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New York City - A quick visit

August 24th, 2010

Whether you know it as The Big Apple, Gotham, The World’s Capital, The City That New Sleeps, or just New York, New York - the city so nice they’re named it twice, there is no place else on Earth like it and everybody needs to visit at least once in their life.

Last week I was in New York City for a conference at a posh Manhattan hotel. While there I took advantage of my free afternoon for a little self-guided tour. It’s amazing what you can find just by following a few apps on your mobile phone these days.

Times Square New York

Any trip to New York City is incomplete without a stop in Times Square. The city’s plan to ban cars and turn it into a pedestrian friendly space has been a huge success. In fact, it reminds me of a twenty first century version of Main Street USA at Disneyland.

The Hudson Hotel New York

It’s hard to tell, but that’s a hotel. In fact, it’s one of the hottest destinations in town. So, I was very pleased when I heard I’d be staying at The Hudson Hotel. Located on 58th Ave between 8th and 9th, you are smack dab in the middle of Midtown, while also being just steps away from Central Park. (Search for 4 Star Hotels in Midtown - New York, NY)

Hudson Hotel Lobby

Guests arrive into the illusion of an open air lobby via an escalator that rises up through a green hued tunnel. The effect is transporting and you are instantly in a happier place. Located just off the lobby are three great spots for relaxing during the day and partying at night.

The one comment I hear most about The Hudson is that the rooms are extra-tiny. Which, when compared to the rest of the country is true. But for New York, they’re okay. I think the idea is to get you out in the great open space of the hotel lobby or 15th floor garden terrace.

Time Warner Center & Columbus Circle New York City

If you stay at the Hudson, there are both a Pinkberry and a Starbucks just steps away. Across the street is the Time Warner Center (pictured above) that looks out over Columbus Circle and Central Park. I found that the Whole Foods market in the Time Warner Center was the perfect place to pick up some delicious prepared food. Then you can just walk across the street for a picnic or bring it back to your room for a delicious meal. No one cooks in New York anyway.

New York Sidewalk Farmers Market

The other wonderful thing I found in New York this trip was all the glorious little farmers markets (some not so little). This one was set up on the sidewalk just around the corner from The Hudson on 9th. I was able to get some farm fresh cheese, organic fruits (the apples from New Jersey were dee-lish!) and a breakfast roll that rivaled my great grandmother’s best efforts.

Also on 9th street, about two blocks down, was Thai Basil. If you’re a fan of Thai cuisine I recommend a visit the next time you’re in town. While the Pad Thai was not as sweet as I like it, it was very tasty. But the real star were the curries. The Massaman and the Jungle Curry both had so many flavors I found myself constantly pausing to enjoy them. I also really enjoyed the Mee Grob appetizer.

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Pets on your Disney Vacation? Sure!

June 25th, 2010

Disney Pet Resort

Can’t bear to leave your pet at home while you travel to Central Florida with your family? Don’t worry. A new luxury pet resort to open at Walt Disney World Resort will provide the best care while you’re enjoying the local theme parks.

Reservations are being accepted for pet boarding stays beginning Aug. 27, 2010, for the new Best Friends Pet Care Resort. After it opens, it will be the new central location for all pet boarding at the Walt Disney World Resort.

The one-of-a-kind resort comprises more than 50,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space, including 17,000 square feet of air-conditioned indoor space, 10,000 square feet of covered outdoor runs and play areas, and an expansive private dog park exclusively for the use of pet resort clients and their dogs.

Read more…

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2010 International Pow Wow Kicks off in Orlando

May 17th, 2010

Mickey and Minnie welcome Pow Wow participants to the Magic Kingdom
Mickey and Minnie welcome International Pow Wow participants to the Magic Kingdom

The International Pow Wow is a trade show for travel professionals from around the world. Generally deals are made between buyers and suppliers, and everyone gets a chance to see what’s coming over the next year with a special emphasis on the host city.

Disney rolled out the Royalty for the event
Disney rolled out the Royalty for the event. Cinderella and her coach made an appearance.

This year the host city is Orlando, FL, which means I got a chance to attend the huge kick-off party last night at Walt Disney World resort’s Magic Kingdom. Disney certainly knows how to throw a party, and Pow Wow participants certainly know how to enjoy one.

Disney Imagineers previewed the coming Fantasyland changes
Disney Imagineers previewed the coming Fantasyland changes.

Despite a few sprinkles, I’d have to say the event was a big success. Attendees were treated to fabulous food and drink and stations around Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. Thirteen attractions were open to ride and enjoy. Plus, Disney had six Imagineers (theme park designers) stationed in Fantasyland to showcase the 2012 expansion of Fantasyland.

Food stations kept everyone satisfied.
Food stations kept everyone satisfied.

Fantasyland will add a new major attraction, The Journey of the Little Mermaid, a groundbreaking Beauty & The Beast restaurant, a half dozen or so new character experiences (where you can spend actual time with a Princess instead of just a quick photo), and an expansion of the popular Dumbo attraction.

Tomorrowland became a space disco.
Tomorrowland became a space disco.

Dumbo will also get one of Disney’s newest inventions - the waitless queue. Instead of standing in a roped off switchback queue, guests will be handed a special feather and ushered into a giant play area themed to the circus from Dumbo. Once one’s feather color is called out, guests then report to the loading station for boarding of the next flight. This concept had a positive test result this spring at the Rock-n-Rollercoaster.

Ice Sculpture provided freshly chilled beverages.
Giant ice sculptures provided freshly chilled beverages.

The night ended with special showing of “Wishes” fireworks spectacular. Pow Wow guests were issued special ‘Mickey Vision’ glasses that turned every explosion into a shower of Mickey Mouse shapes. It was quite a unique way to view the show.

Ice Sculpture Pool Table.
The Ice Pool Tables were popular.

As the crowd filtered out, Disney had yet one more surprise — a preview of the Main Street Electrical Parade, which is returning to the Magic Kingdom beginning June 6th as part of the Summer Nightastic! promotion. Summer Nightastic! will also include a new fireworks show, dance parties, concerts, and other surprises. So stay tuned.

Disney's Electrical Parade
Popular Pixie Tinker Bell leads the Disney’s Electrical Parade in a new float.

If this has you excited, like it does me, make sure to visit Last Minute Travel’s special section on travel to Walt Disney World.

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Free things to do in Paris

May 12th, 2010

Basilique du Sacre-Couer on Montmartre
The view from the highest point in the city is free (and a great place to kiss apparently).

So far in 2010, Paris has been experiencing a return to prominence as the top European destination for travelers. I found the city so beautiful with art, food, and wonderful people on nearly every corner. Plus it’s so easy to get around on the excellent Metro system.

To really enjoy Paris you don’t have to spend a lot of money either. Book one of our value hotels and then enjoy these ten things you can do for free while in Paris:

1. Notre Dame – You can enter Notre Dame and walk the grounds for free. Certain areas are only accessible by tour, however.
2. Basilique du Sacre Coeur – See that big white thing on the hill known as Montmartre, you can tour it for free. It’s the highest point in the city, so enjoy the view, and it’s directly above some of the city’s best markets for exploring (don’t miss the spice market).
3. Take a ‘podcast’ tour - Download a free walking tour podcast and set out on your own. Rick Steves has a great Paris walk-tour and it’s a free download.
4. Enjoy a free walking tour – There are a number of free tours in Paris. At St. Michel in the Latin Quarter and in Montmartre you can join a free walking tour of Paris. Plus there are some tour guides who regularly offer ‘free’ tours. Just be sure to tip your tour guide.

Chopin's grave at Pere Lachaise
Tributes surround Chopin’s grave at Pere Lachaise

5. Celebrity Spotting the easy way – There’s one place where you can always find famous people, the cemetery. The Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise is the famous resting place of Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde. Alexandre Dumas and Edgar Degas can be found at The Cimetiere de Montmartre. Also many churches have some amazing burial tombs.
6. Have a Picnic in the Garden - Stop by the Tuileries, a 16th century palace with lots of public art to explore. The Jardin du Luxembourg – is best known for its puppet shows and toy sail boats, but it is also filled with sculptures, gardens, and excellent people watching opportunities. Grab a baguette, some cheese and wine and enjoy a wonderful afternoon.
7. Book Stores - Paris has some of the most unconventional book stores around. Les bouquinistes on the banks of the Seine are a must see and nearby is the world famous ‘Shakespeare and Co.’ store.
8. Performance Art - The Centre Pompidou usually has a free outdoor concert or other public art performance. You may also enjoy walking the streets near Picasso’s home (now a museum) and photographing the graffiti art that is very popular there.
9. Look Around — The height limit set for buildings has meant that the density of architectural beauty is very high in Paris. There’s the Eiffel Tower, Arc De Triomphe, Notre Dame, and the exterior of the Louvre just to name a few. Repeat this tour at night for a completely different experience. The Centre Pompidou and La Defense are examples of more modern approach that has come to Paris lately.
10. Go Shopping for flair – The Champes Elysees is world famous for a reason. But for me the magic of Paris is found in the small shops frequented by the locals. The Galeries Lafayette is known for its breathtaking setting. The unique Belle Epoque architecture of the store is worth a trip. Be sure to see the dramatic colored glass dome and the ornate Art Nouveau staircase while there.

This is just a short list. Keep an eye open for free days at museums, art galleries, and other events in the parks or streets of the city.

Photo Credits: Basilique du Sacre-Couer and Pere Lachaise. Both under a CC license.

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Spring in New Orleans means Good Music and Spicy Food

April 12th, 2010

New Orleans Spring JazzFest

Watching Treme, the new post-Katrina series set in New Oreleans, on HBO? Find yourself yelling “Who Dat!” whenever you see a New Orleans Saints jersey? Do reruns of the Live with Emeril cooking show take up half the space on you DVR? If so, you’re probably building up an appetite for an escapade of jazz and food delights as only New Orleans can deliver.

Here are a couple of Spring 2010 events worth going out of your way for:

  • The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (aka Jazz Fest) is held at the Fairgrounds Race Course the last weekend on April and the first weekend of May every year. It’s a 10-day cultural feast that features the talents of thousands of musicians, cooks, and craftspeople. A small sample of performers this year include Simon & Garfunkel, Pearl Jam, Van Morrison, The Neville Brothers, Darius Rucker, and more. Book now for April 23 - 25 or April 29 - May 2.
  • The Wine & Food Experience is a five day long event in its 19th year that benefits a host of New Orleans charities while dishing up a celebration like no other. Make sure you’re in town May 25-29 to dine with celebrated chefs, renowned winemakers and other industry insiders. Guests like Chef John Besh and Season 5 Top Chef winner Hosea Rosenberg explain why event is on the top ten list of many a food and wine enthusiast.

Photo Credit: Fairview Horns Jazzfest - by infrogmation - http://www.flickr.com/photos/infrogmation/3495175397/

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Cancun - Where to hit the beaches?

April 8th, 2010

Naturally, the beaches are the biggest draw in Cancun with their soft, white sand and brilliant turquoise-blue water. Cancun’s Hotel Zone is really just one long beach separated from the mainland by a system of lagoons. The dazzling white sand of Cancun’s beaches is light in weight and cool underfoot even in the blazing sun. That’s because it is composed not of silica but rather of microscopic plankton fossils called disco-aster (a tiny star-shaped creature). The coolness of the sand has not been lost on Cancun’s ingenious promoters, who have dubbed it “air-conditioned.”

All of these delightful beaches are open to you because all Mexican beaches are public property. Several of Cancun’s beaches are set aside for easy public access, but you should know that you have the right to walk and swim on any beach at all. In practice it may be difficult to approach certain stretches of beach without going through a hotel’s property, but few hotels will notice you walking through to the beach in any case.

Cancun’s hotel zone is shaped like the number seven, as you can see from the small map below.

Last Minute Travel to Cancun Beaches - Map

At the top of the “7″ is the Bahia de Mujeres – the northern end of the hotel zone. Beaches here are beautiful turquoise-blue with white sand, shallow for some distance out, and have little or no surf, making them great for swimming, snorkeling and other water sports.

To the right of the “7″ is the Caribbean sea. The beaches here also have beautiful turquoise waters and white sand, and also have surf. Be especially careful on these beaches fronting the open Caribbean, where the undertow can be quite dangerous at times. In general, the best Caribbean-side beaches are found from the Sheraton and south.

To the left of the “7″ is the Nichupte Lagoon. It is a salt-water lagoon, and is generally not good for swimming. During the day, the Nichupté becomes a water sports haven, and many marinas offer jet skiing, sailing, kayaking, parasailing, windsurfing, water-skiing, and jungle tours.

Yes, there are even crocodiles in parts of the lagoon! However, Cancun’s crocodiles are non-aggressive species that feed on fish and other small wildlife. It is estimated that no more than twenty-five adult crocodiles live in the 5,000-hectare-lagoon system, most of them in areas distant from tourist activities except where they are fed by restaurants as a tourist attraction.

Public Beach Access

While all beaches in Cancun are technically public (owned by the government), you may not be able to access the beach by walking through a hotel, which is private property. Visitors staying in hotels that are not on the beach can access the beaches at any of the 10 public-access entries to the beach.

Playa Ballenas – Public entrance is a sidewalk along the Meridien Hotel wall fence. Incredible views, and peaceful sunbathing. Keep an eye on the warning flags, however, as the currents can be quite dangerous any time of the year. At kilometer 14 in the Hotel Zone, in between Punta Cancun and Punta Nizuc.

Playa Caracol/Playa Las Palmas - Entrance is hard to locate. Go through the small wood gate next to Fiesta Americana Coral Beach. Also accessible through Xcaret bus terminal. Near Punta Cancun, ideal for children or beginner swimmers. One of the nicer beaches because of its flat shallow sand bed. Located at 8.5 km in the Hotel Zone.

Playa Chac Mool – Public entrance is across the street from Señor Frog’s. Public beach with changing area, handy restaurants. Be advised however that the currents are strong and it’s tempting to wade too far out into the shallow water. Good water sports area – sail-boarding, water skiing and parasailing. Located kilometer 10 in the Hotel Zone, near Punta Cancun.

Last Minute Travel to Cancun Beaches - Playa Los Delfines
Playa Delfines

Playa Delfines – Peaceful sunbathing and breathtaking views. However it also offers dangerous swimming conditions in the strong surf and sometimes treacherous currents. There are some stone benches for sitting and contemplating the sea, but no other facilities. At kilometer 18 in the Hotel Zone, near Punta Nizuc.

Playa Juventud – Here is a nice place for swimming and a good place for water sports. Located off of Kukulcán Boulevard at km. 3 in the Hotel Zone.

Playa Langosta – Excellent swimming. Situated in the middle of the north end of the Hotel Zone and facing Bahia de Mujeres, you can find some of the best swimming that Cancun has to offer at Playa Langosta. Lots of beach restaurants and bars. Located at km. 5 of the Hotel Zone. A dock with shuttles to Isla Mujeres and other tours located here too

Last Minute Travel to Cancun Beaches - Playa Tortugas
Playa Tortugas

Playa Tortugas - Public entrance is next to Fat Tuesday’s. Good swimming here, and perfect for water sports. A number of restaurants and refreshment bars located here too. Located at kilometer 6.5 in the Hotel Zone. Dock offering shuttles to Isla Mujeres and other tours

Playa Las Perlas – Another nice place for swimming and a good place for water sports. There are restaurants and bars on the beach. It is located at kilometer 2.5 in the Hotel Zone.

Playa Linda – Excellent swimming. Close to downtown and facing Bahia de Mujeres. Some of the best swimming in all of Cancun. Restaurants, changing rooms. Playa Linda’s dock is the departure point for submarine and dive tours. Located at kilometer 4 in the Hotel Zone.

Playa Marlin – Public entrance behind Kukulcán Plaza. Sunbather’s delight. Well known for its incredible, expansive views and peaceful sunbathing. Keep an eye on the warning flags however, as the currents can be dangerous. Located at kilometer 13 in the Hotel Zone, in between Punta Cancun and Punta Nizuc.

Photo Credits:
Playa Delfines - Playa Tortugas

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Las Vegas Airport Expansion Proceeds

March 26th, 2010

Terminal 3 at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas will add 14 gates to the popular facility. Five of which will be able to accommodate the new super sized airplanes used in international flights. The decision to go ahead and complete the project, even in the soft economy, has just been made.

“The conversation went something like this,” Walker said. “You have one of two risks. One risk is you could build the facility and we open up in 2012 and we don’t need it. The second risk is that you do not build the facility and in 2012, (convention authority President) Rossi (Ralenkotter) has been able to encourage all these additional people to come to the community and they can’t get here.

Las Vegas is a city built on risks, so of course they’re going ahead.

This is good news for travelers to Las Vegas as the city will be pulling out all the stops to entice you to come back in 2012. Don’t want to wait for 2012 for your next Las Vegas experience? LastMinuteTravel.com is running a whole grip of discounts on popular hotels all over town.

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Free Performances at Lincoln Center

February 22nd, 2010

Lincoln Center

New Yorkers in the know take advantage of many great free cultural offerings around town when they want a low cost night of fun. Budget conscious travelers may want to check out what these great cultural institutions have to offer as well.

Every Thursday of the year you can find free performances at the Lincoln Center. Target® Free Thursdays at the Lincoln Center’s new David Rubenstein Atrium will feature national and international tourist artists as well as local featured artists from groups like The Juilliard School. Seating is limited and available on a first-come, first-served basis. Check out the calendar of free performances.

In the summer there is often a free performance in Central Park no matter what day you’re in town. SummerStage and the city parks foundation website will shortly have their summer schedules up.

Groups with young children, or the young at heart, may enjoy the The Forbes Galleries located in the heart of Greenwich Village. The Galleries feature unique collections of toys and trophies. The exhibits includes a rare look at the evolution of the Monopoly board game. Open free to the public 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. on Tuesdays through Saturdays. Please note that Thursdays are reserved for group tours and advance reservations are required.

Last Minute Travel has just refreshed its list of New York hotels and has lowered its prices on 15 of our best value properties. That makes now the perfect time to make plans for your vacation to the Big Apple.

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/listenmissy / CC BY-ND 2.0

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Orlando - Travel Like A Local

February 2nd, 2010

Websites where most of the content is user generated, like Yelp.com, Citysearch.com, Chowhound.com, are all good for getting several opinions about a restaurant, nightlife, shopping, etc., but these sites don’t ensure a local experience. As an Orlando local, I use sites like those to plan vacations – not to plan my Saturday in Orlando. Instead, if you want to paint your next trip to Orlando with a non-touristy brush, head to sites that locals actually use.

Here are a few of my suggestions:

  • Metromix: This site covers multiple cities with the claim, “Your one-stop local entertainment guide on where to go and what to do, from the hottest restaurants and bars, to the latest in music, movies, and entertainment.”
  • Convention & Visitors Bureau Websites: This seems like the ultimate “Don’t” when you are trying to have a local experience, but when I want to mix things up, I head to my Orlando CVB’s site- they usually feature activities that I wouldn’t immediately think of and feature events in areas of the city I don’t frequent. Bottom line – the people maintaining and updating these sites live in that city – they are locals.
  • Restaurant.com: Here you can get “gift certificates” (more like coupons) worth $10, $25, $50 for a fraction of the price. Be sure to read the restrictions of each coupon. Sign up for their emails and you will never pay over $2. This won’t tell you which restaurants are local favorites, but it will save you some money.

Orlando specifically
It’s easy to tell you where the locals hang out, but I prefer to share local resources– you know the “teach a man to fish” saying. You can either check out their websites, or follow them on Facebook in the weeks leading up to your trip – you can always de-friend when you get back

ScottJosephOrlando.com: a guide to Orlando restaurants from someone who is paid to know. Scott Joseph is the former restaurant critic for the Orlando Sentinel. He’s since hung out his own shingle and hosts an active forum with news you can use about the Orlando dining scene.

Guyswithties.org: This philanthropic organization has chapters in 3 cities: Jacksonville, Orlando and Charlotte. They run everything from happy hours to full out parties. Most events require a donation, cash or toy, etc to enter. Some highlights include The Disco Ball, Annual White Party, Costumes for a Cause.

OrlandoEventSeries.com: This site host events around Orlando most of which raise money for charity. They have run everything from Wine-Walks, to Casino Nights, to an annual Bachelorette/Bachelor Action auction – all for charity. Typically these events have an upfront cost, $20 gets you a free drink and raffle ticket.

OTownHappyHour.com: Promotes special events in conjunction with local bars and restaurants. Typically, there is no cover or cost for OTown events – instead each event offers discounted drinks and food. Most recently the site is promoting a happy hour with a free buffet and drink specials.

I hope next time you’re in Orlando you take some time to escape the theme parks and see The City Beautiful like a local does. I’ll see you there.

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100 New Brand Name Hotels To Open in 2010, Good News for Travelers

January 26th, 2010

2009 saw many hotel companies open new properties or relaunch remodeled ones. With more than 100 hotels from major brands scheduled to open across the United States, 2010 looks to be an even stronger year for openings. For the traveler this is good news as a surplus of room inventory will keep prices down. That’s not such a good thing for the hotels. So why would they want to open so many hotels right now?

The answer, according to Mark Lomanno, president of Smith Travel Research, is that “hotel building cycles rarely mesh just right with economic cycles.” Planning a new hotel can take two to four years, and construction an additional one to four years. Most of the hotels getting ready to open were on the drawing boards several years ago, when the economy was healthy, demand for rooms was strong and room rates were rising quickly.

Of course, the opposite will also be true. Not a lot of hotels are being planned during the recession. So everything should start to balance out in three to four years. But in the meantime, now is your chance to get out there and experience some amazing savings as these new hotels fight for market share.

Where to go? The article in the NY Times says that the largest portion of the hotels, nearly half, will be opening in the New York area with another 30 opening in Houston. Other cities with large expansion include Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, and Washington DC. Popular family destination Orlando experienced large growth in 2009, so don’t forget them either.

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