The Queen and I
Blimey! Off-season London, not counting the frenzied Christmas week, is a bloody good bargain ? and one that you can enjoy without having to fight through a crowd. We’ve had the tops of double-decker buses all to ourselves in February as we whizzed by Trafalgar Square. Even the line-ups at Buckingham Palace shrink to almost nothing.
To get to the scene, we recommend British Airways’ Taste of London package. It includes your flight from Toronto or Montreal as well as three nights in a hotel by the British Museum for $785 per person (double occupancy). Should you desire more regal digs, the airline will custom tailor packages at more luxurious hotels for under $999. Call 416-250-0880 or visit the British Airways Web site.
When you’re not shopping the sales at Harrods or applauding West End matinees, you can extend your budget with free attractions: Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park on Sundays, the Old Bailey Central Criminal Court on weekdays, and the Changing of the Guard. For more information on these and other London attractions, contact the British Tourist Authority at 1-888-847-4885 or go to their Web site.
We used to shy away from all-inclusives. The term conjured up visions of cramped rooms, greasy buffets and all-you-can drink watery Margaritas at the swim-up bar. Then we discovered the Paradisus Playa Conchal Resort. This five-star gem on the northwest coast of Costa Rica is designed like a ritzy residential community. Shuttle buses carry you to your spacious suite and ferry you among a dazzling assortment of shops and restaurants, as well as the largest freeform swimming pool in Central America.
OK, we will admit there is a swim-up bar. But we rarely found time to visit it. Aqua classes, scuba and snorkeling lessons, and sunset cruises filled our days ? not to mention great golf. On the Garra Leon championship course, designed by Robert Trent Jones II and rated No. 1 in Costa Rica, our attempts to break par were witnessed by an ever changing audience of wildlife, from howling monkeys to exotic birds.
We left the Paradisus convinced that this is the all-inclusive resort for people who hate all-inclusives. Rates start at $1769 per person per week (based on double occupancy) and include return flights from Toronto and hotel transfers, all meals, snacks and drinks and most activities. For an extra $150 per person you get unlimited golf during your week. Book this Sunquest vacation through your travel agent or visit the Sunquest Web site.
You can afford to be smug
“This place is better than home,” crowed our snowboarding daughter. She had a point. Our comfortable three-bedroom quarters at Smugglers’ Notch in Vermont came complete with five TVs (one for each of us, so no fighting over the remote). We could ski straight from our door onto the slopes of the White Mountains, then in the evening bob around the outdoor heated pool under dustings of twinkling snowflakes.
No wonder that readers of FamilyFun magazine consistently name Smuggler’s Notch, about two hours from Montreal, as their No. 1 Family Resort. The folks at this four-season resort know what kids need and adults desire. There’s a childcare centre for babies, snowboard lessons for the kindergarten set, and mountain adventure camps for teenagers ? all of it at prices that appeal to parents’ wallets. To make the deal even more attractive, Smuggs accepts Canadian dollars at par throughout winter except for Christmas and Valentine weeks. A Club Smugglers’ package, starting at $109 per night for adults and $95 for kids 17 and under (for a seven-night booking), includes slopeside lodging, daily lift tickets and lessons, evening entertainment and lots of old-fashioned fun ? from nighttime tubing to family bingo games to free hot chocolate at the foot of the bunny hill.
Here’s another bonus. The resort’s unique Family Fun guarantee ensures that if you or your kids do not improve your winter sports skills during your stay, the resort will cheerfully return the cost of that portion of the package. What’s a smug snow bunny to lose? Call 1-800-451-8752 or visit Smuggs.com.
Hong Kong is frenetic, fascinating and foreign. It’s also a shopper’s paradise. We know of no better (or more economical) way for newcomers to experience this Oriental wonder than by signing on for Signature Vacations’ new Hong Kong Story (offered from Nov. 30 to March 31). You’ll experience tai chi and feng shui classes and take part in a Chinese tea ceremony. Also included are a guided city tour and a side trip to Lantau to visit the world’s largest outdoor seated bronze Buddha.
Offered exclusively through American Express travel agencies, the tour, starting at $1,765 (from Toronto, departures are also available from all major Canadian cities) includes airfare and five nights accommodation at the Concourse Hotel. Considering that the best price we could turn up for an economy-class return ticket from Toronto to Hong Kong was $1,350, the package strikes us as a great deal.
Shoppers wanting extra pocket money for bargaining in Hong Kong’s legendary street markets will be happy to receive up to $100 per person in free American Express Travelers cheques with the package. We bought a dozen designer knock-off watches for about $25 each (please don’t tell the execs at Rolex) and splurged on a custom tailored cashmere suit that cost one-third what it would in Canada. Find out more about Hong Kong Story from your travel agent or visit the Signature Web site.
Mention Europe and camping with small kids in the same sentence and friends look at you quizzically. But they don’t know about Canvas Holidays, a British organization that rents blue-and-orange tents on campgrounds all over the Continent. The canvas cottages come fully loaded with beds, electric lights, a separate kitchen area with gas stove and even a discreet bathroom area. Running water is just outside in a tap. Simply arrive en famille with your sleeping bags, fluff up the pillows, and voilá, you’re ready to roll up the flaps or head off to see the sights.
We’ve roamed Normandy and Brittany, staying at four wonderful Canvas Holidays locations ? one of them on the grounds of a 17th-century French château; another on the shores of the Atlantic. Other Canvas Holiday locations are equally spectacular. At Bella Tolla in Switzerland, you can ride a cable car up the glacier for breakfast, then enjoy a guided wildlife hike. The Venice campground is just a waterbus ride away from the magical city.
In low season, the total cost for a family of four at one of Canvas Holiday’s campgrounds is a low, low $185 or so for a minimum three nights’ stay. During July and August, the price rises to a still very reasonable $385. For a catalogue (you’ll want to visit every site), write Canvas Holidays Ltd., East Port House, Dunfermline, KY12 7JG, Scotland, UK, or visit the Canvas Holidays Web site.
Hawaiian road tripping
If you never got the chance to roam hippie-style in a magic bus, maybe it’s time to live the dream on the roads of sunny Hawaii. Imua Camper Co. rents vintage VW Vanagons on all four islands. Sleep in them, eat in them, and park in them for just $85 (U.S.) per night ? a real steal, considering an average-priced Hawaiian hotel room is $173 (U.S.). You’ll also save by cooking some meals. Full “Camp Kits” provide cooking equipment, bedding, towels and cleaning supplies. All you have to worry about is which fork in the road to take next. Call 1-808-896-3158 or visit their Web site.
Your house or mine?
If your idea of a good vacation is a free vacation, consider house swapping. The idea couldn’t be simpler ? you and your family live in another family’s house or apartment, while they live in yours ? but the benefits are huge. You pay no hotel or car rental fees, you enjoy all the comforts of home, and you get to see how other people really live.
We swapped homes with an Australian couple a few years ago and would happily do it again. Their house, complete with swimming pool and hot tub, was five minutes from the Surfer’s Paradise beach on Australia’s famed Gold Coast, a one-hour flight north of Sydney. The kitchen was fully equipped with gourmet gadgets and condiments and their neighbours treated us like old friends. You can find an equally good deal from any one of dozens of home exchange clubs. Some charge a fee; some are free. Many provide Web site listings only; others also produce catalogues.
We’ve both had good experiences with HomeLink International Canada. For $175 a year, HomeLink provides you with a color catalogue of swappable properties and useful information on drafting a home-and-car exchange agreement. For more information, contact Homelink at 604-987-3262 or go to the HomeLink Web site.
Big Apple bargains
A few days in New York can rip a hole in anyone’s budget, but wise travelers know how to keep the damage to a minimum. For instance, if staying at the Plaza is a bit rich for your bank book, check out City Lights Bed and Breakfast, a superbly run registry that offers you the chance to stay in a real home and live like a New Yorker for as little as $80 (U.S.) per night. We had a huge room, private bath and terrace in a swish Sutton Place townhouse on one visit. Another time we enjoyed a fully equipped three-bedroom apartment in trendy Soho. Whether your accommodation is hosted or unhosted, you receive a set of keys so you can come and go as you please. Call 212-737-7049.
While out on the town, you really should indulge yourself at one of New York’s finer restaurants. Twice a year, usually the third week of June and January, the metropolis celebrates Restaurant Week, when more than 160 fine eateries offer special prix-fixe, three-course lunch menus. This year, the lunches will cost just $20.03 (U.S.) ? a fraction of their usual price ? and you’ll savour the deal even more knowing that a portion of what you pay goes towards hunger relief organizations. Participating restaurants are listed on the Restaurant Week Web site and usually begin accepting reservations about a month prior to the start of Restaurant Week.
Another great find is Big Apple Greeters. Pick your neighborhood, and this organization will arrange for you to take a free tour with a resident New Yorker. We recently spent an afternoon in Central Park and found all sorts of surprises, including a place to fish and Yoko Ono’s memorial to John Lennon ? an International Peace Garden. Call 212-669-2896.
Crazy for Carnival
Confession time. One of us has never taken a cruise. Bahama Mama pool parties, glittering Vegas-type shows or electric slide dance contests frankly don’t appeal to everyone. But, if you want to get a lot of ship for little money and visit some interesting ports along the way, a Carnival Cruise Lines Fun ship might be your ticket. In fact, the “Most Popular Cruise Line in the World” is so confident that you’ll enjoy your Carnival floating holiday, they offer a money-back guarantee. If you’re not completely satisfied, alert staff before the first port of call. The line will refund the unused portion of your fare and fly you home.
Even if you don’t use the guarantee, you’ll find that cruises can be surprisingly affordable. A four-night cruise from Miami to Key West and Mexico in December starts at $691 (per person) and includes return flight from Toronto, all meals, entertainment and one of the best kids’ program afloat. A seven-night cruise to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands starts at $864. For more information, contact your travel agent.
We always figured that golfing in Hawaii was reserved for investment bankers and the independently wealthy ? until we discovered the discount packages offered by entrepreneur Dave Mills. While we’ve yet to meet Dave in person, we’d sure like to buy the guy a Mai Tai. He saved us a bundle.
Here’s an example of one of Mills’s packages: three nights accommodation at the posh Princeville Resort in Kauai with three days unlimited golf on 45 holes, followed by three nights accommodation at Kauai Marriott Resort with three days of unlimited golf on the Kauai Lagoons courses, a golf cart, a seventh night at the resort of your choice, plus Alamo mid-size car. The cost is $1,697 (U.S.) per person based on double occupancy, including all sales taxes and vehicle surcharges.
Yes, it’s a splurge but these resorts and links are fabulous. The renowned golf architect Robert Trent Jones II, who designed the Princeville course, remarked, “In all the world, I never expected to find a more spectacularly beautiful place to build a golf course.” The topography changes from pastoral plateau overlooking the ocean to jungle-choked ravines with natural hazards that range from waterfalls to forest. Translation: bring lots of balls.
After your round at Princeville, have a soak in the resort’s infinity pool overlooking the seductive coast where the Bali Hai scene in South Pacific was filmed and enjoy an Oscar-winning sunset. For more information on Dave Mills’ bargains, call 213- 368-GOLF, or visit HawaiiGolfDeals.com.
From the November 2002 issue.