Thursday, February 24, 2011

Walt Disney World..all my thoughts, and I mean all.

Hello everyone. For those who are used to the normal postings on this blog, this one is going to be a bit different. Of course, if you’re used to the normal postings, you’re also wondering where the heck they went. Well, that’s kind of a long story, but we can safely boil it down to a combination of business and laziness. In the next few months, my website is getting a complete makeover and one of the things that will be added is a blog. So the posts will start again soon, but will be hosted somewhere else. Don’t worry, I’ll post here when it happens. Of course, you can always repeatedly visit the Great Explorations Tours site and maybe sign up for a fantastic escorted tour our two while you’re there (I know, I know, shameless).

Now on to the point of this post. In early February 2011 my family and I spent a week in Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. I know there are 1,046 random sites that specialize in Disney (and I read about 934 of them), but I thought I’d post my thoughts and feelings as a relative outsider. I feel that I can give a good perspective for a number of reasons: I am a very experienced travel professional, a huge Disney fan, and the father of a two year old.

Although I am a great follower of all things Disney, it had been over 6 years since my last visit to a Disney park (I visited Walt Disney World and Disneyland Paris 6 years ago). This is what I meant above as being a relative outsider. I do not as of this writing work in any manner professionally with Disney so all of my opinions are that of me and me alone and serve no purpose other than information.

So that was a way too lengthy piece of introduction about to be followed by a way, way too lengthy review. I don’t think I’ll have time to write all of this and revisit and edit it, so be aware that this may be a tad sloppy.

*Just as a little family background, I was traveling with my 2 ½ year old daughter and my wife, who was 5 months pregnant at the time of the trip.

Table of Contents (sorry, not click-able)
- Walt Disney World Parks Overview
- Attractions
- Food & Drink
- Hotel (mostly Port Orleans French Quarter, but I have thoughts on lots of them)
- Transportation

Walt Disney World Parks Overview

Here are my general feelings about each of the parks, just to set up the horribly slanted views below.

Magic Kingdom

I’m not the first one to say this, but the Magic Kingdom is Walt Disney World to most people. The Magic Kingdom was far and away my daughter’s favorite park and definitely contains the vast majority of the fantastical dark rides that made Disney parks famous. I love Magic Kingdom, but I am capable of becoming bored with it, especially when I end up on it’s a small world 5 or 6 times. My biggest problem with Magic Kingdom is that I don’t feel like I can just wander around there for an infinite amount of time like I can some other sections. Of course, the more I learn about all the details the more I enjoy finding them. Perhaps a Keys to the Kingdom tour is in order.


I have a gigantic soft spot for Epcot, even though I have issues with most of its major attractions. I love the technology present at Innoventions as well as some of the minor attractions such as “Journey into Imagination” and “Living with the Land.” Mostly what I love about Epcot is World Showcase. As you would imagine, I love anything travel related. While it is true that I would rather personally visit each country (and have visited, and led tours to, several), the authenticity of each pavilion is what makes me love Disney. I can walk and eat and drink around World Showcase for a little too long.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios

I’m not going to have a lot to say about Hollywood Studios because we just plain didn’t spend much time there. It has a few great attractions, but I’m not crazy about the theme and I think it gets muddled in some spots (like Pixar Place). I always find it hard to find enough to do at Hollywood Studios other than see Muppetvision and ride Tower of Terror over and over. The food here stinks too.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom makes me both very happy and very sad. The theming in the African and Asian villages is some of my favorite in Walt Disney World and I am a huge animal lover. On the flip side, I think Dinoland USA is a nightmare and I find it hard to spend more than one day in the park because there’s only about 6 rides. I can be a great park, but it’s only halfway there.


This one is going to be long…oh, who am I fooling, they’re all going to be long. I’ll try not to mention every attraction at Walt Disney World, but I have opinions on most of them, so this could get ugly. I will skip some of the more popular attractions if I don’t disagree with the general perception.

I’d like to take the time here to say that I tend to be very critical, but it’s only because of the immense potential and genius of Disney. I expect perfection because they deliver it so often.

Magic Kingdom

- Jungle Cruise – I know it’s a classic ride, one of Walt’s originals, but I don’t love it. I like it a lot, and I understand the love that Jungle Cruise does get. I laugh every time at some of the dumb Cast Member jokes, but most of them are pretty dumb. I do Jungle Cruise every trip, but I can usually only handle it once because of the spiel.

The animatronics are a little dated, but I think they still hold up fairly well. I find it to be a little juvenile, but it’s Disney World, so that is forgiven.

- Pirates of the Caribbean – One of my favorites. Everything that is to be loved about Disney: Imagination, technical ability, and wonder. The Captain Jack Sparrow(s) are new since my last visit and they are fantastic, especially the one at the end. The mannerisms are spot on. I love to ride Pirates multiple times because there is just so much to see.

- Country Bear Jamboree – Ugh. I remembered this as being dated, but still cute and amusing. Dated it still was. The songs are not really that funny and in some cases are a little dark. Once you’re past the sight of singing bears (get it, they don’t usually sing…it’s funny), there’s really not much going on. My 2 year old was not amused, we left about 2/3 of the way through.

- Haunted Mansion – My favorite ride for all the reasons I listed for Pirates above. So much going on. I was worried about my daughter since it is so dark and ominous, but she was good with it. It wasn’t her favorite, but she put up with it twice and kept calling it “Daddy’s favorite ride” which is just pretty darn cute.

The MC Escher-ish stairs room and the Attic are both new since my last visit and both are great additions. The attic especially seems to have a ton of detail in it, I need to ride this one about 600 more times.

- Peter Pan’s Flight – I know why this gets long lines by the end of the day (it’s a capacity thing), but I don’t know why people wait 45 plus minutes for it. It’s a decent ride, but I never see anything special. The cartoonish London-scape is neat, but that’s about all. It always feels rushed to me.

- Philharmagic – I can never figure out why I don’t hear more about this attraction. To me, it’s one of the best at the Magic Kingdom and the best of the movie-style shows (Muppetvision is the only one even close). The 3D is well-used, the water spurts aren’t soaking, and nothing “stings” you in the back. The story is cute, funny, and well thought out. They manage to work in great songs and scenes without going too long.

I wasn’t sure how my daughter would react to the large screen and having to wear the glasses, but she absolutely loved this show. We ended up seeing it 3 times.

- Snow White’s Scary Adventures – I’m really only mentioning this because it has recently been announced that it’s going away. I have to say that I won’t miss it. The ride is okay, and my daughter really liked it, but it’s a huge trap. What I mean by trap is that it ends up scaring a lot of little girls half to death because they love Snow White and then get freaked out by the darkness and the witch.

The truth is that it’s very true to the movie, which I’m sure is the point, but try telling that to the 5 year old sitting behind me. There’s not really anything about this ride that I will be sad to see go. Of course, I’m not thrilled about the building becoming another meet and greet instead of a new dark ride, but that’s another rant.

- The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh – This was another of my daughter’s favorites. I don’t love the ride, but it’s not exactly aimed at 30+ men either. What I think is that it is an example of a child-friendly dark ride that only Disney seems to be able to do properly. It has a nice mix of technology (I love the part where Pooh faded into his nightmare and then the smoke ring right after that), some parts for the kids (bouncing with Tigger), and a story that is easy to follow.

I do want to mention the new “interactive” queue that recently opened for Pooh…I hate it. I understand why they did it, but unlike the video games in Space Mountain, kids have to move out of the line in order to play in the Pooh queue. I assume the idea is that the parents stay in the proper line why the kids play, but it seems like there is way too much opportunity for parents to have problems with kids. I can easily see kids not wanting to move along in the line, which seems to defeat the purpose.

- Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin – I hear almost all good things about Buzz’s ride/game, but I’m not as big a fan. It might be because I’m not that competitive, but I find that this ride gets old for me after, well, once. There’s no discernable story and you can’t convince me that those guns are aimed properly, making the “game” part pretty irrelevant.

- Space Mountain – I’ve gone back and forth with Space Mountain in my life because I’m a roller coaster fan. When I was on it 6 years ago, I left very disappointed. I was terribly uncomfortable in the car (I’m 6’3”) and ended up hurting my knee banging it off of the side. In addition, it wasn’t dark enough; I could see the track.

This time I went into the mountain hopeful (due to some revamping that was done last year) but cautious. I have to admit that I was thrilled with the “new” Space Mountain. The cars were noticeably larger and it was very dark, to the point that my stomach was getting a little loopy because of the sudden turns. This is a great example (along with Pirates and Haunted Mansion) of how Disney can refurbish their older rides while staying true to the original vision. If you’re wondering, The Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management is the worst example.

- Main Street Electrical Parade – I just wanted to mention this because this trip was the first time I had ever seen MSEP, although I had seen Spectromagic several times. Main St. Electrical Parade was very nice and my daughter absolutely loved it, but I prefer Spectromagic myself. Of course, if it’s still MSEP on my next visit, I’ll happily see it again.

- Toontown – Another item that I only mention because it no longer exists. Two days after our visit, Toontown was closed mostly forever (some will be incorporated into the new Fantasyland). This is another thing I won’t miss. Mickey and Minnie’s houses are sweet and I understand the draw with children, but I don’t think they’re needed. I think I can get away with saying “We’re going to where Mickey and Minnie are” without actually going to their “houses.” The only part of Toontown that I liked (and my daughter’s favorite part) was Goofy’s Barnstormer (my girl’s first coaster), and that’s going to be staying.


- Ellen’s Energy Adventure – Ugh again. I really like the dinosaurs part, but the movie is pretty bad. I don’t find it funny and it’s way too long (I fell asleep on my last visit). We didn’t actually even do this on this trip (nor did we do the next two), I just wanted to rag on it again.

- Mission Space – Did I mention that I get motion sick? Did I mention that my first time on Mission Space I was unaware that it was a centrifuge? Have you figured out what a terrible combination that is?

- Test Track – I don’t get it. There, I said it. The lines get ridiculously long and I don’t see the draw. The “testing” is not nearly as fun as it seems like it should be and the major draw seems to be the speed test. It consists of a car going 60 miles per hour…I go faster on my way to the airport. I just don’t get it.

- The Seas with Nemo and Friends – This seems like it could be really cool, but it’s not quite there. I love the combination of the Nemo characters with the real tanks, but I was under the impression that was the whole ride, when it’s actually just the last few scenes. The rest of it may have well been a movie. It’s also very short. On the bright side, my daughter has watched Finding Nemo about 4 times since we got back. I also love the seagulls out front…mine, mine.

- Soarin’ – Another attraction that I experienced for my first time. I was a little underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong, it is very, very cool, but it seemed a little disjointed. I didn’t like how it was just a collection of scenes from California with no segues whatsoever. I think if they could work some sort of story or at least a beginning and ending it would be even better. The soundtrack and scents are incredible though.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios

- Muppetvision 3D – As I mentioned above, we only spent one evening at Hollywood Studios and it was a Fantasmic night, so the park was quite busy. Because of this, we only managed to do a few attractions and nothing makes me sadder than to say that this wasn’t one of them. I have seen Muppetvision several times before and it’s easily in my top 10, but we didn’t make it this time. I just listed it here because I love the Muppets so much.

- Toy Story Mania – This is another attraction that was sacrificed due to the schedule. I list it here because it would have been obvious in its omission, but I have never ridden it. I don’t think it will really be my thing for the same reasons that Buzz Lightyear isn’t, but I would’ve loved to try it because it is Disney World’s newest ride.

- Rock n’ Roller Coaster – I may actually love the preshow for this more than the ride. Aerosmith in the recording studio is one of the most awkward, unintentionally hilarious videos I’ve ever seen. The first 5 seconds of the ride are awe-inspiring. The remaining seconds of the ride are also pretty good, but 99% of the ride is that takeoff.

- Tower of Terror – Haunted Mansion is my favorite attraction, but I think this is WDW’s best attraction, if that makes sense. The theme, the preshow, the cast members, the elevator, the creepy child singing, the lightning effects, the drops…all fantastically done. I will say that it is noticeable that they changed the drop sequences, I found it to be a much wilder and therefore awesomer (yeah, I know) ride.

- Fantasmic – I was very excited to see this show since it rained very heavily during my last attempt. They still went on with the show in the rain, but it was hard to concentrate. Honestly, I didn’t remember a lot from it, but since I hear such good things, I assumed it was just the rain that made it unmemorable.

It turned out that there are large sections where Fantasmic is unmemorable. I know most will disagree with me, but I think the projection on the water fountains is not that interesting. The technology is impressive, but my wonder only lasts for a few minutes and then I start to wonder when the show will get on. I also found it hard to follow much of the on “stage” action since it is quite far away.

Now, the last 10 minutes make up for a lot with the dragon/fire, the steamboat of characters, and Mickey saving the day, but overall I was not as happy as I wanted to be. I think if they shrunk the show by about 10 minutes it would be tighter and better.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom

- Kiliminjaro Safaris – I love, love, love this attraction. As I said, I am an animal lover and someday I will run, or at least participate in, a real African safari. Until then, this is as close as I’m getting and seeing the animals in a very close approximation of their natural habitats is very cool. I don’t really like the poacher storyline, but it has been toned down some and is not intrusive so it can be forgiven.

- Kali River Rapids – I didn’t ride Kali on this trip because I don’t like it. I just wanted to say that. More details? Fine. It’s too short, the scenery is not as good as advertised, and the burned forest part just depresses me.

- Expedition Everest – I lost my Everest virginity on this trip and couldn’t be happier about it. This has the best in-ride theme I’ve ever seen on a coaster. I could actually follow the story as I was whipping around the track from the ascent to the camp to the Yeti. As is well documented, the “disco” Yeti effect is ridiculous and should be embarrassing for Disney. If I didn’t know to look for the Yeti I wouldn’t even have seen one of the most advanced animatronics ever made. The young woman sitting next to me did, in fact, not see it.

- Dinosaur – Another ride I missed this time and another ride that I missed because I don’t like it. I think it’s too rough, has way too loose a story, and is nothing but noise and lights. Judging by the crowds for this, I think I’m not alone with this opinion.

Food and Drink

I’ll try to keep this one a little briefer (is that a word…the spell checker didn’t stop it). There are many, many places that give in-depth reviews of Walt Disney World restaurants and every one of them gives a different opinion. I am very critical of food because I enjoy cooking myself. I know how easy it is to make good, fresh food so it disappoints me to no end when professionals can’t do it. In general, I think the counter service food at Disney World is terrible. I find it on par with McDonald’s, but with a little less flavor.

What I’m going to use this section for is to point out some of the table service restaurants that we visited as well as a few smaller things such as beer and snacks that I feel need pointing out. Please keep in mind that my scope is limited since I, in most cases, only had one item per restaurant and on one night. It is unfair to review a restaurant based off of such a small sample…but I’m going to do it anyway.

Magic Kingdom

- Cinderella’s Royal Table – It’s hard to speak badly about eating breakfast before the Magic Kingdom is even open inside Cinderella’s Castle with several princesses. My daughter was wearing a tiny little Cinderella dress of her own and it was very magical. She loves the “fur” characters, but is not as into the “face” ones. She got very excited from a distance, but as they got closer, she froze up a bit. Still a great meal, although also one of the most expensive meals I’ve ever eaten (and definitely the most expensive without wine).


- Garden Grill – We decided to do the character dinner here because my daughter loves the well-known characters and this one had Mickey, Pluto, Chip, and Dale. This turned out to be a lovely meal. The food was fresh and relatively tasty, not the best food I’ve ever had, but much better than other places. The character interaction was very good although seemed to be cyclical; there would be all 4 within 5 minutes and then nothing for 15. The restaurant also seemed smaller than some of the others, which was a nice change.

- Biergarten – I love German food and I love German beer even more, so this one was a no brainer. The food was good, but I was a bit disappointed in a few dishes that I love to eat in Germany (their sauerbraten was too thick and dry). The entertainment is fantastic and they serve beer in liter glasses. In short, this place makes me happy.

- Via Napoli – My wife and daughter are pizza fans, but I am less so. Don’t get me wrong, I will eat pizza, but I think many of the popular and common pizzas are junk. When I’m in Italy I eat much more pizza because it is handmade, wood fired, and uses fresh ingredients. Since Via Napoli is supposed to be the same, we had to try it.

It turns out that the pizza here is very, very close to eating pizza in Italy and I’m very happy to say that. I do have a few complaints, but not with the food. For one thing, the pies are way too expensive at around $30. Secondly, in Italy pizza is generally a takeout food, meant to be eaten cheaply and on the go. If Via Napoli would add a small takeout shop where the pizza would be all to go that would go a very long way toward authenticity and popularity.

- Beer, beer, beer – I would be amiss if I didn’t mention the fantastic beers available in Epcot. It is entirely possible that I sampled (way too) many of them. In order of preference (I don’t remember all of the brewery names): 1. Guinness (always #1) – 2.German Oktoberfest - 3. Boddington’s from England – 4. Amber in Italy (I was surprised) – 5. Sam Adams Noble Pils from the good ol’ USA – 6. Casa Beer from Morocco (even more surprised) – 7. Kirin Ichiba from Japan – 8. Dos Equis from Mexico (I’ve had this many times, but there had to be something wrong with their taps, this was not good) – 134. Kronenburg 1664 from France (yuck).
Just for reference, I’ve also had many Canadian beers which I like as well as Carlsberg (okay) and Tsing Tao from China (one of my least favorite beers ever)


- Chef Mickey’s – This is another one that we did so my daughter could get closer to the characters. The character interaction was again fantastic. What really surprised me was the food. It wasn’t great, but it was pretty good which was much better than I was expecting it to be. This is almost always recommended for kids and I have nothing else to add to that.

- T-Rex Café – I’ve eaten at Rainforest Café and it’s no coincidence that their slogan is “A Great Place to Shop and Eat.” What’s weird about that? If you owned a restaurant, would you put shop first or eat first? Yeah, I thought so. Anyway, I didn’t have high expectations since T-Rex is the same ownership group. It was definitely better, but still not great. What was great was the theme and the realistic nature of the dinosaurs. What was overpriced and nothing special was the food.


We stayed on this trip at the Port Orleans French Quarter resort, so most of this section is about that resort. In addition, I’m going to mention the Caribbean Beach resort, which I have stayed in before, as well as Port Orleans Riverside, which I have visited, but never stayed in.

Port Orleans French Quarter

This was my second stay at Port Orleans French Quarter, although my first was as a teenager, so I was curious to see if I still liked it as much as I remembered. I think I was actually happier with this resort than I expected to be.

The landscaping and the layout are not only beautiful, but they really add to the quaint feeling of the resort. The courtyards and riverbanks allow for some quiet contemplation, which is rare for a Disney vacation (at least for me). I think I took about 100 pictures of all the fountains, trees, and those awesome crocodiles near the pool.

Now, in fairness, I got to explore French Quarter a lot because on all but one day we went back to the hotel for naptime. During nap I usually just wandered around either French Quarter or Riverside (below) and occasionally ended up at a poolside bar. Despite my thorough exploration of French Quarter, I never got bored of walking the cobblestoned streets and listening to the piped in jazz.

All of that is not actually the best thing about French Quarter, the size is the real treat. The resort is so small that no room is far away from anything else, avoiding those long walks that can be a problem at some of the larger resorts. Also due to its size, French Quarter only has one bus stop which is nice.

The only complaint I have is that French Quarter occasionally shares a bus with Port Orleans Riverside, which has 4 stops and many more rooms. This only seems to apply to Epcot and Hollywood Studios, but I still found it to be a pain. The way to those parks took longer due to the extra stops, but that can be forgiven once you know to plan for it. The real problem comes at the end of the day because the line for the joint Port Orleans buses gets very, very long. This means that it takes longer to get on the bus, the buses are more crowded, and everyone starts getting annoyed. Again, there is an advantage to French Quarter since it is the first drop off.

I should probably touch on the actual room, because I’m sure that’s important to some when considering a hotel. We managed to nab a newly refurbished room (about half of the resort has been refurbished so far), and it was obviously new. The beds were bigger (queen) with very nice wood headboards and all new bedding. The appointments were very nice and did a much better job of incorporating the resort theme than the previous decorations. The room would have been a little small if I was working in there, but considering we basically just slept and showered there, the size was no issue for us.

I know this sounded like a paid advertisement, but I really do just love the resort. I didn’t even mention the beignets or the boat to Downtown Disney, but I’ll spare you another 500 words.

Port Orleans Riverside

As I mentioned above, I spent naptime wandering quite a bit. One of the places that is easy to wander to is Port Orleans Riverside as it is just a short walk up the river from French Quarter. I have always heard good things about Riverside so I eagerly sauntered upriver to see it for myself.

Riverside is a little harder to review because it has two different sections. I don’t remember the official names of the sections, so I’ll call them Mansions and Bayou. The mansions are beautiful and really evoke a bygone southern charm. The grounds around them are gorgeous as well. The bayou section is not nearly as impressive looking and the layout seems complicated and confusing. Of course, the rooms on the inside are all the same (and I didn’t see them), so all of this may be unimportant.

My only problem with Riverside is part of what fuels my love for French Quarter…the size. I spent about 3 hours in total walking around Riverside and I felt like I was far from seeing all of it. I managed to find one of the bus stops near the Mansions and timed my walk from there to the food court area. It was about 8 minutes (and I walk fast); if my daughter was there and walking herself, it would have been at least 15. To me, walking that far for my cup of terrible coffee (another rant, I’ll spare you) every morning would just be a pain. I know that from experience (next section).

Caribbean Beach

On my last visit I stayed at Caribbean Beach because it came very highly recommended by some friends. I found it to be a very pretty resort that I will most likely never stay at again. There was nothing wrong with the resort as far as room, landscaping, or service is concerned; it is just too big for me.

We were in the Jamaica section, which is across the lake from the food court area. The room location was near the water, which sounded nice until we realized that meant a 5-10 minute walk to the nearest bus stop as well as a 5-10 minute walk (in the other direction) across the bridge to the food court. It started out as a nice early morning walk for my coffee, but after a few days became a hike.

In addition, Caribbean Beach has multiple bus stops (I don’t remember how many…felt like 7) which means extra time and extra people on every bus. The size of the resort also meant that our bus stop at the parks usually had a very long line, especially at park closing. It was common at park closing to wait at the bus stop for 40 minutes plus as we watched 2 or 3 buses load before we could get on. I’m just glad I didn’t have kids then.

The thing that scares me about staying there again is that our building wasn’t the most awkwardly placed…it could have been worse.


I just want to briefly (yes, brief, I promise) mention a few different bus systems because who doesn’t love a good bus discussion.

- Disney’s Magical Express – This was my first experience with the Magical Express and, in this instance, it worked perfectly. This had as much to do with luck as anything else, and I can see how the system can be wrought with problems, but it was still nice. We didn’t have to wait at baggage claim, we got a free ride to the hotel, and our bags made it to the room while we spent our first day at the park. I would gladly recommend this to anyone who is not planning on renting a car.

- Bus System – I have used the Disney bus system on several trips and have had very few complaints with it. I find it to be as efficient as possible, clean, and easy to understand. Plus, my daughter got a huge kick out of riding the bus.

Traveling with a Toddler

I wasn’t going to go into this, but since I see the argument for/against taking small children to Disney on the message boards all the time, I figured I’d throw my 3 ½ cents in. I think your opinion is directly related to how often you plan on visiting Wald Disney World. If you are like me and plan on visiting at least every couple of years (hopefully more), then I strongly recommend going as soon as the kids are old enough to know what’s going on (probably around 2). If, however, you plan on only taking one trip per generation, then you probably want to wait until they can ride and appreciate everything (around 7ish). I don’t want to start a fight, so I’m going to stop there, but I’ll be glad to elaborate with anyone who would like me to.


As I said in pieces above, I only criticize because I know that Disney has the capability for perfection. Overall, I am always happy before, during, and reminiscing about a trip to Walt Disney World.

I would be happy to answer any questions about Disney, European travel, or anything else. You can contact me by going to or through Twitter @GreatExTours (professional) or @brian_mcnichols (personal). Of course, and comments can be placed below…I love a good debate. Hopefully it will be much, much less time until my next Disney trip. Thanks for reading and I’m sorry if my English/syntax/grammar/lack of editing (delete as appropriate) was offensive to you. I also have loads more pictures, but blogspot is ever so slow so I couldn't post as many as I wanted. If there's anything specific you'd like to see, let me know.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Don't worry, I didn't give up.

Sorry for those of you that read this site. I know I'm way way way behind my posts. I've just been busy with "real" life lately. I should be back within the next week with my next post which will be 'my favorite places'. Thanks for understanding.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Being a tourist without feeling like a tourist

I know, I know, you’re traveling to a foreign country and you want to see all the tourist sights. I understand, I’ve done the same and I still visit the big, popular attractions when I go. Of course, if you’re on an escorted tour like the fabulous ones offered by Great Explorations Tours [], you don’t have much choice but to visit all of the tourist sights. So by now you’re probably asking yourself two questions; If I’m seeing all the tourist sights how am I not supposed to feel like a tourist? And what is the point of this post?

First, the point: In my experience, many, and probably most, travelers on escorted tours get driven to the sight in question, get told some background info, maybe take a tour, pose for pictures, then get back on the bus and move on to the next sight. I strongly feel that this qualifies as seeing the sight, but not experiencing anything in particular. What’s the key difference between experiencing and seeing? Time.

On my tours I encourage people to take some time to walk around, find a bench, or even come back on their own later. Sadly that’s not always possible due to time constraints, but I do my best to allow it as much as possible. One of the ways we do that is by staying in hotels that are located near the attractions (see my post on Hotels for much, much more). That way our travelers can walk to many of the sights on their own and at their own pace.

Another way we allow a better experience is by offering walking tours wherever possible. On foot everything moves a little slower and you can feel the energy of the city in ways you can’t from the bus. Walking gives you time to look into a shop, or notice the fantastic architecture of a building, or buy some food from a street vendor. This is all part of the experience.

Now to fully answer the other question I posed above, how to not feel like a tourist. I answered some of this already, but I want to expand on it a little more. Many of my best memories of traveling are not from the major tourist sights; they are from the little things that happen along the way. Sometimes you are in a café, or wandering around a garden, or sitting in front of a famous monument, but you are struck by something that doesn’t show up in pictures. What you have to do is maximize your chances of having these moments and to do that you need to break free from the crowd.

I see a lot of people only go where the crowds go. I’ll use the lovely Italian city of Florence as an example: People are all around the Duomo and Piazza della Signora, then they wander over to the Ponte Vecchio and look around in all the souvenir shops. These places are all wonderful and are must sees on any visit, but boy can they be crowded. Now let’s say you walk across the Ponte Vecchio and into the Boboli Gardens on the other side of the Arno River. The gardens can have quite a few people in them too, but most of those people stay near the entrance to a very large garden complex. If you spend a few minutes walking you can easily come upon a lonely spot. Do you want an even better example? Go a little further southeast along the river and find your way up to the Piazzale Michelangelo. It’s a little bit of a walk, but because of that it is much less crowded and affords some very nice views.

Even if you don’t want to go to such lengths, just walk away. See the sights, and then just walk around. Trust me, you will find an out of the way street or café or pub that you can just enjoy.

I know many people are afraid of wandering around a strange city for fear of getting lost (or worse). Luckily, if you travel with me and Great Explorations Tours, I give you maps and helpful suggestions about where you can go to avoid some crowds and still be safe. My goal is to allow everyone to truly experience everywhere we go. It’s not enough for me to check off the proverbial list of sights, and it shouldn’t be for you either.

I just wanted to add a few more things on to this (relatively short) post. These are just some bits and pieces of thoughts.

- For the record, my favorite places anywhere are sitting at a table outside with a beer or glass of wine. I love to just sit there and watch people go by, especially if it’s on a nice square, piazza, place, or platz. There you get an interesting mixture of locals and tourists and yes, it is very easy to tell the difference.

- As for the monuments and major tourist sights. There are a lot of things that everyone should try to see at least once, but these are some of my favorites and the ones I can go back to over and over:

- The Pantheon, Rome – so old and so mathematically perfect
- Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence – most impressive sculpture ever.
- The Rock of Cashel, Ireland – Mostly in ruins but there is something still so important feeling about it
- Versailles, France – So beautiful and so historically amazing
- Weiskirche, Bavaria, Germany – Most lavishly beautiful church I’ve ever seen
- Neuschwanstein, Bavaria, Germany – A castle in the hills. Best setting of any castle in the world
- Tower of London – Massive in size and history

- I’m not a big souvenir person. I am usually happy with my pictures, but I do buy souvenirs for others so I’ve looked at a lot of them. Not surprisingly, there is a lot of junk and the stuff that’s not junk can be pricey. I’m not going to try to tell people what they should and shouldn’t buy, except for one thing I want to mention. There are a lot of stands and shops that sell shirts with the country’s name on it. There is nothing wrong with these but it really grinds my gears when people buy shirts that say Germany (for example). Why does it bother me? Because the Germans call their country Deutschland, not Germany, so those shirts are solely for English speaking tourists. You can find shirts that say Deutschland, so please, for my sanity, buy those.

That’s it, time for more plugging. If you want to really feel like a traveler (or see the sights I’ve listed as my favorites) you can go with me by traveling with Great Explorations Tours [].

I just posted the dates for our fall tours, see them here:

[ Discover Scotland – 6 night tour of Edinburgh and the Highlands

[ Mediterranean Italy – 7 nights along the Amalfi Coast and the Isle of Capri

[ Bavaria, Germany – 7 nights seeing Munich and the Alps

[ London Plus – 7 nights in London, Bath, and Oxford

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Restaurants, Cafes, Bistros, Bars, and Pubs

I didn’t really intend on writing the travel version of War and Peace, but apparently I have a lot to say. Anyone who knows me will laugh at that last sentence because I always have a lot to say, I don’t know why I’m surprised by it. I should be a tour guide...yeah, I am (visit Great Explorations Tours to see my tours).

What I’m getting at is that this entry won’t be any shorter. That’s because some of my fondest travel memories involve dining in a restaurant or having a drink in a pub. The problem that most people run into is that they are nervous about walking into strange, unknown places in a country they’re not familiar with. Therefore they end up with a sub-par meal or drinking in whatever country’s version of an American bar. Those can be memorable too, but not usually in a good way. I’m hoping that knowing what to expect will make you more comfortable when trying out a new place.

What I’m going to do is break it down by country and, as I said in the beginning of my hotels post, I’m going to focus on the countries that we run tours to (Ireland, England, Scotland, France, Germany, and Italy). The reason I’m doing this is because there are subtle (and less subtle) differences between many of those. Before I get into that, here are some generalities with restaurants and bars in Europe:

- Smaller is usually better. I’m not saying that the big, popular places are bad, but usually the quaint, family-run establishments are where you get the best mix of quality and service. Plus, they’re not as used to foreigners (especially Americans) so they tend to be excited to talk to you...really.

- Locals know best. The way to find a good place is just by looking in the window. If it’s reasonably crowded and it seems like a lot of locals, that’s a good place. If it’s dead, that’s not a good sign, no matter what country you’re in.

- Cleanliness. This is a gimmie, because no one is going to walk into a dirty restaurant to eat. What you have to look at though is that you’re not mistaking age for dirtiness. Some European restaurants are 600 years old, therefore may have exposed stone walls or wood beams. What you want to make sure of is that the wait staff’s uniforms and the tables are clean because those better not be 600 years old too.

- Service. A lot of people find the service sub-par in European restaurants and bars. I actually find it to be of a higher quality generally. The difference in opinion comes from understanding the differences. The big one is that Europeans consider it rude to interrupt diners, so they will wait to be summoned if you need them. Americans are used to getting the food, being asked if everything is okay, getting drink refilled, etc, so when they dine in Europe they think they’re being ignored. That is not the case, the wait staff will be there immediately upon request, but not before. In bars, there usually is no wait staff, you have to go to the bar to order everything and then the bartender will bring it to the table.

- Language. For those countries that don’t speak English as a first language, many people worry about reading the menu. For the most part this is not an issue. I have found that most restaurants print descriptions in English, and even those that don’t usually have staff members that speak enough to explain things to you. Of course, if you’re adventurous, you can just pick something and figure it out later (I’ve done this before and been pleasantly surprised).

- A word on prices. I’m not going to discuss pricing because it has so many variables to it. Like everywhere, you can find bargains and expensive meals. One advantage to European restaurants is that in most countries they are required to post their menu outside, so you know the prices before you go in. Bars are easier to tell the price because, let’s face it, we all know a cheap dive bar when we see it.

- Specific dishes. I’m also not going to get into any specific dishes or styles of cooking because inside any given country the food ranges greatly depending on where you are. This is long enough already without me going through the difference between Parisian and Provencal cooking.

Okay, now to the country breakdowns. There are two categories here, countries that are food and wine oriented (France and Italy), and countries that are beer oriented (Ireland, the UK, and Germany). I’m going to start with the food and wine.



Everyone has been to an Italian restaurant. For the most part, saying an Italian restaurant in America is just like a restaurant in Italy is like saying you and your cousin are the same person. What I mean is that you can see some resemblance, maybe even the same name, but it’s a whole different thing.

The similarities: Pasta, sauce, meat, desserts, wine. These items are all found in Italy, but they may not be exactly the same as what you’re used to.

The differences:
Pasta - Many different types of pasta that is usually handmade
Sauce - the sauce is used as a compliment to the pasta, not to drown it; the sauce is usually very sparse and very rarely tomato based
Meat – This is pretty much the same except that you’ll see meats that aren’t as popular in the US like veal and lamb.
Desserts – very similar
Wine – Also similar due to the prevalence of foreign wines in America now. The advantage is that most Italian restaurants offer a house wine, served in a jug (often straight from the cask), that is cheap and excellent.

There are two main differences between eating out in the US vs. Italy, and they both have to do with timing.

1. The way you order is a little different. Eating in American restaurants, there are generally three courses; appetizer, main course, dessert. In Italy, there are more courses; appetizers, pasta, meat and fish, dessert, cheese or aperitif. These will vary slightly depending on the region and restaurant, but they’re close. Most restaurants expect you to order several courses and I’ve received the odd look for only doing two of them, but they would never say anything, it’s just what they’re used to. As a side note to this, there are also no side dishes; everything is ordered (and priced) separately.

2. You’re probably wondering now how you can eat five courses every night. Well the other difference is that the Italians eat very late and for a very long time. Many restaurants don’t even open until 7pm, and those that open before that may be tourist traps so beware. Italians don’t usually eat until around 8, and it is not uncommon for them to sit at the table until 10 or 11. Dining out is a very social experience in Italy. People chat and socialize and have a generally good time. It is a very enjoyable environment, even if you don’t know what they’re saying. Once they find out you’re an American though, you may get some interest (in a good way), such as the time we were in Venice and had a very long conversation with a restaurant owner about Jack Daniel’s Bourbon vs. Grappa. He used to live in Texas and insisted that Grappa was better, although you’ll have to wait a few weeks until my alcohol post for my feelings on Grappa. Anyway, we had a very nice time (and he gave us two free shots, although afterwards that wasn’t so nice) and all because we were in a small place immersing ourselves in the culture.


I don’t have a lot to say (imagine that) about bars in Italy because I usually just like to have my wine with dinner and go to bed shortly afterward. If you are the night owl type, there are many dance clubs in Italy (and all of Europe) that are open much of the night. There are not many of what Americans consider “bars,” and I think that’s because they just don’t drink a lot of beer. You will see Irish and English style pubs in many places, which can be an interesting experience in itself.

You can see our tours to Italy by clicking these links:
Rome, Venice, and Florence Tour
Mediterranean Italy including the Amalfi Coast, Isle of Capri, and Pompeii



Most people have a preconceived notion of what a French restaurant is. If you’re one of those people (like I was once), you’re picturing a very fancy, very expensive place with white tablecloths, snooty waiters in tuxes, and very pretty food that is about the size of a hockey puck. I’m not going to say that you’re wrong if that’s what you’re picturing, but you’re not right either.

If you want to spend $1,000 on one meal and eat some of the fanciest food you’ll ever see, you can absolutely do that in some restaurants in France (and especially Paris). However, if you just like earthy, home-style, good quality food (and who doesn’t) you’ll be very pleasantly surprised by the majority of French cuisine. Like everywhere in the world, French food is derived from the home kitchen, and you can still find those fantastic dishes in restaurants and bistros throughout France. A few notes:

- Like the Italians, the French eat dinner late and eat for a long time. 8 or 8:30pm is the common dinnertime, and it may last until 10 or 11. As far as lunch is concerned, the French also take their time, often taking a 1 or 2 hour lunch break.

- Also like the Italians, French menus are compartmentalized. If you want a side of potatoes, you have to order it separately. If you order a steak, you get a steak, nothing else.

- Speaking of steak, the French like their meat rare. They offer three choices of doneness; Well done, Medium, and Rare, there is no in-between like Medium Rare. Be aware that French cooks will not actually cook meat to what we consider well done, in fact it will be closer to medium than well done. Medium will be closer to rare and frankly I like meat on the rare side, but even I’ve never been brave enough to see what they consider rare.

- This is where it gets odd. The French “attitude” is well known, although a little misunderstood. You will see it most often at mealtimes because no one takes food as seriously as the French do. They invented many of the techniques used in cooking around the world and they strongly believe those techniques to be superior (and they’re right in many cases).

What you must remember is that the French cook to honor the food, not the customer. When a Frenchman sees a steak, he sees an opportunity to honor that animal by cooking it perfectly and applying the perfect sauce. If you request something that would dishonor the food, they will simply refuse. If you ask to cook a steak longer, they will request that you order something else. If you ask to hold a sauce, they will insist that it’s better with the sauce and that you try it. If you ask for dessert to be brought early, they will refuse. And yes, I’ve personally seen all of these situations.

They are not being rude (in their minds, anyway), they are simply trying to give you the best food. The best way to approach it is to assume they know better than you and let them do what they do. That may not be what everyone wants to hear, but I’ve had very, very few bad meals in France, so they may actually know better.


What I said about bars in Italy applies in France too, that traditional bars are not common, but night clubs can be found, especially in the big cities. One thing I will mention though is that due to the proximity of Paris to Belgium, it is possible to find places that have fantastic Belgian beers on tap if that interests you like it does me.

You can see our tours to France by clicking these links:
Paris Plus Tour also includes Versailles, Normandy, and Champagne
The French Riviera includes Marseille, Nice, Monaco and the rest of the Cote d’Azur

Ireland and the United Kingdom

I lumped Ireland, England, and Scotland together here because, as much as they would all hate to admit, they are pretty similar when food and drink is concerned.


This will be a short section because none of these countries are known for their food. Restaurants in all of them are more like what Americans are used to in style and service, and the food is often nondescript. Traditional food is hearty and yes, potatoes and stews are pretty prominent. There is a more recent movement toward continental cuisine (especially in Dublin, London, and Edinburgh) and you can also find many restaurants specializing in food from around the world.


This is where the Irish, English, and Scottish excel. To fully understand why I’m going to have to give a little history lesson (sorry). Pub is short for Public House and they are called that because a long time ago most houses did not have a reliable heat (or light) source, so people would head to the pub to relax, get warm, get their local news (gossip), and of course have a pint. Pubs were more like an extended living room where meetings were held, uprisings were started, and parties were ongoing.

To a certain extent, the old public house is still just that, a place where people go to socialize and have a pint. Sure there’s less official business done there (not none, but less), but it’s still part of the culture. A visit to at least one pub is a mandatory part of any tour to the UK or Ireland because of this. It’s not just a place to drink, but to meet people and enjoy the spirit of the country.

Beer is the drink of choice in all of these countries, although Ireland and Scotland certainly have a whiskey (or in Scotland, whisky) inclination too. Their beers tend to lean toward the dark, strong side to combat their rich food and cool weather, although you can find lighter beer (or foreign beers, if you must).

Bar food is also found everywhere in the UK and Ireland and it is usually pretty good and certainly well priced. One thing to note is that you order everything from the bar, pay up front, and then your food and drinks are brought out to your table. It’s actually a system I prefer, but a lot of time can be wasted sitting at a table expecting a waiter.

If you’re lucky, you may even be in a pub during a ceili (or ceilidh in Scotland), which is a gathering involving music and singing. It is a very intoxicating atmosphere.

You can see our tours to Ireland, England, and Scotland by clicking these links:
Gateway to Ireland is a perfect introduction to the best of the Emerald Isle
Our London Plus tour also includes Stonehenge, Bath, and Oxford
Discover Scotland on this tour of Edinburgh and the beautiful highlands


By Germany I really mean southern Germany. Our tour only encompasses Bavaria and a little bit outside of it (Heidelberg is in the region of Baden-Württemberg and Innsbruck is in Austria), so that’s what I know.


The Bavarians love sausage. You will see many kinds of sausages (wurst in German) all over and served with sauerkraut, potatoes, radishes and anything else that is stereotypical German. You will also see plenty of other well known dishes such as Sauerbraten and Weiner schnitzel. There isn’t a lot of variety in traditional German restaurants although, like everywhere these days, you can find all sorts of non-German food places.

The Germans are also fairly stereotypical when it comes to service, and I mean that in a good way. They are punctual, efficient, and clean. They do not engage in small talk if there is a job to be done. This is not because they are rude, they just have a very good work ethic. If your waiter has a minute to talk to you, you will find them to be very friendly.


Bavaria produces a lot of beer, and they consume a fair amount too. There may be no better place on Earth for having a beer than Munich with its beer halls and gardens. The Germans look at beer as an expression of life and they are not ashamed in any way if they spend the afternoon sitting in a beer garden with a few liters.

Beer halls large and small are found around Bavaria. On quiet nights they are very similar to American bars, but on rowdy ones they explode into a festival of music and singing. It really is something to experience. The beer gardens are outdoor bars, usually lined with trees that, at one point in history, kept the beer cooler when it was stored underground. The beer gardens were developed because no one wanted to walk too far to refill.

One word of warning if you get a beer; the standard size is 1 liter, which is 33.8 ounces. Most places you can get a smaller glass, but they refer to this as the ‘ladies size.’ Use that information however you will.

You can see our tour to Bavaria, Germany by clicking this link:
Our Bavaria tour includes Munich, the Alps, and Innsbruck, Austria

Friday, January 22, 2010

Hotels...lots and lots about hotels

So here’s my first of many detailed posts. It’s a long one (2,000+ words) and I’m sorry about that, but if you’re going to be traveling in Europe or would like to travel there, this blog will prepare you as well as any words can.

One more thing before I get into the meat of this I want to remind you that I own and operate a company that organizes and runs escorted tours of Europe called Great Explorations Tours. The following is a few things that are a result of my business orientation:

1. I will be abiding by the rule that if I don’t have something nice to say, I’m not going to mention the hotels name. It’s simply because I have to deal with hotels...a lot of hotels, and I don’t want them to think that I’m taking shots. That’s just the way it is.

2. You will see plugs for my website ( as well as mentions of some of the hotels we stay at (the good ones anyway).

3. For now, I will be limiting my advice to the places that Great Explorations Tours runs tours of. The tours for this summer are Ireland, Italy, and France (Paris and environs) so those will be mentioned the most. Upcoming tours include Scotland, Germany (the Bavarian region), Italy’s Amalfi Coast, the French Riviera, and England (London and environs). If you have specific questions about somewhere else I will be happy to answer them.

4. This blog is an extension of my company site. My goal is to help all travelers, but I am specifically catering to those who are traveling, or are considering traveling, on my tours. I try to make it not seem like a 5,000 word sales pitch and I apologize for the small parts that do.

Now that we’re past that, let’s get to the hotels. The way I look at it, there are five levels of hotels in Europe:

- Hostels – this is where you stay when you are really trying to do Europe on the cheap. They are usually pretty nice for the money but they’re very basic and usually skew very young. There’s nothing wrong with staying in a hostel, but when you’re only paying 6 Euro for a room you know what to expect so I’m not going to add anything else.

- Cheap Hotels – The worst option. They’re more expensive than hostels, but equal or worse in quality. Now, I am not talking about the great deals that you can find on nice hotels, but the places that charge so little because they’re unclean or just plain awful. The places I mean by Cheap Hotels are the ones you find that are ¼ the price of all the other hotels in the neighborhood and seem too good to be true (they are). You’re better off spending a little more on a better place or going cheap and using a clean hostel.

- Bed and Breakfasts – This is a great option for independent travelers. These are very small places (usually only a few rooms) run by a family. B&Bs are very prevalent in the UK and Ireland and are quaint, cheap options.

- Luxury Hotels – This is where we would all stay if money was no object. These include the Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton’s as well as castle hotels and manor houses. The rooms are spacious and fabulously appointed, the service is spectacular, and the food is first-class. Unfortunately most people cannot afford such places, but they don’t want to risk the cheap route either, so that leaves us with...

- Everything Else – What a nice specific category, huh? How do we separate the thousands and thousands of hotels that all look and sound the same? That’s why I’m here, read on.

The first rule of European hotels is that you don’t talk about...oops, wrong rule. The first rule is that you’re not looking at American hotels. I know that sounds kind of dumb, but it’s something that a lot of people have trouble with. As Americans we’re used to a few automatics when we’re staying at a hotel. Those include big rooms, queen or king size beds, carpeted floors, and bathrooms. Believe it or not, Europeans don’t consider any of those automatic inclusions. In fact in many, if not most, European hotels you will be hard-pressed to find anything but small, tile-floored, small-bedded rooms.

I know I’m not exactly selling the European hotel right now, but it’s really not that bad. The hotels in Europe tend to be charming, well run, and clean. Sure they’re a little tight, but that brings us to rule number two:

How much time are you spending in your hotel room anyway? That’s not really phrased as a rule, but it’s a valid question. My first question when people complain about the size of their room is; why do you need it to be bigger? Most people have trouble answering that question with any response other than; I just do. If you’re the type that just wants to get away and sit in a nice hotel room watching TV, then maybe you’re wasting money flying all the way to Europe. If you’re going to Europe, you should be out seeing and experiencing things, not sitting in a hotel room. Personally, when I walk into my room that means that I’m ready for sleep (that’s why I love WiFi, because I can even do my work from the hotel bar).

What you’ll find in a European Hotel

- Bathrooms – if you’ve booked an en-suite room, you will find a bathroom, also called a washroom or water closet (W/C), in there. Now what exactly will be in the bathroom is a different story. Don’t worry; there will be at least a toilet, sink, and shower. That may be it though.

Europeans are very used to making the most of small spaces and their bathrooms are no different. On the smallest end of the scale you’ll have a shower that consists of a drain in the corner, a removable showerhead on the wall, and a shower curtain. Personally I don’t mind these because it’s not confining. Of course the downside is that the floor can get pretty wet.

A little better will be a small walk-in shower which keeps water in, but can be awkward depending on the size of the person (and I’m not a particularly small person). At the large end of the scale is a full bathtub that also has a removable showerhead. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what to do with those because the showerhead is only about 1 foot above the tub. You can stand in them, but they are easy to fall in (ask my wife about concussing herself in Germany sometime), so I usually kneel.

As you can see, none of these options are perfect, but it has never been an issue with me and there are usually funny moments (non-concussion related). Of course, I have also stayed in hotels with full American-style bathrooms, but I wouldn’t need to prepare you for those, so go in expecting tiny and be pleasantly surprised.

- Beds – Beds in a European hotel are as advertised, no more, no less. In the US, hotels typically have either one king size bed or two queen/full size beds. In Europe, there are several different types and they’re categorized by how many they sleep.

Single Room – contains one single/twin bed...that’s it.

Twin Room – contains two single/twin beds, sleeps two.

Double Room – contains one double/full size bed, sleeps two. Preferable two that are comfortable with each other.

Triple Room – contains one double and one single bed. Not all hotels have these.

Quad/Family Room – contains two double beds or more. These are very rare.

You can’t go into a European hotel expecting to squeeze extra people in there unless they like sleeping on the floor (and there’s not always a lot of floor space either).

- Amenities – by this I mean a few other things that we’ve come to assume are in every hotel, things such as air conditioning, television, and coffee makers. While most European hotels have these, it is not a given. Air conditioning is common now, but if you’re traveling in the summer you should check. Television is almost a given, but I’ve stayed in hotels without and while I don’t spend a lot of time in the room, it’s still nice to have something to do while you’re getting ready in the morning. Coffee makers are almost never found...sorry, they just don’t do coffee like we do. They see drinking coffee (or tea) as drinking a beer, it’s a social thing, not something to do in a room by yourself.

- Elevator – There’s good news and bad news with this one. Good news: Most European hotels are very old and therefore only about 5-6 stories maximum. Bad news: They are very old and may not have an elevator. Good news: Many have retro-fitted elevators into their plans. Bad news: Those elevators are usually big enough for either you or you luggage, not both.

One more note while I’m here: The way floors are read in Europe is a little different. What we consider the 1st floor, they consider the ground floor, with the 1st floor being the one above it. Therefore if you have a room on the 3rd floor, it is actually what you would normally think of as the 4th.

- Location – For me this is what makes or breaks a hotel. If you’re only spending a few nights in a particular place, do you really want to waste time in taxis, on the subway, or on a bus traveling to and from the city center? With very few exceptions, cities in Europe are very centralized. This is owed to their history of being founded prior to the widespread availability of reliable transportation. Because of that centralization, European cities are best traveled on foot, which is why we love walking tours at Great Explorations Tours.

Obviously, if walking is the best way to see an area, it is logical that you would want to be within walking range of the sights. [SALES PITCH ALERT] With a lot of escorted tours, they house you in hotels that are outside of the city as a money-saving move. At Great Explorations Tours, we do our best to put you right in the center of the action, which allows you to explore at your convenience [END OF PITCH].

When you are able to comfortably walk to sights, that allows you to avoid crowds (by going earlier or later), eat in better restaurants (because of the wider variety of options), and experience more of the city life of another country. After all, you’re there to experience that country, not that country’s hotel.

Okay, one more sales pitch. Here are the three upcoming tours we are running along with the hotels we are staying in. These are some good locations.

Dublin – Temple Bar Hotel and Arlington Hotel Temple Bar – We stay 2 nights in Dublin (the first and last) and due to a scheduling conflict, we stay in 2 different hotels. The two hotels are about 2 blocks away from each other, both in the Temple Bar area, which is the heart of the remodeled Dublin with a lot of restaurant and pub options. Temple Bar is only about 1 block from Trinity College, 3 blocks to St. Stephen’s Green, and 3 blocks to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Killarney – Scott’s Hotel – “Downtown” Killarney is about 6 square blocks, but that means there are not a lot of hotels there either. Luckily Scott’s is one of them.

Galway – Galway Bay Hotel – This is the only hotel on this tour (and most of our tours) that isn’t downtown. It is in a beautiful location along Galway Bay and its boardwalk (where there’s still plenty to do). We figured everyone would enjoy the scenery.

Bunratty – Bunratty Castle Hotel – Basically the only reason the tour stops in Bunratty is because of its wonderful castle and medieval dinner. This hotel is literally across the street from the castle (and Durty Nelly’s pub) and next to the shopping area called the Blarney Woolen Mills.

Italy -

Rome – Cesari Hotel – We spend 3 nights in Rome (the first and last two), which is a little more spread out due to its major status in ancient times. This hotel couldn’t be any better located. It’s 1 ½ blocks from the Pantheon, 2 blocks from the Trevi Fountain, 2 ½ blocks from Piazza Navona, an easy walk to the Spanish Steps, and a longer (but do-able) walk to the Roman Forum and Coliseum.

Venice – Hotel Abazzia – At first glance this hotel looks like a bit of a distance from the main tourist spot in Venice (Piazza San Marco...the one with all the pigeons). On closer inspection, it is only about a 10 minute leisurely walk because Venice itself is so small. This hotel is in Venice proper meaning that you won’t have to worry about traffic...except of the boat variety.

Florence – Hotel de Lanzi – Florence is one of the easiest cities in Europe to see on foot. All of the major tourist attractions are within about 10 minutes walk of each other with the massive Church di Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo) being the main focal point. This hotel is located within a stones throw of the Duomo ( could hit it with a rock...but don’t). Specifically it’s about ½ block from the basilica.

Paris -

Paris – Hotel Mansart – Paris, like Rome, is a little bit spread out due to its long history. For our four nights in Paris (first and last three) we’ll be staying right in its heart. This hotel is along the Place Vendome, 1 block from the Jardin (gardens) des Tuileries, 2 blocks from the Louvre, and an easy walk to the Musee d’Orsay, Champs-Elysees, or Notre Dame.

Honfleur – Hotel Cheval Blanc – Honfleur is a small Normandy fishing village with a very picturesque harbor that has inspired many artists (Claude Monet being the most famous). Our hotel here is right on the harbor.

Reims – Hotel de la Paix – Reims is the largest city in the Champagne region and is known for its fantastic gothic cathedral and its miles of underground caves used to mature the region’s namesake bubbly. This hotel is in the city center, an easy walk to the cathedral.

Price – If you look at that list above and think, ‘he’s right, I want a clean, well located hotel that’s en-suite,’ what should you expect to pay? If you’re flexible with some of the other things (number of rooms, size of rooms, size of bathroom), you can usually find a room for under $200 per night. You’re right, that is a lot and it depends on where you’re looking. Obviously big cities like London, Paris and Rome are closer to that $200 mark where smaller cities and towns are much lower. I’ve gotten a room in London for $200, a room in Dublin for $160, a room in Munich for $130, and a room in a smaller village in France for $90, all in walking distance to the sights.

The trick to finding well priced rooms is that there is no trick. You just have to set aside some time to look for them. With the internet bringing hotel info right to your computer, you only have to look around to find hotel deals and reviews. Of course if you don’t have the time or the will to plan your whole vacation you can travel with me and Great Explorations Tours ( Thanks again for reading and feel free to fire away with the questions and comments.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Schedule of Posts

Okay, I’m back. I think I’ve devised a plan for this thing, which is necessary because if I don’t keep organized this will end up just being a running monologue of my thoughts and you don’t want to read that. I go off on enough tangents when I am organized. Anyway, here’s the rough schedule I’m going to try to stick to. My posts may be off by a day or two and there’ll be some random mini-posts here and there, but for the big stuff, here’s the syllabus:

- January 21 – Hotels – Everything you ever wanted to know about hotels in Europe. Oh who am I kidding, it’s a lot of stuff you didn’t want to know too. I’m going to cover the rooms, the service, the location, well, everything.

- January 28 – Restaurants and Bars – This is going to be a biggie because I like to eat and drink and I get a little too offended when people give money to second-rate establishments and ignore the cheaper, better option. I’m already getting worked up, I’ll save it for the full post.

- February 4 – Seeing the Sights – This will cover general impressions along with some specifics about what you should see where.

- February 11 – Ways to get around: Buses, Cruises, Flights – Because none of these is worthy of a full post I compressed them into one.

- February 18 – My favorite places – This is a simple one. I’m going to talk about the places in Europe that I love.

- February 25 – Alcoholic beverages – I told you that I like a drink and I feel like I know a bit about beer, wine, and whiskey (and whisky...I’ll get into the difference). This is going to be a long one too, but I’ll make sure that starts with the things every traveler who plans on having a drink should know. I’ll also try to sound like less of an alcoholic.

After February I don’t know the schedule, but I’m sure I’ll find more to talk about. If you have any suggestions let me know. The Hotels post should be up tomorrow.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

My Seemingly Never-ending Rant on Traveling – Part 1

[Note: This post is an overview of my feeling on traveling and a glimpse of what traveling with my tour company is like. If you would like to read my much more detailed posts you can click on European Quest above to see them all or sort through the menu on the left hand side. Thanks in advance for reading.]

This entire blog is going to be much more opinion based that the Travel Tips section of my company website. There you’ll find more fact mixed with a little bit of conjecture and you can see those at (ha, snuck a plug in there on you).

I could go on and on and on about traveling (as you’ll find out if you keep reading), so we’ll start with an outline. This is just the tip of my proverbial iceberg of opinions on the subject that I’ll flesh out in the coming weeks. As always if you have comments, suggestions, or questions please leave a comment or you can Email me through Great Explorations Tours by going to our Contact Us page.

[As a warning, the Escorted Tours bullet is a long one, but if you’re only going to read a little bit of this, please read that. That’s the section that tells you the most about me and Great Explorations Tours.]

- Hotels – Here are my necessities in a hotel: must be clean, must have bed and bath...and that’s pretty much it. Sure I would prefer a television and a free breakfast and, all things being equal, I would pick the extravagant, fancy hotel but I travel to see things and the inside of the hotel is not one of those things.

- Location, location, location – This is one thing I always look for in a hotel. There is no way to measure the joy of walking out of your hotel and walking smack into the Pantheon or the Louvre. I know it’s cheaper to stay out by the airport, but I don’t care. I don’t want to take a bus and two subways to get to the things I want to see.

- You'll need comfortable shoes - This goes along with the location note as well as the sights note below. The best way to see a European city is on foot. That is an indisputable fact. The cities are very compact (usually) and walking them is not much of an issue. Sure you'll have to find another way sometimes because cities like London and Paris are just too big, but for the most part, on foot is the only way to go.

- Restaurants – Naturally you’re going to be eating out while you’re on a vacation, the trick is finding the right places. I’ve heard people claim that they didn’t find a good meal in places like Florence or Paris and that’s just wrong (actually in those two cities it’s probably harder to find a bad meal, but I digress). Many tourists look for the big, flashy restaurants that have English menus and a lot of other tourists. Trust me, when the locals don’t eat there, that’s a sign. Think about your favorite places in your hometown, are they more likely to be a chain like Applebee’s or a small, family owned place. I thought so. There’ll be a lot more on this subject in the future, so I’ll stop here.

- Bars and Pubs – I’ll admit it, I enjoy a drink now and then...well, mostly now. No, I’m not an alcoholic, but I tend to subscribe to the European attitude towards alcohol. Basically that is that it’s good, it doesn’t hurt you in moderation, and it goes very well with food. Anyway, that leads me to the pubs, which are fantastic places to get to know some of the locals (this applies to cafés too). The same rules apply as with restaurants though, the less other tourists, the more authentic the experience.

- Tourist Sights – This is a tricky one because while you’re in Rome, you want to see the Coliseum, right? Of course that’s also where it’s crowded with other tourists, which isn’t necessarily the most fun thing you could be doing. Here’s what I do, I see all the main sights, usually as quickly as I can (unless I can be there very early or late, then I take my time). Then, if my hotel is well located (see above) I go back either early in the morning or in the evening, when the attraction is closed. I know you can’t get into it then, but with some things (Roman structures, major monuments, church exteriors) it doesn’t matter. When there are only a few people milling around Notre Dame and you can take a nice, peaceful walk around looking at the wonderful architecture and detailed stonework...that is when you can truly appreciate a monument’s monumentalness (yep, not a word, I know).

- Other Sights – What in the heck do I mean by “other” sights? What I mean is the little things that you didn’t expect and that you may not have many pictures of, but are what you remember most. These moments come while you’re sitting at a café, or on a park bench, or when you come across a wandering sheep in a village. These are the times when you realize that you’re not at home and that the place you are visiting is special and unique. These are the moments I encourage and the only way to see them is to slow down a little and look around. Traveling isn’t just about completing your checklists of sights.

- Transportation – Personally I like to do everything myself, so I’m definitely a car rental enthusiast, but that’s not for everyone (especially in the left hand driving countries). Buses can be fine ways to get around a strange place, but you have to make sure that you’re not just seeing everything through the bus windows. I know of some tours that have you on the bus for long stretches, which doesn’t seem very fun to me.

- Escorted Tours – Okay, this is going to sound like a conflict of interest being that I own an escorted tour company, but I’m not a big fan of the escorted tours. Wait, hear me out. The reason my wife and I started Great Explorations Tours is because we thought that people were getting a bad deal from other companies.

I don’t mean that any other company is ripping people off, but I think they like to put people on the bus, go from point A to B to C and say good day. They don’t let you appreciate or help you discover things for yourself, which is the heart and soul of traveling. If you just want to say that you’ve been to the Eiffel Tower or Blarney Castle, then other companies’ escorted tours are perfect. If you want to say that you’ve traveled in France or Ireland, then you want to go with me.

I know this sounds like a pitch, and it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Look at the list above. Do you find yourself agreeing with my points? Now look at some other escorted tour companies’ itineraries. Where are the hotels located? Usually they’re outside the city, leaving you to find your way in on your own. How much free time do you get? This varies, but think of it this way, if your hotel is outside the city, what will you do with your time off? Do they offer walking tours so you can immerse yourself in the cities or is it all seen from a bus? Yep, bus. Do these other companies give you information on local restaurants, bars, cafés, and ways to get around? You know the answer by now.

Yes, of course I think that Great Explorations Tours is better, that’s why I’m doing this. I’m not trying to show people Europe, I’m trying to get them to experience it.

One more plug, if you haven’t already visit Thank you for reading.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Why am I doing this?

Hello everyone. Okay, maybe saying "everyone" is inaccurate because as of now no one reads this but me. That'll change though, so for those of you reading this from the future, here's an update on me.

Two years ago (almost to the day) I decided to start a blog about European travel. The post below explains why. In the following two years I, along with my wonderful wife, have started a business that organizes and operates tours of Europe. When I wrote the oddly prophetic entry below I had no idea that I would actually be able to fulfill my dream of helping people travel for a living. I had led small groups of mostly friends and relatives before, but that was just a hobby that I was very good at. I don't know what clicked between then and now, but something made me believe that I could run these tours as a full time job and, well, here I am.

Now this blog isn't just going to be a repeating ad for my tour company (although I will through some shameless plugs in now and now. Check out Great Explorations Tours at On our company website I try to remain as professional as possible while still getting across all the things I love about travel. I hint at some of my travel beliefs including how I feel it should be done and what many tour companies do wrong, but I don't go into much detail because the average person just plain doesn't care what I think. This blog is where I bare my soul (well my travel-related soul) to let you know a little more about my thoughts and what is behind Great Explorations Tours.

Hopefully you’ll enjoy reading my theories on travel (with the occasional smattering of English soccer and ABC’s LOST...I can’t help myself), and whether you agree or not, I’d love to hear from you. And if you enjoy my writings so much that you want to travel with me, check out my tours at (shameless plug alert).

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Here's what's up:
I know...I'm about 3 years late to the "blogosphere," a word which I will never use again. My name is Brian, I'm 29 and I live in Pennsylvania. Oh, and I love to travel, especially Europe. So far I've been to Ireland, Italy, Paris, Germany (with a little Austria and Switzerland), and I'll be going to England very shortly. This site was created because I watch all these travel shows and read all these travel books and I think I can do it better.

What I'm going to be posting here is my experiences and opinions as far as travel goes. I'm sure there will also be plenty of odd comments and sarcasm along with a few jokes that probably none of the three people that are going to read this get. That's just how I roll.

I'm going to mostly stick to the places I've been, but I love to research travelling almost as much as I love going (okay, not that much, but I like it), so I'm willing to look into stuff if you have any questions for me.

If you're wondering why I'm bothering, there are three reasons. 1) I want everyone to travel, and I want everyone to have fun doing it. As Americans, we could only benefit by seeing how the former world powers now live. 2) I love to talk about travel, you'll see. 3) My dream job is to be one of those people that takes tour groups to different countries. Like Rick Steves, only with out the overwhelming dorkiness (there's a little dorkiness, but it's not overwhelming).

Lastly, I have no idea how often I'll update becuase I do have a full time job, but I will do it as much as I can with pictures and everything. Thanks for reading.