Best Castles in the Netherlands

The Netherlands is not as famous for it’s castles as other European countries. Many of the medieval castles here were destroyed, either under siege in the 12th and 13th centuries or during WWII. However, there are some pretty impressive castles that can still be found right here in this country we now call home. Castles are expensive to upkeep, so in order to be able to do this, most of the remaining castles now serve as museums, hotels or function centres for events such as weddings and fairs.

Here are the top five rated castles in the Netherlands:

1. Muiderslot Castle (rated #2o worldwide): This restored and striking 13th century moated castle is rated as the best castle in the Netherlands. Located at the mouth of the Vecht river, 15 kilometers South-East of Amsterdam, it is now a national museum with rooms that have been restored to look as they did in the 17th century.

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2. De Haar Castle (rated #81 worldwide): Located near Utrecht, this impressive castle was originally founded in the late 1300’s by the Van de Haar family and is now fully renovated and surrounded by beautifully manicured gardens.

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3. Doornenburg Castle (rated #107 worldwide): A 13th century castle (originally a manor built in the 9th century!) located just East of Nijmegen. It contains a front-castle and a main castle, which are connected through a small wooden bridge. It is one of the biggest and best preserved castles in the Netherlands.

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4. Doorwerth Castle (rated #133 worldwide): This castle is located 8 km West of Arnhem. The original castle, probably wooden, is first mentioned in 1260 when it was besieged and burned to the ground, after which it was rebuilt in stone. In 1280, this second castle was again attacked and the outer wall was burned down. During the 14th century the castle was continually enlarged and reached it’s largest form just after the middle of the 16th century.

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5. Radboud Castle (rated #154 worldwide): This 13th century castle is located in Medamblik, in the province of North Holland, North-East of Alkmaar. The building was commissioned by Floris V. The exact date of building is not known but the castle was completed before the St. Lucia’s Flood of 13 December 1287. Restorations were then done in the late 1800s.

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These are just five of many castles located throughout the Netherlands. So as you can see, there are some pretty impressive castles here available for you to visit!

For now, I would like to talk further about the two castles that I have personally visited, which just so happen to be number one and two from the list above.

Muiderslot Castle

The Muiderslot Castle is possibly the most famous and visited castle in the Netherlands. Located at the mouth of the Vecht river, just 15 kilometers South-East of Amsterdam in Muiden (which actually means ‘rivermouth’), where the river flows into what used to be the Zuiderzee, it has been featured in many television shows set in the Middle Ages.

Count Floris V built the original stone castle back in 1280. The Vecht river was the trade route to Utrecht, one of the most important trade towns of that age. The castle was used to enforce a toll on the traders. In 1296 Gerard van Velsen conspired together with Herman van Woerden, Gijsbrecht IV of Amstel, and several others to kidnap Floris V. The count was eventually imprisoned and after he attempted to escape, Gerard personally killed the count on the 27th of June 1296.

In 1297 the castle was conquered by Willem van Mechelen, the Archbishop of Utrecht, and by the year 1300 the castle had been distroyed. A hundred years later (ca. 1370-1386) the castle was rebuilt on the same spot based on the same plan, by Albert I, Duke of Bavaria, who at that time was also the Count of Holland and Zeeland.

The next famous owner of the castle shows up in the 16th century, when P.C. Hooft (1581-1647), a famous author, poet and historian took over sheriff and bailiff duties for the area (Het Gooiland).

At the end of the 18th century, the castle was first used as a prison, then abandoned and became derelict. Further neglect caused it to be offered for sale in 1825, with the purpose of it being demolished. Only intervention by King William I prevented this. Another 70 years went by until enough money was gathered to restore the castle to its former glory.

There is plenty of activities and special tours at the Muiderslot castle which are catered specifically towards children and families. For example, every Wednesday afternoon there are special tours for families from 13.00 (from April to October) where you can take walking tour through the magnificent rooms and learn all about what it was like to be a child living in the castle during the Golden Age. You can also go on a treasure hunt where you can follow the exciting Tower route and ‘defend the castle against the enemy’. On the Knight’s route, you can dress up as a knight or a noble lady. If the children complete all the assignments, they will be knighted and receive an authentic Muiderslot knight’s medal. During the school holidays there is also special entertainment for children.

Outside on the castle grounds, you can visit the falconer in his tent and watch the magnificent birds of prey from up close (from 1 April to 31 October). You can even book a children’s birthday party here at the castle!

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Overall, a visit to the Muiderslot Castle is very enjoyable and educational for the whole family. More information on opening times and ticket prices can be found here.

De Haar Castle

Castle De Haar is the largest and most luxurious castle in the Netherlands and my personal favourite. The oldest historical record of a building at the location of the current castle dates to 1391. In that year, the family De Haar received the castle and the surrounding lands. The castle remained in the ownership of the De Haar family until 1440, when the last male heir died childless. The castle then passed to the Van Zuylen family. In 1482, the castle and walls were torn down, except for the parts that did not have a military function. These parts probably were incorporated into the castle when it was rebuilt during the early 16th century.

In 1801, Castle De Haar was passed to JJ.van Zuylen van Nijevelt, a distant cousin of the Zuylen family. He had inherited a castle that was in a poor state of repair due to 200 years of neglect. Upon his death, these magnificent ruins passed to his son Baron Etienne van Zuylen van Nijevelt in 1890.

The rebuilding of the castle began in 1892 under the guidance of a famous Dutch architect, Dr PHJ Cuypers. It is his influence on Castle De Haar that we see today. PHJ Cuypers rebuilt the castle as close as possible to the original outlines. The interior was rebuilt to a luxurious standard with the inclusion of electricity. A new bailey with an entrance gate was built on its original foundations.

Today the castle is surrounded by a vast parkland and manicured gardens, but this was not always the case. From the medieval period to the end of the 19th century, the village of Haarzuilens had been surrounded the castle. Haarzuilens was completely demolished and relocated some one and a half kilometres away to the west. The village chapel however was saved from this destruction and incorporated into the new park.

Castle De Haar is now a museum and open to the public. You can choose to purchase either a ticket onto the grounds only, or a ticket which includes both access to the grounds and a tour of the castle. There are also several different treasure hunts for children available both inside the castle and through the castle park grounds, which cost one euro per child and can be purchased in the museum shop. In the school holidays, extra activities are organised for children. You can buy an ice cream and/or pancakes at one of the two cafe’s located on the grounds, or simply take a rug and your own picnic lunch to eat while you enjoy the view. You can spend hours here wandering through the beautiful surrounding parkland. Stunning.

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More information on opening times and ticket prices to De Haar Castle can be found here. It is well worth a visit and one of my favourite places to take any visiting friends or family members.

Have you visited any of the above castles? Which one was your favourite?

Kristen

 

Maasvlakte 2 beach – A hidden gem

Today the sun was shining, not a cloud was to be seen in the sky and temperatures reached the double figures! So we decided to hit the beach. I have frequently visited beaches in the Netherlands such as Hoek van Holland, Scheveningen and Kijkduin, but on this particular occasion, we visited a beach I have never been to before. One I didn’t even know existed (and actually it didn’t until 2013). The beach at Maasvlakte 2.

My husband had been there before and warned me that I was in for a treat. However, with the drive there being terribly industrial, I had my doubts. We parked our car by the dunes, and as we walked up over them, my jaw dropped as a beautiful sandy beach came into view that stretched both ways as far as the eye could see. Best of all, there was no one on it! We were, for at least an hour or so, literally the only ones to be found on this unexpected paradise.

We had a great afternoon soaking up the sun whilst collecting shells, digging in the sand and relaxing to sound of the constant waves rolling in.

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For those who are not aware, the Maasvlakte 2 is a mega dredging project during which the port of Rotterdam was artificially enlarged by reclaiming land from the North Sea. One of the biggest engineering projects in the Netherlands following the success of the first Maasvlakte area. Approximately 20 square kilometers of land was reclaimed! In addition to the economic benefits for the city of Rotterdam, a 7 kilometre-long sandy beach for recreation has been created. This beach is the ‘successor’ to the very popular Slufter Beach, which was closed to allow for the construction of Maasvlakte 2.

If you would like to learn more about the Maasvlakte 2, dredging at sea, raising new port land, or loading and unloading ships, then you could visit the information centre, FutureLand (Europaweg 902, Maasvlakte). At FutureLand you can view interactive models that show how the land was claimed back from the water, step into a simulator that allows you to view the Maasvlakte 2 from the air, or watch the film Zeezicht (Sea View) projected on to a 4 by 4 meter water curtain. You can also join a free guided tour on Sundays at 13:00 which lasts about one hour. FutureLand is open from Tuesday to Friday and on Sunday, and entrance is free.

The Maasvlakte 2 beach is an enormous hidden gem. Granted, it is windy, has no glamorous shops or barely any restaurants, but it is in our eyes it is a paradise. Unlike other beaches in the Netherlands, here you will not have to fight for a spot to lay your towel or set up your sun tent (or in our case dig our own water-way through the sand). You will have a seven kilometer area of glorious sandy beach to choose from. So don’t be put off by all the industrial areas along the way, take a drive out to the Maasvlakte 2 beach and you will not be disappointed.

Kristen

An Aussie at Heart

Australia, the land of sun and fun! You may wonder why, as an Australian, I have not yet written about traveling in Australia and all it has to offer? Well, this is simply because it has so much to offer that I do not know where to start! I’m sure I will eventually begin hacking away at blog posts describing all of my favourite places to visit, but for now I am going to focus on Australia and Australians in general.

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The name Australia, is derived from the Latin Terra Australis (“southern land”). This great southern land truly is one of a kind, offering everything from white sandy beaches, green lush rain forests, to the red deserted outback. It is also filled with the friendliest people you will encounter. I guess the fact that it is so isolated from the rest of the world has therefore ensured that it remains as it is, unspoiled by war and overpopulation.

Australia’s population density is 2.8 inhabitants per square kilometer, which means that Australians have more living space per person than inhabitants of any other nation. Granted a huge chunk of the country is pretty much inhabitable due to the harsh outback (20% of the country is classified as dessert with additional areas considered to have a dessert climate). Therefore, the majority of Australians live along the beautiful and rugged coastlines. Did you know Australia has approximately 36,000 kilometers of coastline?! Australia is so large that it takes almost five hours to fly from Sydney on the East coast to Perth on the West coast, or about 4 days to drive it (if you drive about 1000 kms per day)! In my home state of Victoria alone, you could actually fit six of the Netherlands!

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Australians in general are pretty down to earth and relaxed in nature. Maybe due to the sensational weather? It’s almost always sunny and this has been proven to increase those happy hormones. Or maybe it’s due to their active lifestyles, with the majority of Aussies playing some sort of sport all year round, whether it be AFL football, rugby, tennis, cricket or netball. This sportive lifestyle is both healthy and extremely social.

Aussies are in fact so relaxed and easy going that, over time, we have even created our own version of the English language! We went and abbreviated everything so that we didn’t need to use full words. Here is a great little video which gives a quick tutorial on how to speak like an Aussie…

I grew up in northern country Victoria, by the mighty Murray River, which is actually the border between the two states of Victoria and New South Wales. Our back yard was the bush, which was filled with kangaroos, koalas and other wild life. We loved (and still love) to go out camping in the bush along the river. I do miss the smell of the eucalyptus trees, looking up into the sky at night and seeing the billions of bright stars, and waking up in the morning to the sounds of the birds, even the loud skawky cockatoos. Every time we go back for a vacation, we always make sure that we fit in at least a few days camping out by the river.

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Australia is the land of extremes. We experience regular bush fires, floods and droughts, which devastate the lands and wildlife. However, we have no active volcanos and experience little if any earthquakes. Yes, we do have the world’s most dangerous snakes and spiders sharing our land with us, but rarely do we bump into them and look, I survived didn’t I? 🙂

My husband and I were married in the country town of Echuca in Victoria, Australia. Located on the Murray River, this was the perfect setting for our special day. Ten of our closest Dutch family and friends flew in for the occasion. They joined 70 of my Australian family and friends to help us celebrate. Although it was a scorching 43 degrees, it really was our perfect day and we will actually be celebrating our 9th wedding anniversary this week! How time flies.

Once married, we relocated to Sydney, New South Wales. This was where our two beautiful children were born. They now therefore have both Dutch and Australian passports and also have family members living in both countries. So when they become adults, they will be able to travel back and forth with ease, or even choose to live in either country, whether temporarily or permanently if their hearts desire. I am already preparing myself for this possibility and I am happy that they will have the choice. They are growing up to be true global citizens, and the world is their oyster!

So after being born in Australia, being married in Australia and giving birth to my two children in Australia, you may wonder, why did I choose to leave? Rest assure, my love for Australia has not diminished at all, it’s just that my love for my husband is even greater.

Even though I am currently living elsewhere, I am still proud to be an Aussie and without a doubt, still an Aussie at heart. I always will be. I still feel great pride if someone yells out “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!” and will always respond with an “Oi, Oi, Oi!!!” Yet, at the same time, I also love the colour orange and wear it with pride on King’s Day each year here in Holland or when the Dutch football team is playing. I have discovered that it is entirely possible to be both a proud Australian and a proud Dutch resident simultaneously. I’m just like a thriving tree that is branching out here in the Netherlands, yet my roots will always be firmly planted in Australian soil.

Kristen

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Mexico – The Aztec Empire

Mexico is a unique country located between North and Central America, known for it’s beaches, diverse landscape of mountains, deserts, jungles, tequila, cactuses, mariachi singers and salsa. The country’s East coast is bordering the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, and Mexico’s West Coast, known as the ‘Mexican Riviera’meets the Pacific Ocean. During my time onboard ships as a crew member between the years of 2000 and 2006, I spent the majority of my time along the stunning West coast of Mexico (and Alaska – See My Great Alaskan Adventures). However, I was fortunate enough to travel both the West and East coasts of Mexico and I will talk about both within this post.

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Tourists flock to Mexico not only for it’s idyllic beaches, but also because it is rich in history. Impressive ancient ruins such as Teotihuacan (Aztec) and Chichen Itza (Mayan) are scattered throughout the country. Mexico was the site of several civilizations such as the Olmec, Toltec, Teotihuacan, Zapotec, Maya, and Aztec. The Aztecs were a civilization with a rich mythology and cultural heritage located in central Mexico in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. They called themselves ‘Mexica’. Their capital was Tenochtitlan on the shore of Lake Texcoco, which is now the site of Mexico City. The repuplic of Mexico and Mexico City actually derived their names from the Mexica people.

Some of the best food I have ever eaten was in Mexico. From their amazing huge servings of nachos with homemade chunky salsa, to their sizzling fajitas and mouth watering burritos, I was in heaven. Thanks to the country’s perfection of tequila, their cocktails are also pretty amazing. I may, or may not have tried all of them.

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Mexican West Coast – Mexican Riviera

Again, I may be biased, but I still believe that the best way to see this coast of Mexico is via a cruise ship, particularly due to the long distances between the west coast cities of Mexico. Ships will usually depart from San Diego, CA and head down the west coast of Mexico and around the Baja California Peninsula in Northwestern Mexico, stopping at Cabo San Lucas, located at the tip of this peninsula. The Baja California Peninsula’s land mass separates the Pacific Ocean from the Gulf of California and it is one of the largest peninsulas found in the world. The ship will then usually head further down the west coast as far south as either Acapulco or Zihuatanejo.

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This was my first ever port in Mexico and I will always remember it fondly. Us crew members enjoyed visiting the large silver markets ashore and then taking a water taxi out past El Arco ‘the Arch’ to ‘Lovers Beach’, only accessible via boat, where we would relax for the day.

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I was also able to join a tour onboard an old pirate ship. I helped steer the ship, hoisted the sails, and of course just sat back and relaxed as we sailed to a beautiful spot in the marine park to enjoy the amazing sun-drenched climate of Mexico.

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Puerto Vallarta

Puerto Vallarta is a resort town which lays in the heart of the Banderas Bay and offers the best of two worlds: tradition and top notch, state-of-the-art resorts. Along the Malecon boardwalk, you can find an endless supply of contemporary sculptures, lounges, nightclubs, restaurants and bars, guaranteeing a great night out.

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Puerto Vallarta’s historic, cobblestoned center is also home to the beautiful church, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.

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Just a month or so after my now-husband and I began dating, his parents came onboard for a Mexican Riveria cruise. They took us out for dinner along the boardwalk to get to know me better and my father in law secretly arranged for a live Mariachis band to play for me. Before dinner that night we visited the most amazing tequila tasting distillery, where we were able to taste various rare and flavoured tequila. We discovered years later that this experience cost my poor father in law an absolute fortune! But we will never forget it.

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The amazing beaches and sun also meant that a relaxing day was always guaranteed. Beaches such as Las Caletas and Yelapa are the ones you do not want to miss and of course, don’t forget to order a cocktail on the beach!

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El Eden Eco Park is the location where some of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Predator” was filmed in the jungle, just outside of Puerto Vallarta. The movie set was turned into a restaurant and bar, and from here you can take a Canopy tour or a trekking tour into the jungle to visit some of the recognisable areas where the Predator movie was filmed, including the Misalamoya river. I’d recommend you wear insect repellant as the sand flies were VERY friendly. My husband found out the hard way.

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Acapulco

Acapulco is a resort city set on a large bay backed by high rise buildings and the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains. Made famous by the jet set in the 1950s and ’60s, Acapulco is known for its high-energy nightlife and beaches.

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The cliff divers  of La Quebrada are a group of professional divers who dive off the face of a cliff, 35m into the sea below. Timing is crucial as the depth of the water can vary from 6-16 feet, depending on the waves! The divers perform daily shows for the public.

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There is a restaurant at the top of the cliffs overlooking the cliff divers. This is where my husband and I had our first dinner date together in November 2000. We had a prime view as we watched the night show. The divers threw themselves forwards and backwards from various heights off the cliff with the grand finale being a dive from the highest part of the cliff holding a flaming torch (shown in the video below at around the 3:20 mark).

Every time we visited Acapulco, we would go out for dinner and try another one of the great restaurants along the main strip. We found some great ones indeed and it was always nice to eat something other than cruise ship food for a change. Eventually, us crew members would usually always ended up at Carlos n’ Charlies, a restaurant/bar where the atmosphere was always enjoyable. We had many fun nights here, trying out more of those amazing cocktails.

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Acapulco was also where I enjoyed a crazy fun crew booze cruise through the bay with a great group of fellow crew members. Good times.

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We also frequently visited the CiCi Water Park in the city of Acapulco, where I had the opportunity to swim with dolphins, which was amazing!

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The Shot Over Jet Boat in Acapulco, Mexico was also an experience to get the adrenaline pumping. The boat shot through the shallow waters and mangroves of the Puerto Marques Lagoon, the stunning backdrop from the early Tarzan movies (there’s me in the back screaming.. hehe).

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Mazatlan

To get a better feel of all this town has to offer, don’t linger too long in the Zona Dorada (Golden Zone), Mazatlán’s touristy area. Instead head straight for the city’s character filled old town and its gloriously unrefurbished malecón (one of the longest seasfront walkways of the world). Here you can view magic sunsets from the various bars and restaurants.
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Zihuatanejo

Zihuatanejo is somewhere I have wanted to visit since watching the movie, Shawshank Redemption. Andy, was an innocent man who was wrongly imprisoned for many years. He manages to escape and fled to Zihuatanejo.

Andy Dufresne: [in a letter to Red] “Dear Red. If you’re reading this, you’ve gotten out. And if you’ve come this far, maybe you’re willing to come a little further. You remember the name of the town, don’t you?”

Red: “Zihuatanejo.”

Unfortunately I had to work on the one and only day we visited. Here you can see me in my lovely uniform (not!) with beautiful Zihuatanejo in the background…

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Copper Canyon, Chihuahua

Copper Canyon, in northern Mexico, is a series of massive canyons in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains. Popular for hiking, it gets its name from the copper-green hue of the canyon walls. The famous Chepe train connects the region via over 80 tunnels and nearly 40 bridges. I spent all day on this rickety train travelling from the South to the North of Mexico to visit this amazing canyon and it is an experience I will never forget.

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Mexican East Coast – Caribbean

Mexico’s Caribbean coast is full of treasures, from spectacular white sandy beaches and offshore reefs to some of the most beautiful Mayan ruins. Unsurprisingly, much of the region is also full of tourists, who come from around the world to soak up the sun and unique Mayan-Mexican culture.

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The pier on which the cruise ships dock here leads directly into a picturesque resort. Crew were able to use these facilities free of charge. At that time, the closest town to where we docked was Mahahual, about three kilometeres away. A small fishing village with soft sandy beaches, grass thatched palapas, and a coral reef a short distance off-shore. However, now a new development is being created directly inland from the port named New Mahahual, which is now bustling with cruise ship passengers when ships are in.

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My parents in law also came onboard for another cruise to discover the East coast of Mexico. Here in Costa Maya, I went ashore with them to discover the amazing Chacchoben Mayan ruins. Settlement by the Mayan people at this site is estimated at 200 BC, and the structures located there date from 700 AD. Unbelievable isn’t it? Especially when my home country of Australia was not even discovered until 1700 odd years later!!

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Veracruz

Veracruz is a large port city. Although I was unable to go ashore here as I was working, my husband was able to enjoy all this city had to offer, including a large carnival during new years day. This city is known for it’s carnivals and parades particularly during February when the Veracruz Carnival festival is held. This carnival is one of the largest in Mexico, filled with parade floats, intricate and colorful masks, music, and dancing.

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Cancun

One of the most popular vacation destinations in all of Mexico (and the world), Cancun attracts troves of tourists, particularly spring breakers, every year.

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Just 200km from Cancun lies the amazing Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza. Chichen Itza was one of the largest Maya cities of it’s time and today it is probably the most well known of all mayan ruins.

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Playa del Carmen

Playa del Carmen is a resort city located about an hour south of Cancun. Playa del Carmen offers access to the same azure waters of the Caribbean, but without the crowded party scene. And if you’re looking for a once-in-a-lifetime underwater experience, Playa del Carmen is the spot for you; a number of agencies offer scuba diving and snorkeling tours of the nearby Great Mayan Reef (the world’s second-largest reef system) and a variety of local underground freshwater caves.

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Cozumel

The island of Cozumel is located in the Caribbean Sea, directly out to the East from Playa del Carmen. This is a very popular cruise ship port of call and famous for it’s diving possibilities due to the reef, lagoons and submerged sculptures. This is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world. You come here to relax, dive and eat lobster (or in my case, more nachos!). But when the ships arrive, it’s a busy place to be!

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My time spent in Mexico was extremely enjoyable. The food alone warrants another visit!

However, the past ten years have been hard on Mexico. Mexico’s powerful drug trafficking organisations have escalated in their violent drug related crimes since 2007 and the global financial crisis in late 2008 caused a massive economic downturn in Mexico. Unfortunately due to these reasons, cruise lines have now cut various ports such as Mazatlan and/or Acapulco from their itineraries.

The country is slowly recovering, but it may not be the same. Certainly not as safe. I think I may have seen it in it’s glory days, and I can only hope that it still remains to be just as glorious as I remember it to be.

Salud!

Kristen

My Great Alaskan Adventures

During my several years onboard cruise ships, Alaska is the area where I have cruised most frequently. I have spent at least four cruising seasons in Alaska. At that time I was a hard working crew member in my early twenties who would have much preferred to have been in a sunnier destination, such as the Mediterranean etc., spending my day off each week lazing on a beach. However, when I look back on that period of my life, I now realise just how fortunate I was to be able to spend so much time in beautiful Alaska.

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During one particular season, I had just switched from working in the spa to working in the Shore Excursions office. This is where we would sell shore excursions (land tours) to passengers for each of the upcoming ports of call that our ship would visit. My manager informed me that in order for me to be able to sell the tours well, I would need to experience as many of them as I could. This would then enable me to answer any passenger questions and/or make appropriate suggestions when they needed advice. From then on in every port, I was sent off to join one of the tours we offered, free of charge! So began my incredible Alaskan adventures!

During my time onboard, we visited the following ports and I was lucky enough to experience these once in a lifetime tour experiences…

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Misty Fjords & Wilderness Explorer
This was one of my favourite tours in Alaska. We boarded a fast, sightseeing boat in Ketchikan harbour and went out to explore the Misty Fjords National Monument, one of nature’s most spectacular creations. Absolutely magnificent!

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The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show
An entertaining show just a short walk from the pier, where the world’s best lumberjacks go head-to-head in more than a dozen exciting events such as chopping, sawing, relay races, axe throwing, log rolling and a 50-foot speed climb.

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Wilderness Exploration & Crab Feast
During this Alaskan experience, we first pulled Dungeness crab pots from a wilderness estuary and I was able to pick one up and look at it closely. We then went to the George Inlet Lodge (a historic cannery building converted to an elegant oceanside lodge) for lunch. After a quick lesson in the art of crab cracking, I enjoyed an all-you-can-eat crab feast, followed by cheesecake smothered in Alaskan blueberries whilst watching the cute little humming birds just outside my window.

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Sea Otter & Wildlife Quest
During this boat tour we observed sea otters, whales, sea lions, porpoise, harbor seals, brown bears, black-tail deer, bald eagles and a variety of marine birds.
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Sitka National Historic Totem Park
A visit to this magical forest is a must when in Sitka, and as it is just a short walk from the town centre, I visited often. I really enjoyed walking along the trails through this forest, littered with historical totem poles, with amazing views over the harbour and mountainside.

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Juneau

Alaskan Salmon Bake
During this tour we enjoyed an all-you-can-eat salmon bake feast. The Alaskan wild salmon was barbecued to perfection over an open fire.  We then went for a stroll through the nearby woods and along Salmon Creek, then roasted marshmallows over the campfire for dessert.

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Five Glacier Seaplane Exploration
What an unforgettable experience! Boarding a floatplane for the first time, knowing that we would need to land back down on water was a little nerve wracking. My adrenaline was pumping as we flew over the five distinctly different, absolutely majestic glaciers making up a section of the 1,500-square-mile Juneau Ice Field. Seeing these glaciers from the air was such an amazing experience!!
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Mendenhall River Trip
At the edge of the beautiful Mendenhall Lake, we hopped into a large canoe and took off on an unforgettable adventure where we got up close and personal with nature, the glacier, icebergs, waterfalls and wildlife. The Mendenhall glacier is a half-mile wide and more than one hundred feet tall at the face.

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Mount Roberts Tramway
This was a crew member favourite, along with a visit to the good old Viking bar! From the centre of town, you can board the Mount Roberts Tramway, which takes you to the top of Mount Roberts overlooking the beautiful town of Juneau, Alaska’s capital. Here you can take in the beautiful views with the Chilkat Mountains to the north, Stephens Passage to the south, Douglas Island to the west and, in the east, Silver Bow Basin. Watch for wildlife and birds on your way to the bear-viewing platforms. I spotted a bear on my way up the mountain on multiple occasions. At the top you will find many amazing walking tracks, a gallery and a restaurant.
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Whale Watching & Wildlife Quest
This sightseeing cruise guaranteed whale watching. I boarded a catamaran and cruised through the picturesque waters of Stephens Passage. This area is world-renowned as a favoured summer feeding ground for humpback whales. We were able to get up very close to humpback whales, killer whales, sea lions, otters, seals and bald eagles.

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Sled Dog Discovery & Musher’s Camp
A visit to Alaska is not complete without a ride on a dog sled, a visit to a musher’s camp, or ideally both!. This is how you will experience a true Alaskan adventure whilst supporting the state sport of dog mushing. We drove deep into the Tongass National Rain Forest to visit this musher camp. Here we had a blast on an authentic dog sled ride, we met knowledgeable mushers and dog handlers, and playing with the husky puppies.

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Haines

Eagle Preserve Float Adventure
The world-famous Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve boasts the largest gathering of bald eagles anywhere. It is also home to moose, bears, wolves, and a host of other animals. We boarded an 18-foot inflatable raft and 7,000-foot peaks towered above us as we floated down the river, spotting many impressively large bald eagles perched on branches right alongside the river.
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Skagway


The Red Onion Saloon
A visit to Skagway would not be complete without a stop at the Historic Red Onion Saloon. Once a brothel, the Red Onion was a favorite amongst the miners (for obvious reasons) in the gold rush days. It still remains a favourite of passengers, crew and locals alike, although it is no longer a working brothel. Built in 1897, the Red Onion Saloon operated as one the finest bordellos in Skagway and though times have changed, the spirit has not. It is now a bar worth visiting for a couple of drinks and also to see their Red Onion Brothel Museum.
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White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad
Riding the train along the antique White Pass & Yukon narrow-gauge railway was such a great experience. The White Pass & Yukon Route itself is unlike any other railroad. Against all odds, the iron trail was carved through some of the North’s most rugged terrain in 1898. Built during the Klondike Gold Rush, this engineering wonder is an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark — an honor shared with the Eiffel Tower, the Panama Canal and the Statue of Liberty. This vintage train climbs up the mountain and around cliff-hanging turns offering breathtaking panoramic views of the surrounding mountains, glaciers, gorges, waterfalls, tunnels, trestles and historic sites from the Gold Rush era.

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Icy Strait Point


Icy Strait Point adorns the north end of Chichagof Island and Glacier Bay is just across Icy Strait to the north. Icy Strait Point gives you the perfect chance to explore old forests, or kayak along rich coastal waters. If your adrenaline stores are low, you can take a ride on the world’s longest zip line. A very picturesque area where simply going for a walk was breathtaking enough.
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Glacier Bay


Cruise ships typically spend a full day (9-10 hours) cruising through Glacier Bay, including a stop at a major glacier. For most passengers, this day will be the highlight of their Alaskian Inside Passage Cruise. From the decks of the ship, you can view several glaciers and breathtaking mountains. The ship will then get up as close as possible to a glacier so that you can see enormous chunks of ice splitting off and thundering into the sea below. This impact then causes large waves of water, which can rock even the largest of cruise ships. Very impressive! If you are lucky enough, you can catch the moment on film; however at that time, i did not own a video camera (or a mobile phone). So my photos do not do this whole experience justice. However, you can see and hear the “white thunder” on YouTube!  Another great video I found which really captures the beauty of sailing into Glacier Bay is this one.

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College Fjord

The best way to see these glaciers is from a ship. From the desks of the ship in College Fjord, there is a spot where you can see eight glaciers all at once. It is the only place in Alaska that surrounds you on three sides with glaciers. Harvard Glacier is the biggest and most impressive. You can watch a cruise ship tour of College Fjord here.
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Traditional Crew Tug-of-War Challenge

Although this is not a tour, I wanted to mention it. Every season in Alaska, it is tradition that crew members from each department challenge each other to a tug-of-war competition. On the front of the ship, with a backdrop to die for, us spa girls had no chance again the big, strong engineers (who won every time), but we still gave it our best every year! Fun times.
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As you can see by the above photos, Alaska is simply stunning. Nature at it’s best. So next time you are looking for a unique holiday destination, don’t dismiss this amazing wilderness, bursting with outdoor adventure.

Kristen xx

Life as a ‘GOB’

For those of you who are not familiar with the term, GOB stands for ‘Girlfriend On Board’. As I have mentioned before, my husband and I met whilst working on cruise ships. For a few years, we were both able to arrange to complete our contracts on the same ship, at the same times (roughly). However, as we each had a different employer, this became difficult. My husband (then boyfriend) was a maritime engineer onboard and officers have certain privileges that other crew members do not. These privileges were free of charge, such as room service, dry cleaning, their own private cabin (crew members usually have to share a room), and best of all, officers can bring their partner onboard for six months per year. When it got to the point where I was unable to arrange my next contract on the same ship, we decided to take advantage of this unique opportunity.

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As a GOB, I was able to enjoy the best of both worlds onboard; you have access to both passenger and crew areas, you are not required to work or wear a crew uniform, and you are able to join all of the passenger entertainment onboard. I was able to attend the theatre shows every night, watch movies in the cinema, sun bathe on the decks, enjoy great food every day in the passenger restaurants, attend fantastic parties in the crew bar each night, and then sleep in the next day while my poor husband had to get up early and go to work.

Each day the cabin steward would come and clean our cabin, make our bed and replace our towels with fresh ones. It really was the life! On sea days, I’d go to the library and read or study Dutch language books. I also did some casual work every now and then for various departments onboard, such as selling tours at the Shore Excursions desk, working in the duty free shops on board, or assisting the art auctioneer.

The ultimate part of being a GOB was that every day, whilst all the other crew members were working, I could go ashore and discover what ever port we were in on that particular day. For two years, I was able to thoroughly explore amazing destinations such as Alaska, the Caribbean and Mexico. One particular cruise, however, was an experience I will never forget. In 2006, I was onboard as a GOB for a relocation cruise from South America to Australia. Below are the ports that we visited during that unforgettable cruise, and I will treasure the memories I have of them for the rest of my life.

Lima, Peru

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Bora Bora, Tahiti

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Pago Pago, Samoa

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Bay of Islands, NZ

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Aukland, NZ

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Napier, NZ

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Wellington, NZ

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Picton, NZ

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Christchurch, NZ

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Dunedin, NZ

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Milford Sound, NZ

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Burnie, Tasmania

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Melbourne, Vic

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Sydney, NSW

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This was also our last cruise. We disembarked in Australia at the end of this relocation cruise, were married two months later, and then moved to Sydney where we both began working..on land this time.

Kristen x

 

The Greek Island of Corfu

There is something about the Greek Islands that just makes my family and I want to keep returning to them. The laid back atmosphere, friendly and welcoming people, warm Mediterranean climate, fabulous beaches, and the mouth watering food are just some of the reasons why we love visiting Greece, particularly the Greek Islands.

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Corfu is an island located just West of the Greek and Albanian coastlines, where the two countries meet. Most Greek Islands are located to the East of Greece, in the Aegean Sea. Corfu is the second largest of the seven islands located in the Ionian Sea to the West. Defined by rugged mountains and a resort-studded shoreline, it’s culture reflects years spent under Italian, French and British rulings before it was united with Greece in 1864.

We chose to visit Corfu back in 2012 because it has a reputation for being extremely family friendly and one of the easiest islands to explore with children. Corfu also has it’s own airport and you can fly direct from Amsterdam to Corfu for as little as 150 euros per person. At that time, we had two children aged one and three, so we didn’t want to have to bother with additional stopovers and ferries etc.

Corfu is one of the greenest and most popular Greek Islands. But despite attracting hordes of tourists there is still plenty of beauty, charm, and beaches here to keep both parents and kids very happy for a few weeks of holiday fun. A short drive from even the most popular tourist resort should have you back in the land of olive trees and small charming villages.

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The one thing you don’t get with Corfu is the opportunity to island hop. If you have visions of taking the ferry from one island to the next, then you’re best focusing on the islands of the Cyclades. However, with Corfu being quite a large island, there is plenty to discover right there without needing to leave. We stayed at Corfu for two full weeks and wanted our holiday to consist of both lazying by the pool and discovering the island. So we rented a car for four days and drove all around the island. However, if your time here is restricted and you would prefer to drive directly to the highlights, below are my top suggestions of places to visit on the island of Corfu.

Old Corfu Town

The capital city of Corfu is known as ‘Corfu Town’ and is an UNESCO world heritage site. It is situated on the eastern side of the island, roughly half way between the north and south. It is the largest town on the island and here you will find the main port as well as the island’s airport. The town itself is a mixture of Venetian and French architecture and is a maze of charming narrow streets. The whole family will love wandering the streets, eating ice cream and just generally being tourists in this very pedestrian friendly destination.The 16th century fortress dominates the town and port area.

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Logas Beach Panorama Bar, Peroulades

Logas Sunset Beach and the Panorama bar is located at the top of Corfu on the North-West Coast. The most amazing bar you will ever visit with panoramic views over the sea. It’s a little off the beaten track and a bit of a hidden gem that not too many know about. Totally worth the drive to go see this. The most perfect location to sit and watch spectacular sunsets with a cocktail or two.

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Kassiopi

Kassiopi village on the North East Coast (35 kilometers north of Corfu Town) was our favourite town in Corfu. Kassiopi is a picturesque town retaining its original charm, set against the magestic backdrop of the island’s highest mountain. Centred around the local harbour, Kassiopi has plenty of bars, tavernas and restaurants that all offer a stunning view over the bay. Thanks to the local fishermen, many of the restaurants offer excellent fresh fish dishes.

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The beach just a couple of minutes north of Kassiopi on the Eastern side of the peninsula is one of the most beautiful we have ever visited. We rented a couple of sun beds (as it was a pebbly beach) and spent the entire afternoon here, snorkeling, swimming, and lazing in the sun whilst enjoying the spectacular view. If we were to return to Corfu, Kassiopi is where we would choose to find accommodation. The Kassiopi Bay Hotel caught my eye as it is so close to our favourite beach.

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Paleokastritsa Beach

Paleokastritsa is one of the most beautiful villages in Corfu and is a renowned Greek beauty spot located on the West coast, 25 kilometers from Corfu Town. Paleokastritsa offers holiday makers the opportunity to swim at six different secluded sand and fine pebble beaches enclosed by tall cliffs, wooded headlands, olive groves, lemon and cypress trees and lush hilly countryside. The resort runs along the coast road that winds among the cliffs and sheltered bays. It is a hilly place full of twists and turns and unexpected views. Paleokastritsa Beach is one of the most famous beaches on the island of Corfu and most definitely worth a visit.

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Archilleion Palace, Gastouri

If you are looking for more culture, a visit to Archillion Palace is a must.The architectural design was intended to represent an ancient Phaecian palace. The building is surrounded by classic Greek statues and is named after AchillesThe view from this palace is ridiculously breathtaking.

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I would avoid staying anywhere near Kavos on the South Coast (a popular and very rowdy party town), unless you are looking for somewhere where you can party in clubs until the break of dawn, then Kavos is the place for you.

We found that the majority of beaches in Corfu were white pebbly beaches. Surprisingly, I found myself preferring these pebble beaches over the sandy and more popular alternative. However, you can still find some pretty amazing sandy beaches. For more information on the beaches of Corfu, here is a handy site which lists the best beaches on the island.

Last Tip: Buy some water shoes before you go and your feet will be ever so thankful when visiting the pebbly beaches. Also take plenty of sunscreen to protect yourselves from the harsh sun.

Yamas!

Kristen

 

Aloha! The Best of Hawaii

For almost a year, Hawaii was basically a second home to me. I lived and worked onboard the MS Statendam and in 2000-2001, our itineraries alternated between Mexico Riviera and Circle Hawaii. Our Hawaiian itinerary began and ended at San Diego, California and the cruise was always a duration of two weeks. I still believe that cruising is the best and most convenient way to travel when you have a restricted time allowance. You only need to unpack your bags once and each night, whilst you are sleeping, the ship will take you to a new destination! Once you reach the islands, it is always so exciting to wake up each day and prepare to discover a new destination. A day of adventure always awaits.

As I worked six days a week with an of average of twelve hours per day, I mostly spent my day off each week lazing on the various beautiful beaches in Hawaii. However, I was occasionally able to join some of the ship’s tours and discover more of what these amazing islands have to offer.

If you are planning a vacation to Hawaii, whether it be by ship or not, I hope these tips and recommendations will help you to make the most of your time in this beautiful part of the world.

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Island of Hawaii – The Big Island

Both the name of the entire state, and the name of the largest island is Hawaii, so to avoid confusion, people refer to this particular island as “The Big Island”. Built from five volcanos, the island is nearly twice as big as all of the other Hawaiian Islands combined; It’s sheer size means that it has much to offer. The island literally continues to grow in size, due to it’s active volcanos, as larva pours out into the ocean and hardens along the coast. Hilo (on the West coast) and Kona (on the East coast) are the two usual ports of call when visiting by cruise ship. The big island is where all the volcano action occurs, so this is where you will be able to see an active volcano or huge underground lava tubes; there are many tour options.  There is also incredible sport fishing possibilities and if you would like to snorkle with large Hawaiian green sea-turtles, Turtle Bay (Kahaluu Beach) in Kona is a must-see!! Kahalu’u Beach is famous for it’s sea turtles and it’s gentle lagoon is also suitable for beginner snorkelers and children. A calm beach, warm sun, lots of seaweed to eat… I guess Kahaluu Beach is kind of like turtle heaven. Turtles are a protected marine species in Hawaii so remember to keep your distance while enjoying these beautiful creatures. There are many great hot spots where you can swim/snorkle or dive with the turtles. For example, whilst somewhat difficult to reach, Kiholo Bay is one of the best places on the Big Island for spotting Hawaiian green sea turtles.

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Maui

By far my favourite Hawaiian island. We docked at Lahaina, where massive fig trees will be the first thing you notice along the shore. This town was the perfect representation of ‘Hawaii’. Just walk around this beautiful town, take it all in. Get somthing to eat at the famous ‘Bubba Gump Shrimp Co’ restaurant and perhaps visit the Whalers Beach Front Shopping Village Centre, literally positioned right on a beautiful beach (where my husband and I had our first date actually). This island also boasts Hawaii’s #1 ranked golf course, The Plantation Course. Attend a Luau, a traditional Hawaiian party with hula dancers, to really get a sense of the Hawaiian culture, and preferably at sunset. In Lahaina you can find a good Luau at the Old Lahaina Luau or the Feast of Lele. If you have time to explore further, take a drive to the West Maui Mountains, Haleakala crater (at sunrise or sunset), or the beautiful Iao Valley.

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O’ahu

Most of the ships will stop at Honolulu, a beautiful city on this island and the capital of the State of Hawaii. It is enjoyable to simply take a walk along the boardwalk parallel to the beach, especially at sunset if you have the opportunity. Along the boardwalk you can find some great restaurants and shops on one side, or surfers on the other. From Honolulu I’d recommend you take a trip out to Pearl Harbour and visit the USS Arizona Memorial.  This is a somber and emotional experience, yet important enough to designate your time to a visit here. From Honolulu, you could also take a trip out to Paradise Cove.

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Kauai

On the island of Kauai, do not miss the opportunity to see the Waimea Canyon Lookout. Basically the grand canyon, but greener! You could take a tour or taxi out to the lookout, but if you want to do this ultimate style, book a helicopter ride; An unforgettable way to see the canyon and get a bird’s eye view of the entire island and its impressive waterfalls. There are also lava tubes, pipes for underground lava rivers, and blowholes along the Na Poli coastline. The most impressive blowhole in all of Hawaii is Kauai’s Spouting Horn in Poipu. Ocean water enters the ancient lava flow tube until enough pressure builds to forcefully spew out the water. Mountain tubing is also a lot of fun for the whole family, however these tunnels are man made. This island truly is an emerald wonderland.

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All in all, Hawaii is the ideal vacation destination. You will undoubtably relax, unwind and recharge. Many cruise lines, including Holland American Line continue to offer Hawaiian cruises; More information on these itineraries and planned destinations can be found here.

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Note: There are additional small islands of Hawaii that I have not yet visited, so I have therefore been unable to comment on them.

 

Germany – The Land of Fairy Tales

Visiting Germany is like stepping into a fairy tale. The castles, narrow cobblestone streets, exposed wooden beams, forests and rolling hills make it feel so magical with such a fairy tale feel to it. After all, the Grimm brothers were German. In some towns, it’s just like instantly stepping back in time, where you can easily imagine Hansel and Gretel skipping along the path and into the nearby forest.

Being just a short drive from the Netherlands, our family enjoys visiting Germany as often as we can to discover different areas of this beautiful country. Here are some of our favourite German towns.

Monschau

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Monschau is a quaint little town, located in a narrow valley between the hills in the North Eifel area. The river Rur runs right through town and, depending on the time of the year, can vary from a trickling stream, to a rushing white water river. The Bed and Breakfast that we stayed at, Bürgerhaus Monschau, was located right on the edge of this river and had the most amazing view over it (see below photo). I have never slept better than that night, listening to the rushing water just outside our two bedroom family room.

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On both sides of the valley, you will find some great walking tracks, that the whole family can enjoy. We followed these paths with a four and six year old, so it is definately doable with young children and gives an amazing outlook over the town. One of the tracks will lead you to the Monschau castle, which dates back to the 13th century. Although the castle is now a hostel, our kids still enjoyed running around the castle grounds and up in the tower, which is open to the public and offers a great view.

For dinner, there are so many romantic, candlelit restaurants to chose from. I can highly recommend Cafe Thelen. Although still quiet a fancy restaurant, we felt comfortable entering with two young children who cannot sit still or quietly, and they served a killer pork knuckle!

Some of the best hot chocolate that we have ever had was at the Schokoladen Cafe Hüftgold in Monschau, where you choose from the many different flavours of ‘chocolate on a stick’ to stir into your warm milk.

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Monschau is quite a small town, but definitely worth a visit for a day or two. Whether it be a romantic weekend away, or a little family trip – you will not regret it.

Cochem

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Cochem is one of my favourite towns, located along the Moselle river, it is bursting with character with so much to discover. We stayed in the family friendly Ferienresort bungalow park just out of town, but there are also plenty of character filled hotels located in the town centre. The town of Cochem itself is enchanting due to its narrow streets and twisty alleys, the lovingly restored half timbered houses with the typical slate roofs, the historical market-place, its medieval town gates, churches and walls.

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Cochem is set in a romantic part of the Moselle Valley, with surrounding hills covered in vineyards, the powerful flowing Moselle river, and of course the magnificent castle overlooking the old town. We enjoyed a walk up the hill to the Cochem Castle. From here, you will have the most unforgettable view over the town, river and surroundings. Tickets can be purchased at the castle entrance for a tour of inside the castle, but the view is for free 🙂

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A thirty minute drive from Cochem is the Berg Eltz Castle. A visit to this castle is a must. It really is magnificent.

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The walk from the car park down through the forest to the castle took us about half an hour and offered unforgettable views of the castle. We then opted to catch the shuttle bus back up to the car park, as the kids were tired by that stage. There are multiple hiking possibility to and around the Berg Eltz castle ranging from 1-10kms, depending on what you are looking for. This is one of the most impressive castles I have laid my eyes on.

Dinkelsbühl

Dinkelsbühl is one of the three most historical towns along the ‘Romantic route’ in the South of Germany. The town is still surrounded by old medieval walls and towers and great walking tracks can be found around both the inside and outside of this wall.

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Within the walls, you can find original and colourful buildings, cobblestone streets, and of course the church which was originally part of a monastery.

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Füssen, Hohenschwangau and Schwangau

Situated at the very end of the Romantic route, just a hop, step and jump from the Austrian border, everyone travels to this area for one reason and that is to see lay their eyes on the Neuschwanstein Castle. I am no exception. We drove all the way to this area just to fulfill a decade-long dream of mine, to see the castle that inspired Disney!

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Füssen, Hohenschwangau and Schwangau are nestled at the base of the Alpine mountains and a stones through from the Alpsee Lake. The best view of these landmarks, can be seen from the castle!

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You will need to park your car at the base of the mountain and then you can either hike up (a twenty minute uphill climb), or purchase a shuttle bus or horse and cart ride up to the castle. I would highly recommend purchasing your tickets to the castle online before you go as unfortunately, we learned upon our arrival around 11:30am that all tickets for that day were already sold out. Although we were unable to tour the inside of the castle, we still enjoyed the walk up to the castle and were able to enter the main gates and enjoy the incredible view from the top.

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I have also recently discovered that there is a ‘German Fairy Tale Route‘ in central Germany, which focuses on the brothers Grimm and their famous stories! I look forward to adding this to our list of places to discover in this beautiful land of fairy tales.

Kristen

Disclaimer: I am by no means being compensated for the above recommendations, they are simply my own opinions based on personal experience.