Jamie’s Puerto Vallarta 3 – Dolphin Delight!

We decided, after talking to other guests, that we would take Sydney, my three-year old to do the family dolphin experience.  Kids of any age can go. It is about 70 USD for each adult and kids under 12 are free.  There are many other dolphin programs available if you would rather swim with them or be a trainer for a day, etc.  This one worked best for us as none of us had experienced dolphins up close before.
 
If you have a chance to come here with kids of any age (even kids at heart), you should definitely do this.  it was well worth the money and a great value compared to other tours I have been on.
 
After our arrival at the dolphin encounter, the friendly staff instructed us where to wait.  You will want to reserve ahead of time as they are often booked up.  We were 20 minutes early, so we watched the sea lions while we waited.  A quick 2 minute boat shuttle took us to the dolphin encounter area where we were lucky enough to have a sea-lion come out and give us all a kiss first.  Sydney saw this and the dolphins in the pool beside us and started to giggle with delight.  her eyes lit up and she was grinning from ear to ear.  She even started talking back to the dolphins when they started making their squealing noises, it was awesome.
 
We were then instructed to get in the water and under the friendly and professional guidance of our instructor, we learned a bit about the dolphin’s and got to touch them, kiss them, dance with them and feed them.  It was a fantastic experience.  I wondered if Sydney would be timid or afraid at all, but she was having the time of her life and loved every minute, this was definitely the highlight of our trip.
 
After we had a quick lunch (I would recommend heading back to your hotel for lunch as it wasnt the best), we noticed a bird sanctuary on the way out.  we stopped in and for a bit, you could hold the parrots and cockatoo, take a picture and even have the bird “kiss” a sunflower seed from your mouth if you wanted.  Again, Sydney loved all of this and wasn’t afraid at all.  The tropical birds are her favorite at the pet store at home!

The dolphin encounter is in Nuevo Vallarta or Vallarta Nayarit as they are now calling it.  We did see a bit of Nuevo Vallarta as we were driving through.  If we decided to return to Puerto Vallarta again, that’s where we would stay.  There are pros and cons to each.  in my personal opinion, you should stay in Puerto Vallarta and near downtown if you require these:
want to be close to the Malecon
want a more authentic Mexican experience
want to be where the restaurants and bars are
wants lots of nightlife options
 
I would stay in Nuevo Vallarta if you:
want a family friendly area
want newer hotels
want a more resort- feel as opposed to a city feel
– would like activities like the dolphin encounter, a zoo, a shopping center and great golf courses all within a short walk or taxi
 
Note – Nuevo Vallarta is about a 20 USD cab ride from the hotel zone of Puerto Vallarta.
 
Since our dolphin encounter, we have just been enjoying more r and r at the hotel. Its been more great sunny days.  this is going to be our last full day before we fly home.  we are taking in the famous Sheraton champagne Sunday brunch (included with our all-inclusive) and then will spend more time at the pool.  I miss having a long beach to walk on.  the beaches here are smaller and quite rocky in this area.  the beaches in Nuevo Vallarta have nicer sand and longer for walking.
 
The hotel has given us a late checkout of 2pm tomorrow which is nice as we don’t need to go to the airport till 5pm.  overall its been a great holiday after our bumpy start and I would recommend the Sheraton to almost anyone.  It’s very similar to North American standards.  They have been very accommodating and it is a good solid 4 star resort.   Puerto Vallarta is a great value destination and the weather is predictably awesome almost all the time, which is a definitely bonus.  Not a cloud or a rain drop since we arrived!
 
Adios!  I will post pictures when I return.
 
Jamie

Jamie’s Puerto Vallarta 2 – Sun, Shopping, Siestas and Sunsets

I’m happy to report that the three of us have happily settled into our new home at the Sheraton Buganvillias.  the Sheraton has two large pool areas, both with excellent kids areas and one with a hot tub.  The activity pool also features a pool bar, aqua size and  pool volleyball.  The kids area is perfect for small kids and there are lots of families here.  Sydney has made a new best friend and they have spent hours the last couple of days playing and splashing in the pool.

 There is a 24 hour internet cafe and 24 hour gym here, plus a few shops to poke around in, and of course the beach vendors if you are in for some bartering….which I did this morning (good bargains!).
 
The beach is smaller here and the water a bit rough, but we tend to like the pool better than the beach anyway and are quite happy with the resort.  The service has been excellent!
 
From our Romeo and Juliet balcony, we can leave the window open at night as we are on the 17th floor and listen to the ocean.  There is no traffic noise at all and no rowdy guests.
 
The grounds are lush with lots of vegetation and flowers.  The food is really good—not a bad meal yet and even a good house red wine.  they have a kids menu with things like chicken nuggets and grilled cheese so even a picky eater like Sydney is finding lots to eat.  There are 3 a la carte’s that you can go to once each, plus the main restaurant which is buffet and a la carte.  so far we’ve just gone to the main one because its easy, the food is great, and you don’t need make a reservation.  tonight is the Mexican Fiesta which they include with their all-inclusive plan and its normally 75 USD each.  they also include their Sunday champagne brunch.
 
The weather has been great, sunny and in the high 20s or low 30s every day.  It’s a bit cool at night so a light sweater has come in handy.  The sunsets are spectacular.
 
Yesterday morning we walked to the Malecon which is about a 20 minute walk and would have been good, except it was difficult with a stroller the sidewalk was broken up and under construction in some areas.  It was hit and miss on the way there.  We saw some nice restaurants and shops beside old abandoned buildings, etc.  However, there were lots of tourists and we felt quite safe.  The Malecon itself was great with lots of street performers and sand sculptors amazing – as well as lots of shopping and restaurants.
 
Today we will enjoy some r and r by the pool and then hit up the Mexican Fiesta after our requisite afternoon siesta.  Tomorrow we are excited to do the family dolphin experience where we get to take Sydney to touch, feed and kiss the dolphin at the aquarium in Nuevo Vallarta.  It was 70 USD each for Mark and I, with Sydney free.  this also includes lunch and seemed like a great deal.  We spoke to another family here who did it with their three-year old and they really enjoyed it.
 
I will update you again after our next adventures!

Jamie’s Puerto Vallarta 1 – Lesson learned; you get what you pay for….

We had a great start to the trip, the flight with Westjet was awesome, as was their staff.  Everything was on time.  Sydney was an angel even if she refused to have her afternoon nap on the way, thanks to lots of snacks and activities, remember to take a sippy cup for babies and toddlers as it reduces the risk of them spilling along the way.
 
Our arrival into Puerto Vallarta was good and our luggage was there by the time we got off the plane.  when going through customs I hit a red light in their random process, but the guy just looked at me and at Sydney who was almost asleep and said press the button again and then I got a green light =very nice surprise!
 
We had prearranged a grey line tours/viators small group transfer to the hotel and the gentleman was waiting as we came out with a sign that had my name on it.  Very easy and convenient and we were the only ones in the car.
 
That’s where our good day ended.
 
We arrived at the Costa Club Punta arena just as it got dark.  It was pretty sketchy with abandoned buildings on either side and only one front desk agent and no other staff in sight.  We checked in with no problems and were left to make our way in the dark, down a broken up path to our room at the far side of the resort.  We looked at our room and thought – uh oh – we had low expectations of a 3 star in Mexico but our goal was a clean, comfortable, safe family friendly holiday on a budget.  Ooops.
 
Over the next 12 hours, this is what we experienced: windows in the room didn’t lock; a dirty bathroom that included our very own dead cockroach; the path was uneven and broken up, the bricks were shrunken and the grout was sticking up making it hard and unsafe for walking around – especially in the dark.  The food at the dinner and breakfast buffet was gross, I ate nothing and neither did Sydney.  Mark tried a few mystery items but none were good i.e. the food labelled “breakfast sausage” were merely cut up hot dogs.  Thank goodness we packed granola bars!!!  We also saw cockroaches as we walked to the restaurant.  More on our room; half the lights didn’t work, the kitchenette had no matches to light the stove, no filters or coffee for coffeemaker, the fridge and stove were way off-balance and the fridge was dirty.  The bathroom was dirty and had no water pressure – just a trickle.  There was a rotten sewer smell out of the bathroom sink and the balcony was shared with other rooms.

The good points = there was one nice waiter who served us a cup of coffee in the morning.
 
I didn’t sleep at all and by 7 AM we were up and down the beach and saw other hotels.  We asked at the front desk of the Sheraton Bougainvillea if they had a room available for check in today for the next six nights.  Thankfully, they did.  That is where our vacation turned around.  We took their all-inclusive program for $230 USD per night total for three of us which worked out to about 100 more per night than the Costa Club. They showed us the room we would have before we left.  We are staying in a oceanview room with two double beds with a Romeo and Juliet balcony.  Not the two bedroom unit we had booked at the Costa club, but it looked and felt like heaven.  What a huge difference!  It is beautiful and clean and the staff goes out of their way to help; giving you maps, running to hold the elevators for you, helping you with your bags, stopping to say hello and explain their included services.  Immediately, the stress level went away and we started to feel like we were on vacation.  The pool area is beautiful (at least the main one we saw) we haven’t made it to the quiet pool yet.  They have a great kids pool area, very big and only about 1 to 2 ft deep, so kids can play and there were lots of kids for Sydney to make friends with.  The food is good; the drink service by the pool is also a nice plus.  We have only been here for 6 hours, but what a wonderful change.  This has gone from my worst vacation ever to one that has the potential to be one of the best.
 
The moral of this story….you get what you pay for.  You work hard for your vacation time and it’s much better to spend a little more upfront and avoid the hassle down the road.  It also goes to show that although I’ve been travelling for 13 years, there are still lessons to be learned and travelling is always an experience!  🙂

Crystal Cruises – Tropical Tradewinds update

Hello from aboard the Crystal Symphony!  We are currently on an 11 day cruise called Tropical Tradewinds.  We are escorting a small group of customers on a program called Vacation Vignettes.  Our Vacation Vignettes program offers such benefits such as a Concierge Host (that’s us on this sailing) that are in place to help with information, any problem solving and to escort a complimentary shore excursion that we provide to clients involved with this program.  Included in this Vacation Vignette there is a welcoming cocktail reception which we are hosting tonight.   

Our host, the Crystal Symphony

The ship itself is very nice – not only in beauty but size.  She only holds about 900 passengers, which sounds like a lot but in today’s world of super ships holding 3 and 4 times as many, the Symphony has everything one needs and it doesn’t take a week to find everything.

 The food – a really, really important part of any vacation experience – has been amazing.  It’s also good to note that the wine prices are very, very good with minimal mark-up and the wine list is very extensive with something for every budget. 

Today, we are going through the Panama Canal after having departed from Costa Rica a couple of days ago.  It is truly an engineering marvel especially considering it was built almost 100 years ago.  It takes much longer going through the canal and lake than I anticipated.  In total, it takes roughly nine hours before we finally enter the Caribbean Sea.  We have cruised quite a bit and are thoroughly enjoying our experience with Crystal and the opportunity of going through the famous Panama Canal. 

I should mention that the shows, the service and the Crystal experience have been superb!  Additionally, to our kids…yes, even the gym is good as we have been there every day since we set sail (in an attempt to NOT gain any weight this trip). We will have more to come as we enjoy the Caribbean! 

Ed and Karen Buchholz

Part 2!

We are continuing to enjoy our Crystal Cruise. We hosted a cocktail party for our group and all our guests seem extremely nice.  They have come from California, Indiana, Maryland, Virginia and Colorado—a small but very nice group.  Yesterday was our first stop on the cruise…Aruba!  This is the first time we have ever been to Aruba and we were very impressed.  We spent the morning strolling the shopping district located right by the pier.  It was your typical assortment of jewellery shops, market stalls and a good selection of higher end stores such as Louis Vuitton, Kenneth Cole, Bvlgari, La Costa and the like.  Tanzanite was also a big seller.

 The afternoon was spent touring the island with a couple we met at our dinner table.  They had hired a car and driver and invited us along.  “Bully” was a great tour guide and showed us much of what the island has to offer.  Aruba is a surprisingly arid island and the landscape is very rocky and covered in cactus plants.  From the top of one of the rock foundations you get an amazing view of most of the island.  The north shore of the island is quite desert-like and rugged…no swimming per se but quite beautiful.

A stop at the island donkey sanctuary was very interesting.  Apparently with the introduction of automobiles to the island, the residents abandoned their past form of transportation – donkeys.  They let them go wild and this sanctuary takes in donkeys that need help because of sickness or if they have been hit by a car.  The sanctuary boasts some 63 residents and the wild population is estimated at 90+. 

Aruba, unlike many other Caribbean islands is quite clean and there is an obvious pride of ownership in their homes and their country. 

A drive through the hotel zone showed us the beautiful beaches that Aruba offers and the tourist infrastructure that includes a myriad of many restaurants, shops and entertainment options.  Again, I was very impressed with the quality of the beaches…beautiful white powder beaches, calm turquoise waters and not too crowded.  We may make Aruba one of our next vacation destinations.

Today is another day at sea and we hold “office hours” for our group should they have any questions, requests or needs.  With the level of onboard services, any requests are handled quickly and efficiently.  Crystal Cruises treats their customers very well and the level of satisfaction is visibly excellent.  The onboard cruise consultant has been very busy booking clients on their next cruises.  We have met one fellow who is on his 28th Crystal Cruise and has the next 2 already booked.  In fact, there is a passenger on board that has been on 200 Crystal Cruises!

Part 3!

Much has happened since our last blog.  The next stop after Aruba was St. Maarten where we hosted our group on an island tour.  We tendered in from the ship and toured the island with stops in Philipsburg, places for some great photos, Orient Beach (caution: there is a clothing optional side to the beach) and a Museum in Marigot.  It was very educational and our group seemed to really enjoy the tour and our time together.  I was quite impressed by the crew as we were getting on and off the tender.  We had a couple of people that are somewhat mobility-challenged and they were very helpful in making sure everyone could get on to visit the island.

 The next stop was St Bart’s.  Again, we tendered in.  Unfortunately, it was Sunday and all of the shops and most of the restaurants were closed.  Wandering through Gustavia, it looked like it would have been excellent shopping there was a lot more than tee shirts and hats – on the other hand, I think we saved quite a bit of money having the shops closed!  Instead, we went off to Shell Beach which is easy walking distance from the pier.  It is aptly named as the beach has long stretches of many, many shells.  There is a beach bar/restaurant…excellent food albeit very expensive.  Being a French island, everything is priced in Euros and we shared an entree.  With a couple of beer each, our lunch was about 66 Euro…close to $100.  Beach chairs were crazy expensive too…30 Euro each for the day.  Needless to say, a towel on the sand was just as good.  Caution, again, it’s a French island so you can expect some topless sun bathers.  It’s too bad we landed there on a Sunday as there seemed to be many different stores and restaurants but our choices were very, very limited.

 The show that night was a wonderful pianist who played and sang songs in a boogie-woogie style like Jerry Lee Lewis.  Pretty good for a guy from Scotland.

 Our last stop was Tortola and our focus was beach time.  Frankly, aside from a few market stalls, we didn’t see anything much else to do but go to the beach.  There are lots of choices of beaches but we chose the most popular beach…Cane Garden Bay.  We decided to go there because it has lots of bars/restaurants along the beach, lots of beach chairs (affordable at $5 per chair and $3 for an umbrella for the day) and it is in fact a nice beach with typical soft Caribbean sand and that wonderful turquoise water.  It was also interesting watching the many pelicans diving into the water for their sustenance.  It was quite busy on the beach but you never felt crowded.  It was handy for beverages and food, its happy hour all day with “rum punches and painkillers” 2 for 1 all day.  At 2 for $6, or a bucket of 6 beer for $15 it was a wonderful day at the beach.  The taxi was also only $8 per person each way and the taxi driver also provided some good narration along the way.

 We ate in the Asian restaurant last night and it was excellent…nice sushi and sashimi, wonderful entrees and of course desert to die for.   You are expected to leave a gratuity for that evening and they suggest $7 per person.  Considering many cruise lines charge $25 – $30 per person extra for their specialty restaurants, this is a bargain.

 The entertainment was a comedian/variety style show, which again was good.  They certainly play to the crowd whose average age must be near 70, playing songs from the 40’s, 50’s and some 60’s.  We are certainly not the youngest people on board but on the lower side of the scale.  Interestingly enough, they are a young hearted crowd and easy to relate to, although there is never anyone in the disco and it has become a bit of a joke for the entertainers.

 So far, I have only two disappointments.  The cost for Internet service is quite high and it is very slow.  You do have some choices.  You can pay by the minute at $.72 per minute, purchase two hours for $50, purchase 10 hours for $200 or purchase 20 hours for $300.  10 hours or more seemed way too much for our needs so we opted for the 2 hour package…we’re now on our 3rd package but I am sure we won’t need any more.  The second disappointment is in the casino…I keep losing and I am putting all of the blame on the dealers!

 Today is our second last day and we are at sea for the next two days.  Watch for one last update once we get off the ship!

Part 4!

It’s over 😦 .  We had a most enjoyable cruise on the Crystal Symphony.  The guests were wonderful and it was a treat being on board with them.  My overall impressions of Crystal Cruise Lines is that it is a wonderful high end cruise line (without being stuffy) where customer service is incredible and they work very hard at it.  Everyone on board, and it didn’t matter who, was extremely friendly and courteous.  It is no wonder they have so many repeat customers.  We met people on board that have cruised a dozen times or more with Crystal and many that have their next or next 2 or 3 cruises booked with them already.  They work very hard to make you want to come back, time and again.  I didn’t meet the gentleman on board that was on his 206th cruise but I understand the crew is like family now.

OK, the worst part for me is boarding the ship without feeling like cattle being driven to market.  Since the ship is on the smaller size, everything was very well planned and we weren’t rushed off the ship.  Our departure time was at 10:15…very civilized and it was easy and without pressure.  Our room stewardess didn’t rush us out of our stateroom, breakfast was served in a leisurely fashion and we had time to kick back and catch some rays before leaving.  We didn’t feel kicked off but rather gently persuaded that it was time to leave – until the next time.  Once we got off the ship, we were directed to the appropriate bus and when we got to the airport, they had pre-paid porters available for us…nice touch.

Now, if airports and airlines were as courteous…