Visit the world’s largest indoor rainforest resort

indoor rainforesetWhile Europe isn’t typically known for it’s tropical rainforests, a visit to the Tropical Islands in Germany can show you that they do indeed exist on the continent. In fact, the world’s largest indoor rainforest is located right outside of Berlin in the town of Krausnick.

Located inside of a giant, 22,000 square foot dome, the indoor tropical resort is about the size of eight football fields and wins the title of the world’s largest indoor rainforest, as well as the biggest tropical sauna and spa complex in Europe. The complex is also home to more than 29,000 plants while cocktatiels, parrots, and budgerigars provide animal life for the space.

There are many other features to this tropical paradise, as well. Visitors can relax on a man-made beach, swim in the “ocean”, go mini-golfing, or partake in some overnight camping. For those who want a short break from the natural side of things, restaurants, bars, and shops are also located in the rainforest resort.

Green travelers will be happy to know that Tropical Islands is also eco-friendly, recycling swimming pool water to feed the plants as well as using natural UV light that seeps through the dome’s massive panels. Rain showers also occur naturally inside the dome, forming from the humidity found inside the structure.

For more information, visit the Tropical Islands website.

Hostel World names world’s best hostels

TripAdvisor recently released its list of the best and worst in the hotel industry. Now it’s the hostel industry’s turn. Hostel World just announced the winners of the “Hoscars“, their annual ranking of the world’s best and worst hostels, rated by cleanliness, location, staff, fun, security, and character.

Over 20,000 properties around the world were eligible for the awards, yet because most of the 900,000 or so Hostel World users who may have voted are from Europe, the world’s best top ten seems to be a bit skewed geographically. All ten are located in Europe. Five of the top ten are located in Portugal.

This year’s winner, The Traveller’s House in Lisbon, won last year as well and is the first hostel to win two years in a row.

In other locations – the US, Latin America, Africa, Asia and Oceania – the top three hostels are listed. Additional awards were given out for categories such as best location, most fun, best character, most improved, cleanest, most secure, best small/large hotel, and best chain.

[via Guardian]

Big Island Hawaii: Four Seasons Hualalai hotel review

As a budget traveler, I’ve always been averse to spending much more than $150 per night on a hotel room. I’ve always figured, “it’s just a room” and that aside from a comfortable bed in a quiet, clean building, I didn’t really need more much. I never thought I would consider spending $500 for a single night in a hotel. But all that changed when I stayed at the Four Seasons Hualalai on Hawaii’s Big Island.

Located at the southern end of the Kohala Coast, right next to the Kona Village resort and just 15 minutes or so from the Kona airport, the Four Seasons Hualalai is so much more than a hotel. What you are paying for here isn’t just the room, it’s also the service, which goes so far above and beyond the standards at any other hotel I’ve ever stayed at, it’s easy to see why it was rated the top beach resort in the US by Travel and Leisure. Staff here aren’t just “available” when you come to them, they seem to anticipate your every desire, coming out of nowhere just when you need them, but remaining completely invisible when you wish to be left alone. Of course, the rooms and grounds are still pretty nice on their own.

The most basic rooms start at $595 per night and feature king beds and views to the ocean across the 18th hole of the golf course. Partial and prime ocean views are $750 and $895 and oceanfront rooms start at $1035 per night. It’s not cheap, but the hotel does offer the occasional deal, such as “stay four nights and get the fifth free” or “receive a $1000 resort credit for every six nights.” And here’s the best part: if a promotion goes into effect for the nights of your stay after you booked at the regular rate, the Four Seasons will honor the promotion for you as well, without you even having to ask.

From the moment you arrive at the Four Seasons, you know this stay will be special. As you pull up to the lobby, staff greet you by name (thanks to a message from the front gate guard who took your name upon arrival) and offer you a refreshing mai tai and cold towel while you check in. Then staff loads up your bags and whisks you to your room in one of the resort’s ubiquitous golf carts. Waiting in the room, you’ll find a glass of iced tea and a welcome tea cake.

Rooms feature comfortable beds decked out in soft, fluffy down bedding, flat screen tvs (many of which swivel so you can get the perfect view no matter where you are in the room) with DVD players, iPod docks, CD players, terry bathrobes, tea/coffee makers, L’Occitane bath products, aromatherapy turn down, and bottled water refreshed daily. Ground floor rooms also have private outdoor lava rock showers, and all rooms have either private lanais or balconies with screen doors so you can fall asleep to the sounds of the ocean.

But it’s the small touches that really make the room special. Each room is serviced twice a day – once for cleaning and once for turn down service. You will never see the cleaning staff pushing a heavy cart around. To increase morale and to keep the walkways of the resort free of unsightly carts, the cleaning staff services each room with only the supplies they can carry in a small tote bag. Did you notice the upright vacuum unobtrusively hidden under a vinyl cover in the back of the closet? Yes, there is one in every room for this very reason.

Each room has a mini-fridge for snacks, and staff will kindly keep your ice-bucket full of fresh ice. Wine and water glasses are provide, as is a corkscrew, which I found to be a wonderful touch, as it seems my husband and I are always scrambling to find one when we want to enjoy a bottle of wine in our room. There’s even a toaster hidden in the closet as well – and not because the Four Seasons expects you to make your own toast. To ensure that guests receive only piping hot toast, browned to their preferences, the room service staff will toast your bread as they set up breakfast. It’s a little touch that I never would have thought of, but now seems to make perfect sense.

There are four pools to choose from – the secluded, quiet adults-only pool (which is self-service), the snorkel fish pond (made partly of natural lava rock and stocked with thousands of fish and several manta rays), the quiet pool (also adults only and featuring a special mechanism to help lower disabled guests into the water) and the infinity-edge family pool, which has a nearby kiddie pool (complete with complimentary swim diapers, ice cream cart, and kid-sized lounge chairs) and looks out onto the beach. I spent most of my time at the family pool, where I was able to order food from the Beach Tree restaurant’s lunch menu and get a wi-fi signal.

Service at the pools is just as impressive as it is around the resort. As you walk towards the pool area, a staff member seems to appear at your side, holding a stack of towels and waiting for you to choose a lounge chair or cabana, where they will then spread out your towels for you. According to Ciro Tacinelli, the director of marketing, the standard of service at the pools is to check in with each guest once per hour. It seemed every time I thought I might want a cool drink, someone would arrive and ask me if I needed anything. Snacks are served at the pools twice per day and ice-water and sunscreen are available for guests. Should you decide to get out of the sun for a while, staff will hold your seat for up to two hours.

The ocean in front of the resort, though lined with a beautiful sandy beach where sea turtles often bask in the sun, is a bit rough for swimming and water sports. However guests are free to use the equipment at next-door Kona Village, where they can boogie board or learn to stand-up paddle board.

The guests at the Four Seasons seemed to be a mix of families and couples. Other than lounging by the pool or snorkeling in the ocean, there’s a spa, golf course, fitness center with climbing wall and tennis courts, cultural center, and a kids clubhouse to keep guests entertained. The kids clubhouse had games and activities for all ages – from a small playground for the little ones to computers, Wii games, and a pool table for older kids. Kids and adults all seemed to love watching the manta ray feedings held in the lava rock pool weekdays at 1pm. Many of the kids even got the chance to touch and feed the rays on their own.

There are three restaurants and two lounges onsite at the hotel, all of which operate on a credit system where charges can be directly applied to your room (though you can also pay with cash or plastic). The Pahui’a restaurant serves three meals a day, including a lavish $34 breakfast that includes spreads of fruit, cheese, muffins, cereals, granola, juices, oatmeal and salads, plus an omelet station and rotating specials. The day I had breakfast, there was a miso soup station, waffles, french toast, and a perfectly cooked eggs Benedict. Other options are available a la carte as well.

At each of the restaurants, the hotel takes care to use locally produced, organic, sustainable products whenever possible. Some of the fish served is raised onsite and oysters are mined from the waters just off the golf course. There’s an onsite herb garden and several varieties of fruits and vegetables are grown on the grounds and used in the restaurants. The hotel also composts much of its organic waste and waters the grass of the golf course with water from underneath the lava rocks.

Aside from the impeccable, attentive, anticipate-your-every-need service, what I loved the most about the Four Seasons Hualalai was that despite being fairly large (there are 234 rooms plus additional private houses onsite), it felt like a boutique hotel. The rooms are located in two-story buildings scattered around the area, separated by lush landscaping and rocky lava outcroppings. There were plenty of other guests there during my stay, but the space was never crowded. With four pools plus beach chairs, I never saw more than maybe a dozen people in each area. The restaurants were busy but not full, and in the fitness center, it was easy to find an empty machine to use.

And the staff certainly didn’t make me feel like I was one of hundreds of other guests. I was called by name and never had to wait for assistance. As I watched others in the lobby, at the pool, and in the hotel’s restaurants, I noticed the high level of service wasn’t limited to just myself. In fact, at breakfast one day, after a tiny bird landed ever so briefly on the table of a couple who had gone up to the buffet, I noticed the staff immediately swoop in and reset the table, just in case the bird had stepped on the silverware.

So, after a stay at the Four Seasons Hualalai, am I a budget traveler no more? Probably not. I still appreciate a bargain and really just can’t afford to spend over $500 per night on a hotel. If you can….well then you probably don’t need my convincing to stay at the fabulous Four Seasons. But if the price is one you can afford for just a few nights, maybe for a special occasion like a honeymoon or birthday vacation, I highly recommend starting or ending your trip at here. From the beautiful grounds and inviting rooms to the fantastic customer service, the Four Seasons Hualalai is a perfect paradise on the Big Island.

This trip was paid for by the Kohala Coast Resort Association, but the views expressed are entirely my own.

Keep important items accessible – Packing tip

Before you go on your road trip, make sure to pack your car so the most important items are easily accessible.

Many people make the mistake of packing their essential items first — so as not to forget them — but this means those essential items wind up underneath multiple bags and other supplies. In case of an emergency, you need to be able to find your important items quickly and easily.

If you’re bringing food and water, place them in a position that is accessible by the driver and the front passengers seat. This will help you refrain from having to crawl to the back of the car or take your eyes off the road.

Stick to your diet – Cruise tip

If you want to avoid gaining weight on a cruise, call the cruise line and ask them to send you a menu — or go online and print it out before your trip.

Create your own menu for the week from the existing cruise menu and stick to it when you go on your cruise. If you know what you’re planning on eating before you go on your trip, you’re less likely to eat foods that you normally try and stay away from. Sticking to your diet will stop you from feeling guilty about eating too much and help you relax.