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Ilona Kauremszky, Author at Air Canada Vacations

22 May

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How to Fall in Love with Paris in 24 Hours

May 22, 2015 | By |

Across the City of Light, the grey shroud of winter has lifted, replaced by the welcoming embrace of spring. Shopkeepers mill around their stalls, cyclists purposefully whizz through traffic and best of all, glorious sunshine lifts the heart and soul.

Spring time fuels romance in Paris too. Here’s how to fall in love with Paris in 24 hours:

Morning

At your hotel, fuel up on croissants, jam and a grande cup of café au lait, then pack yourself a light lunch from your previous day’s shopping escapade before you set out on your Paris day tour.

Head to the nearest metro station and purchase the Mobilis Pass (7 euros) that gets you in and around central Paris in this full-day traveller’s extravaganza.

Make your way to the Notre-Dame Cathedral on the Île de la Cité. Get off at Cité station (line 4), stop at the Palais de Justice for a photo op of the ornate gates and ask a friendly local to point you in the right direction of the esteemed Notre-Dame.

Notre Dame Cathedral Paris

As you wander around, you’ll also discover a spectacular park called Square Jean XXIII in a spring symphony of floral colours and fragrant blossoms.

Cross the love lock- laden bridge known as the Pont de l’Archevêché to La Rive Gauche (the Left Bank). Not too far away is an extraordinary book store that has been a magnet for artists and writers-in-the-making ever since its first opening.  Pass by the locked-in-time streets in the Latin Quarter with their narrow passageways until you reach the René Viviani Square. Again, more beautiful florals with bouquets of daffodils and a fully blooming magnolia tree spur on the quest to find perhaps the most famous book store in the world: Shakespeare and Company.

There it is. Across from the park on 37 Rue de Bûcherie is this shrine to books, an iconic landmark with its green-painted facade laden with bookstands and postcard racks by the entrance. The store is a well-known hangout for literature buffs, and little has changed as you spot book lovers comfortably finding their existential moment leafing through copies of Sartre and Camus. Spot classic chapbooks like The Hunchback of Notre-Dame too.

Afternoon

Lunch time is here and the clock is ticking. Still there’s still so much to see. Return to Notre Dame, find a bench overlooking the cathedral, and enjoy that boxed lunch you packed earlier. People watch and gaze at the historic place of worship that has inspired writers and artists for centuries.

With romance in the air, track down France’s famous writer of love letters, Madame de Sévigné, who longingly and lovingly wrote reams of letters – many from her private city residence in the Marais district. The historic mansion is home to the Carnavalet Museum, devoted to Paris’ rich history from its bygone era to present day.

Pass by the Paroisse St. Paul-St. Louis, another stunning church (Hunchback of Notre Dame author Victor Hugo’s daughter Leopoldine was secretly married here), and amble along the Rue de Sévigné, a narrow winding street lined by historic facades that now house eclectic shops and boutiques.

For an afternoon pick-me-up, the Swedish Institute on 11 Rue Payenne is a great find for coffee, homemade cakes and light snacks. Near the Carnavelet Museum, the popular coffee house is tucked inside a private courtyard rife with café drinkers enjoying the outdoor terrace. Inside, there’s a fun cue of repeat patrons from every age group waiting to place their orders.

Once you’ve finished your coffee, you are ready to resume your Parisian love affair. Next stop is the most iconic monument of them all: the Eiffel Tower.

By the St. Paul Metro, you proceed to Bir-Hakeim Station (line 6) to the Eiffel Tower. Paris’ symbol seems to change every time you see it. The changing light from the clouds sets off dramatic shadows as the glistening sun gives a moody effect, a perfect backdrop for all the canoodling couples.

Eiffel Tower

For a grand view, it’s off to the Trocadero. Tip: Every evening on the hour, the tower lights up for 5 minutes – best to get there 15 minutes in advance.

Late afternoon

It’s impossible to visit Paris without a bit of shopping – the next quick stop is to Haussmann Boulevard, home to the Printemps department store and the renowned Galeries Lafayette.

Galeries Lafayette

Galeries Lafayette

Inside both retail landmarks, attentive staff offer their assistance. By the acclaimed parfumerie counters, sales reps squirt the latest Chanel and Guerlain fragrances as you glance around to admire the grand interiors with the lavish-domed glass ceiling, an Art Nouveau classic.

Next, head inside a brasserie (your choice) and linger on a fixed prix, 3-course dinner but don’t enjoy the surrounds too long. There’s a not-to-be-missed boat to catch for an amazing night river cruise along the Seine.

Evening

Hop aboard the Vedettes de Paris with its evening champagne river cruise that departs at the foot of the Eiffel Tower by Port Suffren. The night sky is blazing in stars and so is the Eiffel Tower, all lit up in a whimsical pattern of diamond-like lights. As the boat sails past Paris’ iconic landmarks, you sip your champagne and smile to yourself.

And that’s how you fall in love with Paris in 24 hours.

 

30 Mar

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5 Must-See Havana Hot Spots

March 30, 2015 | By |

In the 50s, the Spanish colonial charm of Havana was a magnet for celebrities and industrialists. These days, the Cuban capital caters to all sorts of travellers. Which Havana hot spots are drawing in the crowds? Here’s a look at our top 5.

1. Tropicana

Tropicana Havana

Watch pure magic unfold at Havana’s Tropicana. A hot bed for nightclub glitz and glamour, this legendary landmark punctuates rhythm with plenty of soul as a live orchestra accompanies dazzling dancers who sway from the palm trees. Nightly shows are year-round except Christmas Eve. Reservations are recommended.

2. Coppelia

Coppelia Havana

Ice cream is a must when you’re under the Cuban sun. Our recommendation? Coppelia. Though the Jetsons-like, flying saucer-shaped building may seem like it’s from the future, it is a fantastic place to enjoy the present moment. Make sure to ask for the flavour of the day, or for the “ensalada,” a mix of 4 scoops of ice cream topped with chocolate sauce. Yes, the line-up may be long, but it is worth the wait.

3. El Floridita

El Floridita Havana

Quench your thirst at El Floridita, known as one of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite hangouts. Pony up to the bar (preferably near the bronze statue of the iconic writer), order their famous daiquiri and watch how bartenders continue to recreate the beloved rum cocktail first invented here.

4. Hotel Nacional de Cuba

Hotel Nacional de Cuba

Overlooking the Malecon, which is a chunk of oceanfront real estate frequented by canoodling couples and locals alike, this Spanish Colonial structure radiates old charm and has many star-studded tales to tell. The mojito, Cuba’s other famous drink, is a popular choice at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba and can be enjoyed by the bar or al fresco on the terrace.

5. Old Havana/La Habana Vieja

We cannot forget the pearl of Cuba: Old Havana (La Habana Vieja). This corner of the capital has survived years of neglect and is now slowly being restored to its former beauty. You can spend hours exploring cobblestone streets and local markets around the pedestrian-only Calle Obispo. The Cathedral de San Cristobal, The Plaza Vieja, and the Plaza de San Francisco are also classic Old Havana landmarks.

Interested in visiting the Cuban capital? See what else Havana has to offer here.

 

13 Mar

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All-Inclusive Luxury at Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit

March 13, 2015 | By |

It’s one of those places you read about.

An all-inclusive luxury resort perched on the edge of the Pacific Coast with its sandy beach – the kind you want to dig your toes into and linger on for hours until you finally blink your eyes and can’t believe what you just saw.

A massive geyser erupts from the sea as a black girth emerges from the shimmering blue waters at the forefront of the Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit. Besides being a hub of elegance, the 267-room property becomes centre stage for frolicking humpback whales during whale watching season.

You never know what you’ll see when you stretch out your beach blanket here.

Here’s the 411 on Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit.

The vibe

Swanky, modern interiors with open spaces in the main public areas emit that breezy, relaxed atmosphere guests enjoy.  Find a quiet nook by the lotus pond and sit back in one of the lovely lounge areas with a coffee or visit the adults-only infinity pool and keep your eyes peeled for whale sightings.

The property

Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit Grounds

This recently renovated all-inclusive luxury resort is a member of the Leading Hotels of the World, so expect only the finest in service and quality. Pretty bougainvilleas cascade off the balconies so a burst of colour beautifully offsets the honey yellow facade.

Families can enjoy time together by the pool or parents can enroll their children at the Kids Club (ages 4-12). The hours are 9 am – 11 pm daily.

The Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit has 5 pools including a children and adults-only pool, but what makes them incredible is the design. At nearly every vantage point the pools cascade into each other and that’s thanks to the wonderful infinity, plunge pools.

Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit pool

Did you forget your sunglasses? Maybe even the SPF? Ask the pool concierge for assistance. The attentive pool staff continually circulates to aid guests in libations, eats and yes, certain amenities.

Nightly entertainment is scheduled at the Lounge Bar or the magnificent Roman-inspired amphitheatre for movie nights.

The rooms

grand-velas-riviera-nayarit-parlor-suite-king-1

Parlor Suite

There are several room categories, but even the Standard Suites are spacious at 1,000 sq. ft. I stayed in a Parlor Suite overlooking the gardens facing the beach. These suites have 2 rooms, a main bedroom and a living room, as well as a large bathroom. There is 24-hour room service and free WiFi.

The food

Piaf Restaurant

Piaf Restaurant

One word: amazing. The selection in fine dining is huge. I had no idea you could dine in such elegant, stylish restaurants at an all-inclusive resort and be entertained by a distinguished crop of musicians. I dined at all 3 triple-A, four-diamond restaurants to musical accompaniments which were distinct at each location. (Fyi: Reservations are required).

Frida’s is akin to a Mexican hacienda with its Spanish colonial interior and splashes of Frida Kahlo touches. One of the biggest Frida ties is the hostess who is a dead ringer for the famous Mexican artist.

Lucca specializes in Italian fare. The Romanesque-styled decor with white columns has a grand piano as the focal point. My menu incorporated Mediterranean touches.

Piaf, the French restaurant, is a study in art and design. Whimsical blown glass art in shapes of butterflies greet guests as they enter this upscale restaurant. A smooth stone floor and muted tones elegantly showcase the extraordinary collection of huge modern wall art.

What to do

Spa

I went for a “serenity now” experience so I indulged in several activities.

I visited the spa, which incorporates traditional Mexican, pre-Hispanic remedies in its signature treatments. I tried the 50-minute Serenity Massage. The ambiance was ideal. Between the dim lighting and oceanic soundtrack, my massage therapist greeted me with a fabulous spa welcome infused with the four elements (fire, earth, water and air). Go early and get pampered by the spa butler and after your treatment, relax for hours at the private hydrotherapy pool.

One late afternoon I participated in a yoga class at the fitness centre. We did meditative breathing, the downward dog, and other moves that were totally new to me. I appreciated the instructor’s patient approach and totally recommend taking a yoga class there.

For the gourmet lover that I am, I heard about a cooking class and decided to experience a French cooking lesson. Executive Chef Claudio Hotter who oversees the resort’s 3 triple A, four-diamond restaurants helms this class. My class size was small so we each took turns creating our 3-course lunch. I picked up handy tips that day on mushroom cleaning and now can proudly say I know how to make an endive salad with a creamy Roquefort dressing.

Guests can also play tennis, golf at their choice of 2 golf courses in the area or head out on off-site excursions to explore the area. Daily resort activities are scheduled too.

Do you think the Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit is the resort for you? Find out more about it here.

Award-winning travel writer Ilona Kauremszky is a co-producer of mycompasstv and mycompass.ca and works with leading publications across North America. She’s been a nationally syndicated travel columnist and has appeared as a travel expert on CBC, NPR, Yahoo Finance and other national broadcasters. Follow her travel pursuits on Twitter and YouTube @mycompasstv.  

10 Mar

By

Fun With the Kids During March Break

March 10, 2015 | By |

“Are we there yet?” takes on new meaning when you finally arrive with a luggage full of summer wear and a family ready to start their fun.

After all, it is March Break or Spring Break depending on where you’re from and that means one thing: fun in the sun.

Here’s where to get the extra fun breaks that’ll satisfy both adults and the kids.

The Mayan Riviera

Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza, Mexico

Blue azure sea, white soft sand, and a Caribbean reef that’ll have the kids snorkelling for Nemo are just some of the fun to be had at the Mayan Riviera.

I also love to hang with the critters in a jungle-rich environment at Xcaret Park. Amid the tall leafy trees in this eco-archeological park, you can hear the sounds of the jungle, prowl through the tropical jungle trail, stop at the wild bird aviary and watch entertaining free shows scheduled daily. See big cats at Jaguar Island and discover the ancient culture of the Mayans at the recreated villages. Water activities are popular too. I enjoy the clear, cool waters by the underground river and it’s always a treat to drift down the canyon-like Paradise River with its exotic foliage in a small raft.

Of course, swim spots are totally fun in Xel-ha Park. This water park torques through more Mayan jungles and winds past mini islands. Grab a tube and a lifejacket and prepare to tube down lazy rivers with its jungle backdrop. Xel-ha boasts many attractions and is loaded with activities. On my last visit snorkelling by the natural cove was a huge hit. You can also hike the nature trails to spot jungle critters.

Little kids may not really care for visits to see ancient ruins, but older ones like tweens should drop by with their parents to see Tulum. After you visit this ancient Mayan waterfront site, take a dip in the sea – as clear and sinfully warm as a hot tub.

At Tulum, you’ll learn about the ancient Mayans who were a resourceful, ingenious lot. If you want to dabble further into the world of the Mayans, take a full day excursion by bus to Chichen Itza. Located in the neighbouring state of the Yucatan, it is a bit of a drive (like 2 hours with a very early wake-up) but is well worth the trip to view this massive ancient Mayan site complex. Excursion tours can be booked directly at your resort.

Vegas for families

New York New York Hotel and Casino

Big Apple Coaster at New York New York Hotel and Casino

When you think of Las Vegas, you think of high rollers, casinos, and late nights, maybe not the stuff you want your family exposed to. But let me tell you, there’s a lot more to Vegas than adult entertainment.

There are the gondola rides, roller coasters, animal shows and tasty snacks and that’s just for starters.  I enjoy the variety and the selection in offerings is pretty staggering too.

At New-York New-York, get strapped in for dips and turns and try the Big Apple coaster ride with its Coney Island feel. At the Stratosphere, get strapped in again, but this time, the ride shoots you up into the stratosphere (try 160 feet) in just 2.5 seconds.

In this desert town it’s the hotel pools that make the big splash. Spend hours luxuriating at the poolside or hours at the many other attractions.

Fun in Orlando

Orlando SeaWorld

SeaWorld

Hit the big theme parks in Orlando. Don’t think too much about the line-ups… Just think: it’s not every day the kids get to visit Disney WorldUniversal Studios or SeaWorld.

International Drive is crammed with resorts. In between the pool visits, spa treatments, and great dinners at your property, don’t forget to make time for some quick retail therapy. I love to hang out by the famous Premium Outlet Malls on International Dirve. Scour the shops with luxe brands like Ann Taylor, Kenneth Cole, and Kate Spade New York.

For some downtime, or to flee the crowds at the theme parks, why not mellow next door at the “Gateway to Fun,” known as Kissimmee. This neighbouring city and its surroundings have some of the nicest off-the-beaten path activities. Take a fabulous paddling trip at Shingle Creek Regional Park. Located at the most northerly stream of the Everglades not far from International Drive, this waterway is laden with mangroves and promises fabulous nature sightseeing.

One of my favourite stops in Kissimmee is to spend the day at Gatorland. Dubbed “The Alligator Capital of the World,” the ginormous park is also home to a menagerie of other critters like tropical birds and snakes. Hands-on activities and daily shows with naturalists make it educational without being boring.  Once at Gatorland, you can’t escape hearing the call of Tarzan either. That’s because the park is home to 5 zip lines. Called the Screamin’ Gator Zip Line, it’s great fun for the whole family. Note there are certain height and weight restrictions that apply.

Award-winning travel writer Ilona Kauremszky is a co-producer of mycompasstv and mycompass.ca and works with leading publications across North America. She’s been a nationally syndicated travel columnist and has appeared as a travel expert on CBC, NPR, Yahoo Finance and other national broadcasters. Follow her travel pursuits on Twitter and YouTube @mycompasstv.