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Cruising with baby

Blending relaxation with revelry aboard the Disney Dream

After university, I took a few months off to travel and work before settling into a career. To combine both objectives—and spend my days off in destinations such as Saint Martin—I chose to work as a kids counselor on a cruise ship. 
Every day in the kids club, I’d see parents drop off their tots and waltz off to the pool, to the spa, or to a hot night out with coiffed hair, fancy resort wear, and an easy-breezy attitude I couldn’t place at the time. Even without kids at the time, I was already sold on cruising with my future family. 
Now, more than a decade, a husband, a dog, and a child later, I’ve moved up the ranks from cruise staff to passenger, knowing that sailing the ocean blue is a vacation type that lends itself to an actual getaway for every member of our crew. Plus, I wanted to know what it felt like put on a gown and a glass slipper again. 
These Cinderella wishes led me to Disney Cruise Line for its Fantasmic! ability to offer Mickey Mouse–caliber entertainment for kids (of all ages), and woo adults with Jack Sparrow–approved deck parties and Princess Jasmine–posh hideaways. 
When you wish upon a star
With a blow of “When You Wish Upon a Star” (literally, the ship’s whistle trumpets this tune—OK, technically seven) in September 2015, I set sail on the Disney Dream from Port Canaveral (near Orlando) to the Bahamas. 
It was a voyage I’ll never forget: As we were pulling away from port with prosecco flutes in hand, our 11-month-old took his first steps. (It was like Tinkerbell fluttered into our room and sprinkled pixie dust on our little one.)
Aboard the 1,115-foot ocean liner, the bubbly moments kept coming. As they did, I gleaned firsthand why parents of young children are “strangely” relaxed at sea. Almost everything is done for you; all you need to do is pack and show up. 

Onboard oasis featuring funnel-size flicks

Enchanted dining
Take our first night in the one of ship’s whimsical dining rooms. We arrived to a table set with two chairs, a high chair, and a cup with my son’s name on it covered in a no-spill lid with a straw sticking out. At first, we were trying to be polite when asking about bite-size food for our little guy, but the staff insisted they tailor it to his age—no small task on a 130,000-ton ship filled with 120 cooks and 240 servers. 
Because our servers followed us to each of our dining venues—a Disney Cruise Line exclusive—from that point forward, every kid-size bite came to our small sailor’s liking (even if it wasn’t on the menu), meaning we could all have our cake and eat it, too. 
Viewfinder Tip: The nursery books up fast. Select your babysitting times pre-cruise for choice slots—you can always inquire about additional open spots while you’re on the ship.
A hot night out
The next day, after exploring Nassau’s pastel-lined streets and lounging in a quiet spot on deck 12, we did our best impression of the moms and dads I remember when I worked with kids at sea: We gussied ourselves to the level of a Disney prince and princess (OK, not quite, but that’s what it felt like) and dropped our tired tyke off in the “it’s a small world” nursery. 
Once we were relinquished of our parenting duties for a few hours, we discovered a quiet, adult side of the ship that appeared as though it was supposed to be in an A-lister’s private yacht (think rich wood grains, leather maps, and plush seating). 
We started with drinks in the adults-only, glass-enclosed Meridian lounge at sunset, where we sipped our shaken martinis on the outdoor patio as the wind tousled our hair and the sun lit our faces with a golden glow—the kind that bathes you in a sexy supermodel light.
 

Martinis at Meridian

Dinner at Palo—one of the ship’s haute eateries—followed, where we cozied up together in a crescent-shaped booth to feast on charcuterie and balsamic-drizzled parmesan we selected from a cart of antipasti. This was only the first course. Three hours, three dishes, and two wine pairings later, we rushed back to the nursery only to find that our mini cruiser had been lulled to sleep in a swing that mimicked the natural motion of the sea. 
Eight precious words
Then, with a twinkle in her eye, the nursery counselor uttered eight words I’ll never forget as a new parent: “You’re welcome to stay out a little longer,” as if she knew we were craving one more cocktail in the Caribbean. Obviously, we obliged, and dashed to Currents, a 10-seat, outdoor bar clinging to the ship’s contours.
Here, we plotted our next day: Taking our tot swimming in the bath-warm water at Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island in the Bahamas, as well as another nursery time so we could find “serenity now” in Senses Spa & Salon, a sleek cedar and slate escape for the ship’s older set.
Sweating side by side in the sauna to the tune of pan flutes, we felt completely calm and carefree—the kind of contentment that comes from knowing that Disney is in the details. (See a video I made about the spa and our other seafaring adventures on TripStyler.com.) 

Relaxing in Senses Spa & Salon

Then it dawned on me. The parents I remember from my shipboard kids-club days beamed because cruising with children isn’t code for chaos, rather an opportunity for every sailor to experience revelry and relaxation at sea. 
What kind of family trips do you think are ideal for blending relaxation with revelry?
Expedia compensates authors for their writings appearing on this site, such compensation may include travel and other costs.
This author has either a relationship with, or received other compensation (which may include monetary or in-kind compensation) from, the product or service providers that are the subject of this post.
Source: viewfinder.expedia.com

7 essentials for carry-on coolness

7 essentials for carry-on coolness

Taking cues from fashion-forward frequent fliers

Don’t let a small suitcase scare you; traveling light is not an exercise in limited looks, but rather a process of meticulous garment selection used by the world’s most sharply dressed jet-setters.
To put packing well into perspective, an edited bag equals an edited style. Think about it: With fewer, ultra-revised garments, you’re more likely to appear polished every time you don an outfit—no matter what combo you choose. 
Case in point: I travel once every two weeks, and whether I’m packing for a video shoot or an itinerary full of everything from hiking to upscale dinners, I always bring a carry-on. In fact, over the past six years, I’ve only traveled with a checked bag once, and I regretted it after having to wait 45 minutes for my case to arrive on the carousel. 
With this, here are seven packing essentials (and methodologies) used by world’s most fashionable frequent fliers. And moi. 
The savvy suitcase
Let’s start with the most obvious vessel for traveling à la mode: The suitcase. While I’m not going to tell you which one to select, I will tell you what to look for, because not every roll-aboard is created equally. First, look at the carry-on size requirements for airlines you travel most. Based on this, select a suitcase that’s just a “hair” under these measurements to maximize your packing. Another consideration: Look for a lightweight bag that is low on bulk, so the interior is 100 percent your things versus suitcase padding and pockets. Finally, black is best as far as color due to its slimming qualities (read: A black bag will not be targeted for weight or size violations as often as a red bag because the black one will appear smaller than its brightly-hued counterparts).
The posh personal item
Along with a sleek carry-on, a posh personal item can make or break a jet-set look. Opt for a sturdy, well-made travel tote or purse with hand and shoulder straps to complement your suitcase. Ladies: Save the clutch for going out, this is one of those times you want an oversized purse. For example, I always travel with one of my two California-made Clare V., purses. Designed with travel in mind by a Parisian, they are big enough to fit essentials such as my wallet, documents, travel toiletries, and camera, and small enough to sit atop my rolling suitcase.

The dual-purpose dress

 
The A-list accessories
Think of accessories as your travel wardrobe’s spice. They add flavor to your garments, and can simultaneously dress up or dress down a white tee-shirt or the perfect pair of travel jeans. A few accoutrements I keep at the ready are: A hat (felt for cold climates, grass for warm climates), sunglasses for zoning out mid-flight, and a scarf to keep me warm—plane air is cold! As far as jewelry, I keep all my charms in a small plastic bags so they do not get tangled or tousled in transit. 
The on-trend travel uniform
It was my husband, Mr. Trip Styler, who inspired me to select a travel uniform. Choosing a go-to travel ensemble is essential as a packing time-saver. Mr. Trip Styler always travels with five white V-neck tee-shirts, which he wears with jeans or shorts. I always pack my white, waist-length sweater which goes with practically everything in my wandering wardrobe.
Viewfinder Tip: Pack a large Ziplock bag as an on-the-go washing machine. Throw in your undergarments, or a top, add water and a little hotel body wash, seal it, swish the items around, rinse, and hang to dry. 
The dual-purpose duds
All devotees of petite and posh packing follow this decree: Thou shalt bring dual-purpose duds to maximize style. Ladies, think body-hugging jersey dress paired with a kimono for day, and belt and jewelry for night. Also on the dress front, select flowy frocks that can be worn to the pool, sightseeing, or out at night. Finally, while I suggest limiting pants, tops don’t take up too much space and offer the best versatility. Gents, hone in on bathing suit-come-short hybrids, plain white tee-shirts (for a Mr. TripStyler/James Dean lure), or a casual pair of sneakers that do double duty with an airport “uniform” or with a blazer for dinner and drinks. 
The fancy footwear
For most people, footwear is the main deterrent for packing compact and cool. Follow these shoe rules and your packing will hit the right stride. 1) Wear your biggest shoes on the plane. 2) Choose a clothing color scheme that matches your curated shoe collection. For example, if I’m going somewhere urban, I opt for booties as my main and plane footwear since they can be worn with everything from jeans to dresses. Other than this, I might bring one pair of heels, and if there’s space, a pair of walking shoes such as “chucks.” For a sun-drenched sojourn, I skip booties and stick to a small rotation of Capri sandals.
The classic coat 
A striking jacket is the glue that holds your travel look together. As the biggest item in your bag, that coat is best to wear instead of packing it. For a classic silhouette, take a cue from always-on-the-road models, most of whom are photographed at the airport in comfy leather jackets, or trench-style coats, a classic cut with structure and flow that compliments every body type. 
What essentials keep your travel look polished?
Expedia compensates authors for their writings appearing on this site, such compensation may include travel and other costs.

Source: viewfinder.expedia.com

Best hotels of 2015

Living the high life in the best hotels of 2015

A good hotel can make or break a vacation. Nobody on Earth knows that better than we do. It’s why we pride ourselves so dramatically on the hotels with which we partner. It’s also why we’re proud to send our Expedia Viewfinder bloggers out and about to experience some of these stellar accommodations all over the world. We recently asked members of the blog team to pick their favorite hotels of 2015. Their selections were as varied as the hotels in our database.
My selections? Let’s just say the decision wasn’t as easy as I had hoped. Ultimately, I settled on a tie between Delano Las Vegas and Hotel DeLuxe in Portland, Oregon. What I love about Delano is that it is SO DIFFERENT from theHotel, the property that came before it. That property was dark and mysterious; the new property is light and white and airy. I also love the spacious rooms, and the lobby with natural accents such as boulders and wood. Hotel DeLuxe is very different—it’s a boutique, rooms are tiny, and the building is OLD. What I loved about this place was the service. Our room had a menu for 12 different religious books people could order. There were pillow options. The concierge bent over backward to accommodate me and my kids, going so far as to set us up in the lobby for dinner one night. Just a great property overall.
Now that you’ve read my picks for Best Hotel of 2015, here are some of the selections from my Expedia Viewfinder colleagues, each presented in their own words.
TripStyler
Occasionally you come across a hotel that gives you chills, lingers in your mind, and soothes your soul. For me, this stay is the Four Seasons Resort Lanai, a splurge-worthy rarity that rises above service, style, and sense of place into a realm fit for royalty. But, the best part about this swish stay is there’s no pressure to look regal. You can just be. Couple this with sleek, teak-adorned rooms and a cascading beachfront location that wows from every vantage point, and it’s the destination I dream about when I need to go to my happy place. (Note: the property, pictured atop this page, reopens in February after a lengthy renovation. Book accordingly!)
Captain and Clark
Located in the heart of Old Town in Tallinn, Estonia, and walking to distance to the city’s major sights, Hotel Telegraaf offers the comforts of home with the luxuries of a high end hotel.  The hotel staff always welcomed us with a smile and friendly, “Hello,” and we thoroughly enjoyed the ambiance from a live three-piece orchestra. Hotel Telegraaf also is home to Restaurant Tchaikovsky, voted one of the best restaurants in town. 

Hotel DeLuxe

 
Kate Thomas
The Ojai Valley Inn and Spa is a favorite of Los Angeles natives as an escape from city life. The resort, which sits on a property with rolling green golf courses and stunning mountains in the distance, resembles a small village. Spacious guest rooms are inside Spanish-style haciendas dotted throughout the grounds; each hacienda has its own unique decor and vista, many with fireplaces, large flat screen TV’s, touch pad room service, and private balconies. Guests can spend their days dining at the many on-property restaurants, playing golf or tennis, biking, or lounging in a cabana by one of the pools. Also on the property is a beautiful spa with a wide selection of relaxation and beauty treatments, as well as “body and mind” fitness classes. Other activities from which to choose include art classes, a kids’ camp, yoga atop a mountain, and ocean excursions. When I visited, I found that the staff seemed to anticipate my needs. Another of my favorite features was the live music; often a bluegrass band plays under an old oak tree, entertaining guests in front of a sprawling vista. In Southern California, where the weather is sunny nearly all year round, this retreat is wonderful for family gatherings and romantic getaways alike.
Courtney Scott
Perched on a hill in the quiet Fiesole neighborhood of Florence, Hotel il Salviatino is a restored 15th century Italian villa that exudes elegance yet still feels like home. Each room is unique and spacious with large picture windows, as well as many of the original architectural details. After an Ayurvedic treatment at the spa and a bit of relaxation at the infinity pool surrounded by cypress trees, enjoy an aperitivo on the terrazza with breathtaking views of Salviatino’s ancient rose garden and sweeping panoramas of Florence. Also, if you’ve ever wanted to go truffle hunting, the property is built in the center of a truffle-rich forest.
Viewfinder Tip: Sign up for Expedia+ rewards and earn points for every hotel booking on Expedia.com. Points can be redeemed for credits to book! 
Girl Gone Travel
The Nanuku Auberge Resort is located in Pacific Harbor, Fiji, and it exceeds the standards of what most travelers know an all-inclusive resort to be. This full service resort has everything from a salon to a fitness center. It even has a cultural center where events and activities, such as cooking classes of local favorites, are held to teach guests some local cultural know-how. Most of the luxury villas have private pools overlooking the ocean; the set-up is perfect for couples or families. When you go, be sure to seize the opportunity for a sunset cruise to achieve that extra touch of Fijian paradise.
NVR Guys
Who doesn’t like to splurge on an upscale hotel? We, however, like our luxe with a bit of personality. While Hotel am Steinplatz, in Berlin, is solidly in the luxury category, it’s not overly fussy, sterile, or uninteresting (as so many luxury properties tend to be). The rooms are gorgeous and just a little edgy; think the interior design equivalent of Marlene Dietrich in a suit. We had a spacious unit with a plush bed, fantastic art, and a generous work area overlooking the tree-lined street.
Midlife Road Trip
The Sandpearl Resort is situated on the white-sugar sand of Clearwater Beach, Florida, on the Gulf of Mexico. It has a renowned spa, breathtaking sunsets, and a dedicated staff that see to every detail throughout your stay. You can reserve a cabana to kick back and relax by the lagoon pool, wine and dine at Caretta on the Gulf restaurant, roast marshmallows on the beach, or watch the spectacular sunsets from Tate’s Island Grill. 
What were your favorite hotels in 2015 and why?
Expedia compensates authors for their writings appearing on this site, such compensation may include travel and other costs.
Source: viewfinder.expedia.com

Star Wars comes to Disney Cruise Line

Giving you a front-row seat to a new cruise experience

Early in 2015, Disney Cruise Line announced Star Wars Day at Sea, debuting in early 2016.
What is Star Wars Day at Sea?
It’s an all things Star Wars, day-long celebration aboard eight sailings on the Disney Fantasy in the western Caribbean.
We’re going to be on the first Star Wars Day at Sea sailing, embarking on January 9, 2016! We want to give Expedia consumers and Star Wars fans the full scoop so that you can decide if you want to book a future sailing. 
To get ourselves ready to sail, we found out what our friends at Disney had to say about what we can expect once we’re on board. 
No Vacation Required: Why is Star Wars Day at Sea special?
Disney: It marks the first official appearance of the heroes and villains of Star Wars aboard a Disney Cruise Line ship. It will feature a complete lineup of Star Wars activities for fans of all ages.
No Vacation Required: What kind of fun can we expect? 
Disney: Force-filled fun for everyone! Here are some highlights: 
Darth Vader, Chewbacca, Boba Fett, stormtroopers, and other characters from across the Star Wars galaxy will be on board for scheduled meet and greets, as well as roaming on deck and elsewhere around the ship. Guests also are encouraged to dress up in their own stellar costumes. 
A shipboard version of the popular Jedi Training Academy experience invites young Padawans to learn lightsaber moves from a Jedi Master. They can then use the Force and face off in a final test against the evil Darth Vader.
Viewfinder Tip: Cruising can be a very cost-effective way to see a lot of different locations on one trip.
Kids and families enjoy friendly competition during Star Wars trivia games, covering fun facts from the film and television sagas.
For younglings, Star Wars–themed arts and crafts, games, and activities will be offered throughout the day in the Oceaneer Club and Oceaneer Lab youth clubs.
In the evening, adults entering the nightclub will feel like they stepped into the Mos Eisley cantina scene. Characters and cantina music set the mood as Star Wars–themed specialty cocktails are served.
No Vacation Required: Will we be able to watch Star Wars films on board?
Disney: Guests can watch the first six Star Wars films, plus the latest smash-hit release, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Also showing will be episodes of the hit animated series Star Wars Rebels. On each of the special sailings, celebrities and insiders from the Star Wars galaxy will share their experiences, meet fans, and sign autographs.
No Vacation Required: What about parties and Disney’s signature fireworks?
Disney: There’s intergalactic fun when the Star Wars deck party blasts off to an exciting evening filled with music, dancing, and games. Star Wars characters converge on the deck stage for a celebration of the Star Wars saga in a show featuring special effects and guest participation. The deck party culminates in a spectacular display of themed pyrotechnics, lighting, sound effects, lasers, and more.
We can’t wait to see it all for ourselves!  Be sure to follow No Vacation Required and Expedia on Twitter for a front-row seat to all of our experiences.
If you are interested in booking, here are some more details from Disney: Star Wars Day at Sea will be on Disney Fantasy cruises sailing on January 9 and January 23, 2016; February 6 and February 20, 2016; March 5 and March 19, 2016; and April 2 and April 16, 2016. Departing from Port Canaveral, the seven-night western Caribbean itinerary includes Cozumel, Mexico; Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands; and Disney’s private island in the Bahamas, Castaway Cay. 
You can book right here on Expedia.com.
What interest (movie, hobby, etc.) would you travel for?
 

Expedia compensates authors for their writings appearing on this site, such compensation may include travel and other costs.
This author has either a relationship with, or received other compensation (which may include monetary or in-kind compensation) from, the product or service providers that are the subject of this post.
Source: viewfinder.expedia.com

Expedia at Walt Disney World Resort

Sharing the ‘Top 5’ of all things Walt Disney World

Do you sing, “Let It Go” in the shower? Do you have monogrammed Mickey ears? We get you. We really get you.
We here at Expedia love Disney too.
Because we know that Orlando and Walt Disney World Resort are on many of your travel dream lists for 2016, we want to make it even easier for you to plan your getaway. So we’ve partnered with our friends at Disney to bring you tips and tricks for planning, booking, and making the most out of your visit to this magical destination.
Over the coming weeks, we’ll be rolling out exclusive “Top 5” videos about WDW. In those videos, our Expedia Viewfinders will be sharing the best that Disney has to offer. If you’ve ever been to Walt Disney World, you know this means there’s a lot to cover. For instance:
We’ve picked the best resorts at Walt Disney World Resort so you can maximize your time in the parks and not be sad when it’s time to go back to your hotel.
We’ve uncovered the top five places to shake your groove thing and work off all of those Dole Whips.
Speaking of Dole Whips, we selflessly have tested desserts so we could bring you the top 5 sweet treats at Walt Disney World Resort.
Additionally, we’ll be letting you in on some time-saving and cost-saving hacks. We also will spill some secrets about Walt Disney World Resort that might surprise even the biggest Disney fans.  

To kick things off, I’ve highlighted why Walt Disney World Resort is the perfect destination for any holiday, be it Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, July 4, or simply springtime. Click on my video about some of the top things to do at Walt Disney World Resort throughout the seasons.
In springtime, Epcot is in full bloom from March through May during the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. Visitors can watch gardening demos, eat fresh seasonal foods, dance at daily concerts, and view thousands of flowers and more than 100 topiaries.
Walt Disney World Resort is famous for its fireworks shows, and on July 4 the resort will light up with a special display titled, “Celebrate America – A Fourth of July Concert in the Sky.” For more patriotic fun, get a history lesson at the American Adventure at Epcot and see all of the U.S. presidents at the Hall of Presidents inside Magic Kingdom Park.
Every Halloween, Magic Kingdom Park gets a full makeover with scarecrows and pumpkins during September and October. Dress-up, trick-or-treat, and watch a special parade and fireworks show during Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party.
Viewfinder Tip: Expedia offers a bunch of great tools and resources for planning your trip to Walt Disney World, including these.
You don’t have to miss out on a classic turkey dinner if you’re celebrating Thanksgiving during a Walt Disney World vacation. Restaurants throughout the park serve full turkey dinners. Also, no matter what time of the year it is, turkey legs always can be found at food carts.
Finally, Christmas at Walt Disney World is one of the most magical times of the year, as all of the parks get decked out with holiday spirit. Visitors can meet Santa and watch Queen Elsa transform Cinderella Castle into a nightly ice show inside Magic Kingdom Park. Shop for unique gifts and learn about holiday traditions from around the globe at Epcot, too.
Stay tuned for more videos and check out #ExpediaAtDisney on social media for more Disney fun. If you’re ready to stop dreaming about a trip to Walt Disney World and start looking forward to your vacation, you can book right here on Expedia.com.
What do you want to know most about Walt Disney World?
Expedia compensates authors for their writings appearing on this site, such compensation may include travel and other costs.
Source: viewfinder.expedia.com

Celebrating our national parks

Celebrating our national parks

Honoring the U.S. National Park Service in its centennial year

You don’t need me (or, say, Willard Scott) to tell you that commemorating a 100th anniversary is REALLY a big deal. But when the birthday celebrant is something as wonderful and important as our country’s national park system—well that’s a cause for everyone to take notice.
Technically, the Big Day is Aug. 25—then-President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill that created the U.S. National Park Service as a separate bureau of the Department of the Interior on Aug. 25, 1916.
But here at Expedia, we’re working with a variety of partners to keep the party going all year long, and we have created an easy way for travelers to book their next trip to explore all that our national parks have to offer at www.expedia.com/nationalparks.

Our ongoing fete for the national parks comprises a number of parts.
First, we’ve partnered with Brand USA, the organization tasked with spreading the word to travelers about all of the great things to come and visit in our country. The goal of this partnership is to get international travelers to come and explore our more than 400 amazing national monuments and parks. We hope the partnership inspires fellow Americans to visit U.S. National Park Service properties, too.
(For some fantastic content about outdoor adventures across the United States, check out this special microsite Brand USA has put together in conjunction with the centennial.)
Second, we’re supporting a new IMAX film celebrating the centennial. The film, titled, “National Parks Adventure,” takes audiences on the ultimate off-trail adventure into the nation’s awe-inspiring great outdoors and untamed wilderness.
The movie was filmed in 30 national parks over a nine-month period, and IMAX cameras capture incredible shots of our natural wonders and landscapes. The flick is narrated by Academy Award-winner Robert Redford, and it opens Feb. 12. You can check out the trailer in the embedded video; for a list of theaters where you can see the film, or to find out how you can buy tickets, click here.

Third, we’re blowing out new and exciting national parks content here on the Expedia Viewfinder travel blog all year long:
Over the next 12 months, each of our bloggers will be dispatched to one of the Top 10 national parks to find and share incredible adventures. We’ll call upon our bloggers to write or film videos about their experiences while they’re on the ground. Hopefully their work will inspire you to take similar trips to the same places.
This spring, our entire Expedia Viewfinder team (including me; I’m super-excited) will gather in person in Western Montana to give you the ultimate inspiration for a road-trip adventure. Over the course of a week, we’ll be sharing several perspectives from our team’s incredible journey. The special project will culminate in a visit to the iconic Glacier National Park. You won’t want to miss it.
Finally, we’re rolling out a series of social media initiatives to celebrate our national parks. This campaign will begin with a dedicated National Parks theme week in February (Feb. 8-14, to be exact), and eventually will include an Instagram contest with Passion Passport and a Twitter chat Feb. 10. The grand prize for the Instagram contest is a Glacier National Park getaway (valued at US$3,000) for the winner and one guest; terms and conditions will come soon. Giveaways for the Twitter chat are still being determined, but we know one of the prizes will be a US$500 voucher for any travel booked on Expedia.com.
Of course the absolute best way to experience our national parks is to get out there. Visit ranger stations. Take informative hikes. Venture into the backcountry. Attend educational talks. The year 2016 is a great year to celebrate America’s best resource, and Expedia is committed to getting you there. Happy Birthday, U.S. National Park Service!
Which national parks are your favorites and why?
Expedia compensates authors for their writings appearing on this site, such compensation may include travel and other costs.

Source: viewfinder.expedia.com

Best destination for 2016: Portugal

Best destination for 2016: Portugal

Experiencing one of Europe’s best-kept secrets

I’ll admit I knew very little about Portugal prior to accepting an invitation from Viking River Cruises to participate in a press trip on the Douro River. I knew that port wine was made in Portugal and that cork trees grew there. Anything else I might have known was most likely forgotten as soon as I put down the pencil after taking whatever high school history or geography test I had bothered to study for in the first place. This 10-day adventure afforded me the opportunity to learn Portugal’s history, witness its natural beauty, and experience its culinary treasures. As a result, Portugal is now in the upper echelon of countries I want to visit again and again. Much of Portugal’s charm lies in its eclectic architecture. Roman, baroque, and Moorish influences are prevalent throughout the county and tell the story of Portugal’s colorful past. The Belém Tower in Lisbon, the Pena Palace in Sintra, the Mateus Palace in Vila Real, and the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies in Lamego are all architecturally stunning and are part of UNESCO World Heritage Sites that are not to be missed. 

The Douro River dissects northern Portugal from the eastern border with Spain to the Atlantic Ocean by the city of Porto. The way it meanders through mountains and countryside denotes a relaxed, slower-paced life. Floating past centuries-old medieval structures on hills overlooking the river was like stepping back in time. It was a contemplative experience that left me feeling relaxed and rejuvenated. The old-world villas and steeply terraced hillside vineyards along the Douro River provide a backdrop to some of the most spectacular sunrises and sunsets I have ever witnessed. 
Viewfinder Tip: Make your meal an entertaining and cultural experience by making dinner reservations at a restaurant with live fado music.  
I never thought of Portugal as a foodie destination until I made the trip. The food was absolutely unforgettable. Since the country borders the Atlantic Ocean, there is a natural abundance and variety of incredible fresh seafood dishes. Fish, squid, octopus, crustaceans, mollusk, and shellfish are prepared any way you can imagine—broiled, grilled, fried, stewed, or roasted. Fresh vegetables, rich stews, cured ham, chorizo, assortments of cheese, and freshly baked bread were staples on almost every menu. My favorite dessert was pastel de nata​, which seemed to be available everywhere. Originally created by 18th-century monks in a Lisbon monastery, these small, custard-filled puff pastries with caramelized tops are absolutely addictive.  
Portugal is famous for its port wine. The Douro Valley is recognized as the world’s first wine appellation region and produces the only grapes in the world that are used to make authentic port wine. Prior to visiting Portugal, I was never a fan of port wines and found them to be too sweet for my liking. But after touring several wineries and sampling numerous wines in Portugal, I’ve become a fan, particularly of some of the white ports, which are lighter and not as sweet as the vintage red ports. Ports aren’t the only wines produced in the region. I thoroughly enjoyed the region’s Vinho Verde—a young “green” wine—and Tempranillo and Alvarinho wines. Sipping wine in the region where it is made can be somewhat of a bonding experience. I now find myself searching for wines from the Douro Valley in grocery stores and wine shops in my hometown. 

Compared to much of Europe, Portugal is surprisingly affordable. In Lisbon and Porto, Portugal’s largest cities, you can get coffee and a pastry or a glass of fine wine for about €5.00. Four- and five-star hotels can be found for well under €200.00 per night. Portugal’s quaint villages, opulent castles, crystal-clear rivers, lush green mountains, and stunning coastlines leave you feeling like you’re living inside a postcard. And unlike so many of Europe’s better-known destinations that are overrun with tourists, Portugal provides opportunities for more authentic experiences. So whether you tour historical sites, fish in the Atlantic Ocean, cruise down the Douro River, indulge in the thriving food scenes of Lisbon and Porto, or simply sample the fine wines produced in the Douro Valley, you’re sure to discover why we consider Portugal to be Europe’s best-kept secret and our best destination for 2016.
Where do you plan to travel in 2016?
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A guide to living in the moment

A guide to living in the moment

Staying present while traveling

As we head into the new year, I’ve started to take inventory of my bad travel habits. Most of them relate to all of the digital distractions that permeate life. I find myself looking down at my phone when I used to look out the window. Instead of eating my meal, I photograph it. And I think I’ve turned my husband into a full-on Instagram Husband. All of this makes it increasingly hard to appreciate all the small moments that come along with travel.
If you find yourself in the same boat, here are six tools for staying present while you’re on vacation!
1. Rise with the sun. There is something very grounding about waking up with the sun. It gives you energy and inspiration to make the most of your day. Especially when I’m at a beach destination, I usually grab a towel or yoga mat and set it up on the beach for a short yoga practice. The sound of the waves and the heat of the rising sun invigorate every sense.
2. Five-minute journaling. It’s impossible to remember everything that happens while on vacation. That’s why I love to put pen to paper and keep a travel journal. It doesn’t have to be a novel, but by jotting down a few notes about your daily experiences, you’ll remember the details and will have a fun memento to look back on when you’ve returned home. It’s also a nice opportunity to actually write rather than type!
3. Digital-free meal time. Meal time should be a sacred time when you and your family or friends eat, drink, and make memories. It’s not a time to check emails or Snapchat every course, even though I’ve been guilty of both! The best way to avoid the temptation of using your phone during dinner is to keep it stashed away in your bag or pocket. It’s helpful to set some boundaries with the friends before you even arrive at dinner to make sure everyone is on board with your “social media–free supper.”  
Viewfinder Tip: San Francisco Airport, Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, and Raleigh-Durham Airport all have meditation or yoga spaces for quiet reflection.
4. Meditate. Meditation is a powerful tool. It helps calm the mind and make the noise around you disappear. If you go on YouTube, you will find hundreds of 10-minute meditations that you can do right when you wake up, or anywhere, really. Meditation and yoga rooms are becoming more and more popular at airports and hotels, so take advantage of the Zen spaces to re-center.
5. Connect with locals. Part of being a “present” traveler is connecting to the things and people around you. I like to make a point to talk to locals as much as possible. Chat up your Uber driver, speak to your waiter at the restaurant, and be open to the spontaneous experiences that may come from meeting other local travelers.
6. Get back to nature. Whether you take a hike in the mountains, go zip-lining in the jungle, or surf at the beach, being surrounded by nature is one of the best ways to appreciate the present. Even if you are traveling to a city, you can always find an urban park to explore or a botanical garden to enjoy.
What’s your favorite way to stay present while you travel?
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Top 5 Halloween festivals for families

Top 5 Halloween festivals for families

Celebrating the season with spooktacular fall events

As the leaves begin to fall and the cool nip of autumn fills the air, our family can’t wait to celebrate Halloween. It has become one of our favorite family traditions to go all out for Halloween. This includes exploring the best Halloween festivals both in our own backyard and across the country.
The excitement of the season in our hometown is almost palpable. Pumpkin patches are filled to the brim with soon-to-be jack-o’-lanterns ready for the picking. Neighborhoods fill the streets with festivals of every size and theme as young kids dress up in costumes, eager to sink their teeth into a cool caramel apple, ride on a hay wagon, or warm up with some hot apple cider.
If you are on the hunt for Halloween gatherings that are fun for the whole family, consider these five spooktacular Halloween festivals and tours around the United States.
1. Halloween Time at the Disneyland® Resort (Anaheim, CA). Halloween kicks off early at the Disneyland Resort, as the park gets all decked out for the holiday from mid-September to around the first of November. There is no shortage of ways to celebrate Halloween at the Disneyland Resort, where every day is a festival.

Halloween Time at Disneyland

Check out the giant Mickey pumpkin on Main Street, get tickets early for the often sold-out Mickey’s Halloween Party, or cruise with a “Ghost Host” at dark on Disney’s Happiest Haunts Tour, an evening of spooky haunts in the park. The Haunted Mansion also shines for the season, adorned in decorations from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.
2. Haunted Happenings (Salem, MA). For a trip that is both educational and fun for older children, consider a visit to Salem, Massachusetts, during October. Salem, a historic town infamous for serving as the backdrop to the Salem witch trials, puts on numerous Halloween festivals for visitors. In addition to historic Salem tours, check out Haunted Happenings, a local family-friendly festival featuring a parade, costume ball, family film nights, and more. 
3. Seattle Market Ghost Tour (Seattle, WA). If you are looking for a more ghostly way to celebrate the season, consider the Pike Place Market Ghost Tour in Seattle. Half of our family members (the other two are too scared) have made this tour a Halloween tradition for the last few years, and the stories they tell after they return spook us every time. The Market Ghost Tour is a 75-minute walking tour of Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle, and is conducted in small groups at night with an expert guide knowledgeable on the history of the market and the souls said to haunt the market’s buildings. Spooky and fun, right?
Viewfinder Tip: You don’t have to travel far to celebrate the season. Look for spooky Halloween activities in your hometown or nearby cities.  
4. NYC Parks Halloween festivities (New York, NY). If you are in New York City in October, be sure to check out the New York Parks and Recreation website for an abundance of family-friendly Halloween festivals and events around the city. One family-friendly event that caught my attention was the annual Halloween Pumpkin Parade and Flotilla, where your jack-o’-lantern can set sail at twilight at the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center in Central Park. 
5. Spirit of Halloweentown (St. Helens, OR). Finally, if small-town fun is more your speed, consider a trip 45 minutes northwest of Portland to St. Helens, Oregon. This town celebrates Halloween each October with lots of family fun all month long. Little ones can dress up and march in the Little Spooks Parade, and teens can dance the night away at the Teen Halloween Costume Party and Dance. The city also offers a Halloween cruise by boat to nearby Sand Island.
No matter where you are this Halloween season, you can be sure that there will be ample places to celebrate and create great family memories.
What are your favorite family events for Halloween?
Halloween Time image courtesy of Disney.
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6 best destinations for solo travelers

6 best destinations for solo travelers

Determining the top places to travel on your own

One of the biggest excuses I hear from people as to why they don’t travel is that they don’t have anyone to travel with. Know what I say? No travel partner, no problem!Of course, it’s nice to share the joy of discovering a new destination with someone you know, but that should not be a showstopper. There are lots of places around the world where you can travel safely and enjoy yourself thoroughly, even if you’re traveling solo.1. Spain. Leave Italy and France behind and head to Spain instead. Sure, plenty of travelers have already discovered this destination is rich in history, art, and food (and, oh, the food is yummy), but Spain is just off the beaten tourist path enough that it feels like a secret only you have discovered. Barcelona, in particular, is a favorite of mine!In Spain, you’ll find a tremendous number of activities you can do on your own without feeling like you must have a travel partner in tow. Hit the museums in the big cities, hike the trails in the Pyrenees, or lounge on a beach on the Costa Brava.
2. Costa Rica. Tourism has been booming in Costa Rica since the ’90s. That’s a great thing, because it means there’s a good infrastructure in place to accommodate travelers. Known for its beaches, mountains, and jungles, Costa Rica is an excellent destination for eco adventures and yoga retreats. It’s pretty easy to fly into San José from the United States or Canada. From San José, you can go forth either by renting a car and driving around on your own (get out of San José as quickly as you can in that case) or by joining an activity like a rainforest tour, surfing classes, or a volcano hike.

Beth Whitman, the author, in Bangkok

3. Thailand. Of all the countries in Asia, I’d venture to say Thailand is one of—if not the—most tourist-friendly country. It’s been Southeast Asia’s tourism hub for decades. The transportation system, trains, buses, and flights will take you to all parts of the country (and will do so very cheaply). And the friendly, welcoming, and gentle locals will make those travels easy. Attempt to speak a little Thai and the locals will love you. But it’s just as easy to get around with learning a few of the basic words and phrases out of respect. 
4. Bali. Long popular with Australians because of its proximity, Bali has seen a rise in tourism from other parts of the world due to Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling book Eat, Pray, Love. There are areas on this island that are indeed overrun with tourists (the beaches at Kuta and the town of Ubud, I’m looking at you), but that shouldn’t stop you from visiting. The Balinese have managed to hold on to their culture despite the recent onslaught of tourists and heavy commercialization. Offerings to deities are provided multiple times a day by every household. Traditional gamelan music can be heard night and day. And men and women dress in their traditional outfits for festivals (which happen often) as well as for work. It’s an inexpensive-enough destination that you could easily get sucked into staying far longer than you ever anticipated. And that is not a bad thing at all.
5. New Zealand. Though it could be argued that Kiwis don’t actually speak English (ha-ha), for the most part, New Zealand will have little to no language barrier for Americans, making it easy to travel there on your own.New Zealand, an island nation with two landmasses (appropriately called the North Island and the South Island), has a wide variety of climates. Given that it’s in the southern hemisphere, it’s an excellent destination to visit December through February, just the time you might want to take off on your own to avoid the holiday hustle and bustle. 
Viewfinder Tip: If you’re a nervous newbie, choose a destination where you know someone so you have a safety net to fall back on.
New Zealand, while easy and safe for solo travelers, is going to be more expensive than Asia and Europe because of its relative isolation. In other words, you may not want to rent a vehicle on your own (gas prices are high), but those who travel to New Zealand tend to be easygoing, and you might be able to link up with other travelers with whom you can traverse the islands.6. Ireland. You won’t have any issues getting to know the Irish during a solo trip, as they’re known as some of the friendliest people on the planet. As a matter of fact, this might just be a great country in which to kick off your solo adventures.Here you’ll have a wide range of affordable accommodations, the ability to travel on public transportation or road-trip on safe and beautiful roads, and the chance to meet lots of locals at the pubs. Plus, there are always plenty of day or multiday tours that will give you a chance to befriend fellow travelers.
Where do you like to travel solo?
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