include tasting conch at the British Colonial Hilton Nassau in the Bahamas, learning rumba at the Hilton Cartagena in Colombia, snorkelling in the clear waters at the Hilton Curaçao off the coast of Venezuela, or touring the Mercado Municipal when staying at the Hilton São Paulo Morumbi in Brazil. The hotel chain also says culture consultants will be avialable at each participating property (full list after the jump) to help guests learn about the most celebrated experiences in the destinations.

So, is Hilton’s new initiative to help travelers partake in authentic experiences when staying at their hotels a way the chain is reaching out to the community, or is it just a marketing ploy? It could go either way, but no matter what it’s nice to see more travelers will be learning about local cultures.PS. For those interested, the “Authentically Local” package is being offered at the following locations: Hilton Buenos Aires, Argentina; Hilton São Paulo Morumbi, Brazil; Hilton Belem, Brazil; Hilton Bogota, Colombia; Hilton Cartagena, Colombia; Hilton Garden Inn Santiago Airport, Chile; Hilton Los Cabos Beach & Golf Resort; Hilton Mexico City Reforma; Hilton Villahermosa & Conference Center, Mexico; Hilton Garden Inn Tuxtla Gutierrez, Mexico; Hilton Papagayo Costa Rica Resort & Spa; DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Central Pacific – Costa Rica; DoubleTree Cariari by Hilton San Jose, Costa Rica; British Colonial Hilton Nassau, The Bahamas; Hilton Barbados Resort; Hilton Curaçao; Hilton Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; and Hilton Trinidad & Conference Centre.

[Photo: Man selling conch shells in Nassau, Bahamas by Libby Zay]

Fat Tuesday – top 5 places to party for Carnival

Fat Tuesday is the culmination of Mardi Gras, Carnival, Carnevale, and like minded celebrations that take place across the world today. From Guatemala to Greece, Fat Tuesday represents the last bastion of excess in Christian culture before the Lent fasting season begins. The streets pulse with energy and revelers don costumes, throw beads, shout sheenisms, and generally have a booze-fueled fantastic time.

So where are the top 5 places to throw down and party for Fat Tuesday?5. Venice
Venice provides the Italian atmosphere and throwback baroque charm to make you feel like you have stepped back in time a few centuries. Massive Parties are thrown at Piazza San Marco and thousands dress up in extravagant costumes to add an air of aristocracy to the Venetian streets. European revelers clog Venice’s narrow alleyways and bridges with a great time. The oldest Carnevale party in Venice took place in the 13th century, making Venice the original spot for the party.

Fat Tuesday

4. Portugal
Portugal’s celebrations vary by region with some smaller cities incorporating pagan rituals into the “Carnaval” experience. The largest party in the country happens in Lisbon and is a very cosmopolitan experience. With famous dancers and a massive parade, it is easy to find a great time in colorful Lisbon. In northern Portugal, revelers dress up in colorful yellow, red, and green costumes with tin masks (pictured above) and consume a lot of meat.

3. Trinidad and Tobago
This tiny island hosts the largest Carnival experience in the Caribbean. The party lasts over a month and climaxes with a massive 3 day party in the Port of Spain that ends on Ash Wednesday. Steel pans and Calypso music echo out across the massive party as Trinidadians and Tobagonians dance to the beat while clutching cups filled with sugary rum. On the Monday before Fat Tuesday, revelers wear old clothes and cover themselves in mud, oil, and paint. Some dress as devils. On Fat Tuesday, the party hits overdrive and revelers enrobe themselves in their Carnival finery.

2. New Orleans
Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday, and in the States, New Orleans is the place to take in the party. People come from all over the world for this French-American version of Carnival. The epicenter of the party is Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and Fat Tuesday is the apogee of the debauchery. With parades, beads, and hand grenades, it is hard not to have a great time in New Orleans.

1. Rio de Janeiro
The craziest and most intense carnival celebration takes place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Brazilians call it the greatest show on earth, and they make a valid point. Millions of people descend on the streets of Rio to dance the night away and gawk at Brazilian goddesses dressed in Samba costumes. The celebrations really take off the weekend before Ash Wednesday with the party exploding like a star on Fat Tuesday. Check out the video below to see what the world’s biggest party looked like in 1955.

flickr images via justindelaney and Rosina

Cruise line scams: Shore Excursions

Cruise line shore excursions

Going ashore can be one of the best parts of a cruise and one of the reasons many travelers choose a cruise vacation in the first place. From the comfort of your floating hotel, you can see multiple destinations but only have to unpack once. Cruise lines offer a wide variety of excursions at each port of call and encourage passengers to join. Some are over-priced but carry an implied level of safety that might not be entirely accurate.

The potential scam-like claim here is “Oh, you don’t want to go out on your own on a shore excursion. If they’re late getting you back, the ship will leave without you”

Yes, they could do that. Will they? Probably not. How likely is that to happen? Not likely at all.

Often, the same companies and people that do shore excursions for the cruise lines also do them independently. Still, the cruise lines say they do investigate and follow up on excursion providers to see how they are doing, holding them to high standards.

Alternatives to ship-sponsored excursions. Shoretrips.com, is a third-party service that provides excursions world-wide. Owners Julie and Barry from Milwaukee, Wisconsin travel to each of the destinations and insure that their tours are safe and interesting. Often, Shoretrips.com excursions are less expensive and less crowded too. Booking more than 200,000 people a year, they have yet to leave someone behind.

Let’s talk price. A pretty easy-to-compare excursion in Cozumel, Mexico, Swimming with the Dolphins is $129 for adults or children on Carnival Cruise Lines. Shoretrips.com has that dolphin swim for $79 for adults and $77 for children. That’s about 40% less than the cruise line. Prices vary among lines too. Royal Caribbean has that dolphin swim for $99. Their price is better than Carnival but not as good as Shoretrips.com.

Another option is to go with someone recommended by a trusted friend or a travel blogger you’ve come to know. Reliable independent operators know what they are competing with on the cruise line excursion offerings and almost always offer a better value. That might come in the form of a lower price or a similar price with a better experience.

Get good information. A good source for reliable travel information about specific ports of call is AOL travel guides. Good discussion and very current, personal information can be found at CruiseCritic.com. Your good travel agent/expert should have recommendations also.

I’m really not trying to talk you out of the ship-sponsored shore excursions. They’re good. Nothing wrong with them. But there are alternatives that are just as safe (or not) as third-party vendors.

Cruise lines have their share of problems with excursions.Going with the cruise line does not guarantee your safety. In 2009 18 cruise passengers were robbed at gunpoint in the Bahamas on ship-sponsored shore excursions. The passengers, sailing on Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas and Disney Cruise Line’s Disney Wonder, were held up by masked men who demanded money, passports, cell phones, credit cards and personal items.

Just last November, masked gunmen held up guests on St Kitts on a Celebrity Cruises excursion.

Cruise lines were quick to suspend tours and worked hard to increase security and scrutiny of tour operators in those cases. But that was a couple of incidents in thousands of tours, hardly something to keep guests on the ship for safety concerns.

Cruise lines will commonly skip ports of call where there are known problems with crime like in Mexico with drug cartels. In that case, the cruise line does not charge you for the excursion you obviously can’t take. Ships any where close to Tunisia right now would have taken a close look at unrest in the area before even docking. If booking separately from the cruise line, make sure you understand the tour operator’s policy if the ship does not call at a port.

Let’s break it down. Look at it this way; cruise lines contract with local operators who run the excursions. The cruise lines have to add on something to make money. Duh. So basically, its the same people, running the same excursions, but you pay more if you get it through the ship. If that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy then buy through the ship. Most people do. If you want to save 20% to 50%, do some research first. There might be a better value out there.

Like the cruise line Booze and Beverage Packages, whether shore excursions are an evil scam plotted by the cruise lines or a reasonable value depends primarily on how you look at them.

Flickr photo by Ha-Wee

5 tips for people who really don’t want to go on a cruise

don't want to go on a cruiseMaybe hiking, biking, backpacking or pretty much any other minimizing endeavor is more what you have in mind for traveling but someone is dragging you along on a cruise. There’s just no way you’re getting out of it. Is there hope for you? Yes. A little. Not much. But some.

Pace yourself- Food will always be available 24 hours a day on board. You might not be used to that with your triathlon training and all so do some stomach stretching exercises prior to boarding. You will need the extra room. Stop pouting that there are no granola bars or energy drinks. There are. On cruises they are called “shots” and you find them at the bars. You’ll enjoy the walk to get them and recent studies suggest those extra steps will help prevent diabetes.

No barfing- You are concerned about the possibility of becoming sea sick because the little path on your normal mountain hike doesn’t really move around much. Think of it like that and yeah, you probably will be. Prepare for shooting the rapids in Colorado with somebody who doesn’t know what they’re doing and you’ll be fine. It could be worse. You could have been invited along for a taping of Paris Hilton’s new reality show.

Know where you are going- Take time before the cruise to check out a travel guide on the places you will visit. Duh. Just because you don’t have any say in where the ship goes doesn’t mean you can’t meet fun and find interesting people. You probably won’t find any of them on the ship but maybe when you go ashore.

Careful with spending- The food is included in the price of your cruise but that’s about it. Beverages, both alcoholic and sodas are not included. Want a sip of water? You’ll pay $23.54 for that. This is why people smuggle booze on the ship. They do have beds so leave your sleeping bag at home with your tent. Bring your flashlight though, cruise passenger are fascinated by shiny things.

Relax. That may seem like a silly tip but you would be surprised how many people try to pack so much into every day that they need a vacation after they get back from their cruise to recuperate. Know this as a fact: There are way too many things to do and you can not possibly do them all. To be more accurate, there are too many things to do that you will think are stupid so bring a telescope and memorize the sky. Maybe you can find a 14th sign of the zodiac.

Flickr photo by Robbie Howell