Signature Travel Network’s Educational Journey to South Africa with Rose Gray

Signature Travel Network’s Educational Journey to South Africa Sponsored by South African Airways and African Travel ~ March 1 – 12, 2015 Rose Gray

March 2 – Our adventure began as we flew from JFK to Johannesburg in Business Class and then JNB to Cape Town in Economy Class on South African Airways. The front-facing business class seats were configured 2 x 2 x 2 and reclined fully into a flat bed. The mattress pads, full size pillows and duvets made the seats/flat beds very comfortable.  The latest movies and TV shows were available on demand on a personal twelve inch screen. Ala carte dining was offered as well as a selection of South African wines; both were quite good.

March 3 – Upon arrival in CPT, we were met and transferred to our hotel,  Resort 1Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel.  Due to our delayed flight, we would be staying one night which was unfortunate because it would have been nice to take advantage of all that this luxury hotel has to offer. The hotel has six individual accommodation wings, each with its own unique character, private gardens and facilities. The 201 spacious rooms and suites are individually decorated.

Mount Nelson rooms_02 Junior Suite1My deluxe junior suite was located in the Helmsley, one of three buildings that were acquired, restored and converted into guest accommodations in 1996.  It was the site of the first Jewish Synagogue in Cape Town.

Fun Fact – Cape Town was the hottest place on earth on March 3, the day we arrived; 42 degrees Celsius (107.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

Dassie
Dassie

After freshening up, we were transferred to the cable car which would transport us to the top of Table Mountain. We were lucky to have been able to experience Table Mountain on this day, as there were wildfires that were still burning which had caused the cable car to stop operating several days prior to our arrival. We spent about an hour hiking, enjoying the views, and checking out the wildlife including lizards and dassies, a cute little African rodent (dassie translates to badger in Dutch).

March 4 – After an early breakfast, we checked out of our hotel and had an orientation tour of Cape Town.  After lunch we took a tour to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 of his 27 years in prison. This prison 2island is now a museum and UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Access to the island is via ferry from the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. The tour was quite moving as all guides are former political prisoners and their stories and commentary contributed to the experience. Photos and stories hung on many of the cell walls, describing the inmate who occupied that cell and his “crimes”.  It was especially emotional to see the narrow cell where Mandela spent 18 years and the limestone quarry where he and his fellow prisoners worked in the hot sun.

We were scheduled to have an afternoon free, however, Thompson’s Africa was able to re-schedule the helicopter ride that we were supposed to have on our first day, so we transferred to the V & A Waterfront where we all enjoyed a 15 minute helicopter flip and got a bird’s eye view of the sights and grandeur of Cape Town.

resort 2Next we were transferred to the One and Only Cape Town, our accommodations for the next two nights. This unique 5 Star hotel is truly an urban waterfront resort in the heart of Cape Town’s V & A Waterfront. The Marina Rise is a seven-story resort which affords marvelous views of Table Mountain and Signal Hill from spacious rooms and suites. Or you can choose to stay in one of the 40 Island Suites which are

March 5 – After breakfast, our Thompson Tour Guide, Michael and driver, Wally, collected us for a spectacular day of touring and exploring the pristine coastline and quaint towns of pn“The Fairest Cape”. We drove past the beaches of Camps Bay and Clifton and then made our way along the coast, past Bakoven and Llandudno to the charming fishing village of Hout Bay, a functioning harbor and the heart of the local crayfish industry. Here we boarded a boat to Duiker Island to view the Cape Fur Seal colony. From here, we traveled to Chapman’s Peak Drive and then on to Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve where we spotted mountain zebra, bontebok (a South African antelope) and baboons. Next we visited the beautiful Boulders Beach where we spent time observing and photographing the colony of penguins there.

Our next stop was The Flagship.  This unusual four bedroom B & B is known for its fabulous interactive seafood lunch which we were fortunate enough to enjoy. Chef Bruce Robertson was known for his support of sustainable fishing and the new host, Duncan Doherty who took over after Chef Bruce’s recent passing, is carrying on in that same way. This truly was one of the most memorable and delicious meals that I have enjoyed in my lifetime.

12A-Accom-Presidential-002-1400x568After lunch, we returned to the One and Only Hotel where we had just enough time to freshen up before departing for The Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa for a site inspection, “sundowners” (the South African equivalent of happy hour) and dinner. This Red Carnation Hotel features two swimming pools, a sixteen seat cinema, a helipad, fitness room, complimentary wifi throughout and complimentary shuttle service to the V & A Waterfront.  There are 70 rooms here ranging from Classic Rooms to One Bedrooms Suites and they are all elegantly appointed.

March 6LaR_room11_021After breakfast and check out, we traveled through the beautiful wine lands to the charming town of Stellenbosch. We took a walking tour of this old university town which the tourist board offered called Bites and Sites.  This was a great way to see the town and to sample some of the great food and wine offered here. Then it was on to Franschhoek Valley and La Residence (one of the hotels in The Royal Portfolio collection), our home for the next two nights, situated on a 30 acre estate. We arrived in time for lunch. Each one of the sixteen suites is uniquely decorated with its own theme and color scheme. La Residence also enjoys a reputation for its superb cuisine and this reputation is richly deserved. Both lunch and dinner were exceptional and the wine pairings were outstanding.

Stay tuned for part 2 of Rose’s South African Adventure to be posted next week!

Review of Punta Cana Tours with Kim M.

You may have read Kim’s recent post on her review of Dreams Punta Cana Resort.  Now you can also hear about her incredible out-of-resort tours she experienced during her getaway to the tropical paradise, Punta Cana.Marinarium Snorkeling TourAs amazing as Dreams Punta Cana is, the joy of this destination I believe lies outside its gates. tour1We did three tours, each of which greatly enhanced our Punta Cana experience. We did a half-day Marinarium Snorkeling Tour for $99 per person that took you to the Caribbean side and included snorkeling, a controlled swim with stingray and nursing sharks, and sort of a daytime, family friendly party cruise hosted by some truly engaging young staff. My husband was a total beginner at snorkeling, so the “caged” reef experience was comforting to him. The stingray/shark feature was cool and the rest of the boat activities were very fun, but for real snorkeling enthusiasts it could be disappointing. But we had a great time on this tour.Bavaro Runnerstour2We then did a full-day tour called Bavaro Runners  per person that was such an amazing, varied day of fabulous and interesting experiences. We visited a sugar cane field, tobacco farm, did horseback riding, visited a local home and say how they make coffee and cocoa, had a Dominican food buffet, visited an ancient cave and learned a bit about native culture as well as took in so much scenery in an open air truck. It is a bumpy ride at times, but nothing Dr. Dramamine couldn’t handle and it was quite possibly the highlight of our trip, so I highly encourage you to mention it to your clients and book in advance during busy times (probably true for any tours).Monkey Land3Our last tour covered some of the same terrain as Bavaro Runners but took us to Monkeyland, a squirrel monkey sanctuary  per person. I’m not going to say having little monkeys jumping all over us wasn’t super cool, because it totally was, but it needs to be fleshed out a bit. You get a bowl of food and kind of wait for them to accept your offering and they may sit on your shoulder or arm. But it seemed all too brief and your experience is completely dependent upon what a colony of monkeys feels like doing that day and whether they are hungry or not. They could really do more with this experience and I hope they figure that out. In general, I was impressed by the varied and truly interesting tours available in Punta Cana and I would encourage travelers to leave the resort at least once.Learn more about planning your very own Punta Cana Vacation here.  Or, Contact a Vacation Travel Consultant Today to learn about other traveling experiences. 

A Review of Dreams Punta Cana

Kim, of Fox World Travel recently went on a trip to Punta Cana with her husband.  She shares her review on the Dreams Punta Cana Resort

RESORT

Dreams Punta Cana is in Uvero Alto on the Atlantic side and is about 30 minutes from the airport. About 15 minutes from the airport, we passed the new development ‘Downtown Punta Cana’ which is a planned area of residences, shops, restaurants, and entertainment spots including CocoBongo, the beloved night club experience.drepb.homepage.slideshow.00RL07gk-is-247

The elevated entrance to Dreams Punta Cana does give the resort a grand feel upon approach and you are immediately met by the concierge staff with a cold towel and a glass of champagne. The lobby is expansive and open air, with seating areas and a lobby bar. The grounds and landscaping are far more beautiful and tropical than any picture I saw prior to departure and it has a lovely flamingo pond and wandering peacocks on site. We had been booked into the Preferred Club which is an extra, though not significant upcharge and does give you additional perks: access to the Preferred Club Lounge and their concierge staff, a private bar, all day snacks, free Wi-Fi, beach beds, and exclusive access to The Seaside Grill for breakfast and lunch or Oceana for lunch while those are only available for dinner to other guests. We found this upgrade to be worth it and appreciated our travel agent suggesting it.

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The property is a long expanse of three-story buildings flanking a long winding pool that leads down to the beach promenade and ultimately the beach. The pool is no more than 3 feet deep anywhere and has a small waterfall and several “islands”, a Jacuzzi, and a wading splash pad for kids. It seems mostly for bobbing around and relaxing and laps might be a challenge. Definitely no diving, but horseplay seems to be encouraged. There are plenty of chairs and floating pads, and although those may be hard to come by in the busiest times, the pool itself seems like it could never be so crowded to be a problem. The beach is wide, clean, with beautiful fine sand and few rocks. There were apparently some larger rock structures out in the water to the right end of the beach, but they are completely avoidable. The water is not clear just by virtue of it constantly being wavy. The riptide was not necessarily strong, but the waves are constant and come at a side angle so it can get a bit turbulent. It also has a significant pitch where sand meets water and about a 5 foot drop about ten feet into the water. It goes from calf deep to nearly over an adult’s head instantly. For these reasons, this is not a family friendly beach at all for younger children. I wouldn’t exclude Dreams as an option for families, but the water does not seem safe. They have a very cool Explorer Club with a pirate ship and castle to climb in, a small pool and a shaded open air clubhouse. There is also an active Teen Zone and they have varied and interesting activities for all ages so I think there is enough to occupy an entire family even if they don’t get in the ocean.

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ROOMS

We had a deluxe room on the second floor and it was bright, clean, and attractive with a small balcony overlooking the pool (closes at 6pm). It was usually too warm to enjoy the balcony for long, but nice to have. Featured a stocked mini-bar, safe. Room showed some signs of wear and tear, but maid staff kept it tidy and was always prompt with cleaning. Closet area is OK, but bring extra hangers if you care about a week’s worth of clothing being properly hung. Our room was an adjoining room which would be great for families, but not so great when you are solo parties. You could see the light from the other room around the frame and no insulation from neighbors’ conversations and/or domestic strife. There is a swim-out version of each room category that would be great for many people. Additionally, there is an upgraded suite option available which was very spacious with a slightly separated sitting area, two TVs, better shower, and more storage and an expanded balcony with a Jacuzzi tub. This would be a great upgrade and value added bonus. I believe it was an additional $100 per night.

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DINING

There are 8 restaurants at Dreams Punta Cana: The World Café buffet (open breakfast, lunch and dinner); Himitsu for hibachi, sushi, or Chinese (dinner); Bordeaux for French (dinner); Portofino for Italian (dinner); The Seaside Grill primarily a steakhouse (dinner only unless Preferred); Oceana for seafood (breakfast and dinner only unless Preferred); La Trattoria for wood fired pizzas (lunch) and pizza and pasta (dinner); and Barefoot Grill which is as casual as it gets right on the beach for burgers, dogs, and tacos. There is also CoCo Café in the lobby for full menu of coffee drinks and pastries. There was nothing we did not enjoy about the food at this resort. The buffet which is often dismissed in an all-inclusive as the bottom was expansive at every meal, very flavorful, and never boring I thought. All of the specialty restaurants were good with The Seaside Grill, Portofino, and Himitsu being our favorites. The best thing about the dining at Dreams is no reservations required. You don’t waste time standing in line to make reservations and there are no significant waits or rejections. We did wait about 45 minutes during prime time for Chinese food, but it was no bother. A friend of ours said they waited two days to get into a restaurant at their resort, so Dreams does give that benefit of being impulsive which we really appreciated.

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The service in some of the restaurants was inconsistent at times, though good mostly, but nothing so bad to have complained about it at the time. There are many bars on property and if I do have some misgivings about this property, it would be regarding bar service. They have a very large swim-up bar and a few additional bars around the pool. The roaming bar staff was decent, though somewhat slow and they really need more bartenders in almost every location. It was often a bit of a wait to get a drink just due to them not being able to keep up with demand. Admittedly this got better as the week went along, but it seems to be an issue. They were, however, very diligent about collecting empty glasses and the resort always seemed clean.

The entertainment and activities on property were varied, high quality, and well attended. Their evening theater shows were professional with great production value (Brazilian, Western, Burlesque, Dominican, and Circus shows), and there were always two movies, Latin singers and dancing, and special event programming at night. You could not possibly be bored at this resort unless you chose to be. The entertainment staff was great at recruitment and the pool near the swim-up bar was the destination for high energy fun and games that always seemed to span the generations.

If you need or forget anything, the shops in the bottom lobby are almost sure to have what you need in the way of clothing, medicine, tanning oil, books, candy, souvenirs, cameras, electronics. I was impressed by what they carried and picked up many things here throughout my stay.  Overall, we had an amazing time during our trip to Punta Cana and we cant wait until we get the next opportunity to visit again!

Do you want to hear more about Kim’s trip to Punta Cana?  Check out her other post called Review of Tours in Punta Cana where she shares her insights on adventures to be had outside of the resort!

Photos Courtesy of DreamsPuntaCanaResort.com