Making an #Impact in the D.R. – part one

This is the first in a set of articles about my recent trip to the Dominican Republic aboard the P&O ship Adonia with the new cruise line fathom + travel. [Disclaimer: Fathom travel provided my transportation, lodging, cruise, and social impact activities without the expectation or requirement of favorable reviews. The opinions expressed herein are completely mine, and I’m responsible for all the content.]

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Amber Cove in Dominican Republic

Sailing out of Miami harbor is a beautiful sight — water, condos, greenery — they all combine to put the cruiser into a nice tranquil peace of mind.
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Being on “the first” of anything is a thrill for many reasons. You are experiencing things that no one has done before. There are people who try to be on the first flight of a new plane, eat at a restaurant;s opening night, see the first performance of a new play, etc. I was just lucky; I hadn’t planned to go on the inaugural cruise from Miami to the Dominican Republic — it just worked out that way. Adonia is a small ship, holding a maximum of 704 passengers. I don’t know how many were on board when we sailed from Miami on Sunday afternoon, April 17th, but everyone seemed like family. Some knew each other; others made new friends because of the common #TravelDeep interest.

Carnival Corporation President and CEO Arnold Donald was on board to speak about fathom, its beginnings, and its mission as it’s being led by Tara Varga Russell (who just happens to live with her family in Boise, as do I). There were several inspiring talks during the sail-away event as the party atmosphere began to grow.

Arnold Donald, President & CEO Carnival Corporation; Tara Varga Russell, President fathom travel
Arnold Donald, President & CEO Carnival Corporation; Tara Varga Russell, President fathom travel

Hugs and group photos were in abundant supply as people were so excited to finally make a difference in the lives of Dominican Republic locals as well as in the lives of those participating in the on-ground #SocialImpact activities.
P1120685 P1120689 P1120695 P1120707 During one talk, Tara Varga Russell told us how they came up with the hashtag #TravelDeep. She began with discussing the cruise line’s name, “Fathom.” Most cruisers know that fathom as a noun is a unit of length used to measure the depth of water, equal to six feet. As a verb, it means to come to understand something. So when you think of fathom, you know it has something to do with water and with coming to an understanding.

The understanding we came back with from the cruise was how we were able to make an impact in the lives of the locals even though we were there for just a few days. (More about this in a later article). #TravelDeep is a phrase being used on fathom that describes what you get out of a trip on the Adonia. Most cruise passengers on other lines “travel shallow,” meaning that they’re there mostly for themselves. They might see a local folkloric show, or attend a cultural presentation; but once they’re back on the ship, it’s over. That’s not the case when you #TravelDeep with fathom and participate in the #SocialImpact activities. You are building a foundation for future fathom travelers who will continue the work that you did. The involvement, unlike many mission and other do-good trips, is continual and leads to a conclusion that results in a positive impact on the lives of many Dominican Republic people. A by-product of all of this is the feeling that each traveler gets from doing this work. Some will return home saying, “Okay, I did that.” Others will say, “When can I go again and take others with me? I want more involvement.” It is this latter group of travelers who have learned how to #TravelDeep.

I future articles, I will discuss some of the on-ground #SocialImpact activities that are taking place in the Dominican Republic, along with ways in which you can get involved. The next time you go somewhere new, think how you can #TravelDeep through the area — it will make a difference!


Stuart Gustafson is America’s International Travel Expert® who speaks on cruise ships, writes novels, sends out a monthly newsletter, and loves everything about travel. Visit his website at www.stuartgustafson.com. You can also connect with him and other travelers on his International Travel Expert page on Facebook at www.facebook.com/International-Travel-Expert-147321228683651/


All information and images copyright © 2016 by Stuart Gustafson Productions, LLC. America’s International Travel Expert is a U.S. Registered Trademark of Stuart Gustafson Productions, LLC.




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The Amazing Petra, Jordan

2011-11-11-Jordan-Petra-TicketsAttempting to write a “short story” about Petra, Jordan, would be like trying to summarize Will And Ariel Durant’s epic 12-volume The Story of Civilization in a few sentences. So this article won’t try to cover all of the area, just some of the photo highlights of our tour there on 11/11/11 — yes, November 11, 2011!

For starters, there is a very nice Wikipedia article at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petra. In case you’re not aware of it, Petra was named one of the New 7 Wonders of the World in 2007. While this sounds impressive, one must also know that this designation was purely a marketing effort by a Canadian-Swiss in Zurich, Switzerland — it had nothing to do with UNESCO or any other independent organization. The problem with this is that tourism has grown tremendously and there had not been a sustainable tourism plan in effect. There have since been efforts to manage the tourism, and other, impacts on the area.

Our visit was on the second day in Jordan while on a 19-day cruise from Barcelona to Dubai. Rather than go on a ship’s tour, we went on a private tour set up by a seasoned cruiser who arranged it through Cruise Critic. We had a total of sixteen of us on our tours in Jordan (from its only sea port of Aqaba) as well as in Israel (from the port of Eilat).

Because this tour was on our second day in Aqaba (we went to the Dead Sea on day one), our group was able to leave the ship early in the morning for the 3+ hour drive to Petra. This meant that we were leaving (and heading to a tour at Wadi Rum) just as the ship’s tours began arriving. That was so wonderful (thank you, Barbara for arranging the tours, and Sharon for telling us about the cruise!).

As “they say,” sit back and enjoy the ride as we take a trip to Petra!

Yield to Camels!
Yield to Camels!
Camels for rent
Camels for rent
Horses also for rent
Horses also for rent
Showing height of some "rooms"
Showing height of some “rooms”
The Amphitheatre
The Amphitheatre
Royal Tombs
Royal Tombs
Royal Tombs
Royal Tombs
Are they really needed?
Are they really needed?
Al-Khasneh, "The Treasury"
Al-Khasneh, “The Treasury”
Camels taking a break
Camels taking a break
Elephant Rock
Elephant Rock
Carriage Ride
Carriage Ride
Beats walking back up!
Beats walking back up!
Narrow siq
Narrow siq
Rock Layers
Rock Layers
So many "structures"
So many “structures”
Mineral veins
Mineral veins
Moon setting on our way back!
Moon setting on our way back!


I hope you enjoyed the brief journey through Petra.


Stuart Gustafson is America’s International Travel Expert® who speaks on cruise ships, writes novels, sends out a monthly newsletter, and loves everything about travel. Visit his website at www.stuartgustafson.com. You can also connect with him and other travelers on his International Travel Expert page on Facebook at www.facebook.com/International-Travel-Expert-147321228683651/


All information and images copyright © 2016 by Stuart Gustafson Productions, LLC. America’s International Travel Expert is a U.S. Registered Trademark of Stuart Gustafson Productions, LLC.




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Beating the Baggage Charge Blues

Note: While the tone of this article slants toward European travels, the information is equally attributable to travel within USA, to Asia, South America, Australia, etc.

The U.S. Bureau of Transportation (www.rita.dot.gov/bts/home) released data for airline revenues for excess baggage charges made between 2012 and 2013. And it’s no surprise the largest 15 airlines in the U.S. collected additional fees of $3.5 billion for add-on services, including excess baggage. Saving on baggage fees has now become a priority money-saving issue for many Americans traveling abroad.
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Here are five top travel tips to avoid paying unnecessary charges at the airport and how you can save by booking a courier service.

Travel Tip #1: Research Carriers
Before you buy your ticket, it’s worth researching carriers to see how much they charge for checking-in bags. Once upon a time, carriers didn’t charge for checking in bags. Today some carriers only charge for checking-in a second bag.
Some airlines, such as American Airlines (www.aa.com), United Airlines (www.united.com), and Delta Airlines (www.delta.com) might charge for all checked-bags, unless you have elite status with them or within their “Alliance.” The first checked bag costs $25, the second $35 and the third costs a whopping $150. With this said, it is worth considering how many bags you will need on your trip. When comparing the costs of tickets, don’t just look at the airfare; factor in what additional costs which might apply.
Key Takeaway: Just because a ticket appears to be a good deal doesn’t actually mean it is. It’s essential you total up all the added costs and taxes, before purchasing your ticket.

Travel Tip #2: Buy a Professional Digital Luggage Scale
Once you’ve done your research and bought your ticket, it’s time to buy a luggage scale.
You may think a bathroom scale will do the trick, but if you are flying to Europe and using a budget European carrier like Easy Jet (www.easyjet.com) or Ryanair (www.ryanair.com/gb/en/), it’s essential you know the weight of your hand luggage and any baggage you will check in. One or two pounds can quickly tip the scales in the wrong way. The scale you use in your bathroom does not always give an accurate weight. Commercial scales are often one or two pounds lighter than professional scales used by businesses. Budget airlines in Europe regularly make $65.00 (one way) for bags that are less than 7 lbs overweight. Just to put this in perspective this is the same weight of a very small cat.
Key Takeaway: Though many European airports offer facilities to weigh your luggage, you pay to use these scales at the airport. Also if your luggage is overweight, you will need to buy a second suitcase or throw items out. However, with careful research and a professional digital luggage scale, you can avoid these fees. Bed Bath and Beyond (www.BedBathandBeyond.com) sells digital luggage scales for $20.00. You can find many products on eBay for less than $10.00.

Travel Tip #3: Distribute the Weight across Bags
If you find some of your bags are over the weight limit or very near, it’s worth dividing weight across bags. In some cases, this won’t always be possible or practical. When flying Delta from the US to Europe, it could cost $100 to check-in a second bag. Also bear in mind, on many European carriers, you are only allowed one handbag. A small purse or lady’s bag will count toward your one cabin bag allowance. Therefore, you’ll need to combine your smaller hand bag with your cabin bag or check excess baggage ahead of your flight. It is strongly recommended that you do not overstuff your hand luggage. Carriers like Easy Jet regularly measure cabin baggage prior and after check-in. Sometimes they will issue excess baggage fees at the gate, so don’t think because you’ve passed your security, your bag is okay to fly.
With Easy Jet, cabin baggage can be no bigger than 50 x 40 x 20 cm (about 20 x 16 x 8 inches) including handles and wheels. While Ryanair allows two bags, it places a weight limit on the first bag of 10 kg (about 22 pounds). The maximum dimensions allowed are: first bag up to 55 x 40 x 20 cm (about 22 x 16 x 8 inches) and 1 small bag up to 35 x 20 x 20 cm (about 14 x 8 x 8 inches). If bag is oversized a fee of £50 will apply, roughly $76.
Key Takeaway: Dividing your weight can save you a lot of time and money. However, there are some circumstances where this will not be an effective solution, particularly with budget airlines.

Travel Tip #4: If You Are Sending Sports Equipment, Book a Courier Service
If you are flying with sports equipment like golf clubs, additional costs will apply. Again in Europe, sports equipment can incur extortionate costs even if you are only flying short distances. British Newspaper Daily Mail found that to check in one 30 kg (66 pounds) bag to mainland Spain, travelers could expect to pay at least £235 or $360. If you are planning on grabbing a round of golf at St. Andrews or Muirfield, the world’s oldest golf club, or hitting the more sun-splashed golf friendly Spain and Portugal, then it’s definitely worth considering using a courier.
By using a courier service to Spain like ParcelHero (www.parcelhero.com) it would cost just $45. The Daily Mail also found courier services are particularly useful when it comes to sports equipment like golf clubs. Incredibly, Ryanair charges up to £500 to check in golf clubs (that’s $765). However, the typical courier company charges $200. The same applies to standard holiday luggage as well. And as well as saving money on strollers and baby carriages, you can avoid hanging around the baggage carousel losing the will to live, waiting hours at check in losing the will to live, and carrying heavy bags to and from airport halls to taxis to your holiday accommodation. Why not send it ahead and have it resting in your hotel as you walk through the door.
Key Takeaway: With convenient door-to-door service, it pays to use a professional courier.

Travel Tip #5: Double Check if Your Hotel or Accommodation Can Accept Deliveries
Most courier services will deliver directly to your hotel, as long as it has a front desk or concierge. Before booking a service, call any hotels you will be staying at to double check that they are happy to accept packages for you. Print out any shipping and customs forms to attach to your luggage. Most companies will include this at time of booking. Simply affix a copy to your suitcase and the courier will collect your item from a home or office address.
Key Takeaway: Make sure any courier service you book with also offers a parcel tracking service. Companies like ParcelHero (www.ParcelHero.com) provide up-to-date information, so you know exactly where your equipment is at all times. This way you can travel worry free.



Stuart Gustafson is America’s International Travel Expert® who speaks on cruise ships, writes novels, sends out a monthly newsletter, and loves everything about travel. Visit his website at www.stuartgustafson.com.

A hidden Gem in downtown Cabo San Lucas

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Casa Bella Hotel

I’ve been going to Cabo San Lucas, at the tip of the Baja California peninsula, each year since 2003. It started out while I was still working, and I’d go one week a year. A few years later it became two weeks a year, and now it’s anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks a visit, and we go up to 3 times a year. So you’d think we would know the area very well. We do, of course, but it’s not until you stay somewhere different that you start to explore that “new area.”

We just got back from a 2-1/2 week stay — two weeks in a timeshare unit right on the Pacific Ocean (we love watching and hearing the waves!) followed by 3 days in a charming boutique hotel that looks like a family villa straight out of Spain or Italy. Casa Bella was originally designed as a family home for a large family — but then they had only one child, daughter Barbara, who now manages the hotel. It’s easy to miss the hotel as you walk along Hidalgo Avenue because its facade blends in beautifully with the other businesses along the sidewalk.

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But once you walk through the entrance way into the delightful courtyard, you’ll forget that you’re in the middle of a major tourist town and only one block away from the famous (and very noisy) Cabo Wabo Cantina. There are about a dozen rooms, all tastefully decorated and with very large bathrooms, and there are two mini-suites up a flight of stairs. There is no elevator, so be ready to carry your suitcase up the stairs.

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I had previewed this hotel in May 2015 as I was researching locations for an upcoming small-group tour that I’m hosting this April — it’s called Los Cabos Highlights TourCLICK HERE for tour information. This hotel is going to be just perfect for us because it is quaint, quiet, and very charming.

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There is a covered terrace area where Barbara and her staff serve a continental breakfast each morning; once you let them know your selections, they automatically bring them out each morning — that beats the service on a cruise ship! It’s also a great spot where you can hold an informal business meeting if you’re so inclined, or just enjoy the free wifi that’s throughout the complex.

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The swimming pool is not very large, but just the perfect size for socializing or cooling off after a warm day in town. If you love plants, you’ll truly enjoy strolling around and seeing all the different types of palms and other varieties that adorn the open spaces.

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Another benefit of being right in town is that you’re able to find small restaurants that are “just around the corner.” We found a great sushi place, a new cafe, and Argentine restaurant, and a superb coffee shop — all within one block. There are more, of course, in that area, but you can’t go to them all — unless you come back for another stay.

The next time you’re planning a visit to a familiar place, check out some places that are new to you on TripAdvisor — you just might be surprised with your new find. I submit reviews of almost every place I go so that I can provide helpful hints to other travelers.



Stuart Gustafson is America’s International Travel Expert® who speaks on cruise ships, writes novels, sends out a monthly newsletter, and loves everything about travel. Visit his website at www.stuartgustafson.com.

Versailles—A Worthy Day Trip from Paris

P1100104The golden main gate at Versailles is closed to the aristocratic ways of the 18th century, but the side entrances welcome you inside this marvelous estate.

What used to be a several-hour carriage ride from Paris is now just a short train trip, and it’s one that everyone should take. Many people think of Versailles as the lavish palace and the reason for the French Revolution in 1789; but it’s more than that, which is why you should schedule it in your next Parisian adventure. For more information about Versailles, visit its website (http://en.chateauversailles.fr/homepage).

Getting out to Versailles is really pretty easy. Take a look at your Metro map and find the most direct route to any RER “C” train connection. For more information about the trains, visit the train system website (http://parisbytrain.com/rer-c-train-map/). Go the Metro station and buy a round-trip ticket to Versailles-Château that covers both the Metro rides and the train rides. Remember that you want the train that takes you to Versailles-Château, and NOT the one that goes to Versailles-Chantiers! When you get to the train station (the end of the line), just follow the crowd — you can’t get lost!

P1100112The model of Versailles shows the grand scale of the estate that was the envy of all European rulers.

    There are some important logistical details to remember when heading out to Versailles.

  1. The palace and the grounds are closed on Monday, so make sure that you properly plan your visit
  2. Because it’s all closed on Monday, the crowd on Tuesday is almost twice the normal crowd (many of them are those who forgot it was closed on Monday and they’re leaving Paris on Wednesday!)
  3. Main admission is covered by the Paris Museum Pass, but certain exhibits might require a supplemental charge — for more information about the Museum Pass, visit the official website (http://en.parismuseumpass.com/)
  4. Make sure that your camera batteries are fully charged because there are so many photo opportunities that you won’t be able to pass up
  5. Even if you have your admission ticket, museum pass, press card, etc., you still have to stand in the line outside the main entrance — everyone (except tour groups) goes through security from that one line

Unlike other palaces and castles around the world, your visit to Versailles should be built around an entire day. There are fewer crowds in the morning (along with its reduced admission for entrance before 9:45), and that allows you ample time to wander throughout the main Château at your leisure. You’ll want to roam from floor to floor, room to room to room before the tour groups and larger crowds arrive.

P1100120The magnificent pipe in organ in the two-story chapel is framed by massive columns that are more evidence of the palatial scale of the main Château.

The best entrance is on the east side of the courtyard where you’ll see the Hercules Drawing Rooms and the Chapel. If you’re fortunate, you might be able to hear the organist playing the pipe organ in the Chapel where the King’s visitors came to worship, and it was usually to worship him. As you weave your way in and out of each room and hallway, you’re bound to be in awe of the magnificence of each area and the way that the rooms are able to take advantage of sunlight and views to the outside.

P1100148The Hall of Battles is filled with light from above that accentuates the busts of heroes and the enormous paintings of decisive battles.

The one constant as you make your way through the Château is the ceiling height. Higher ceilings naturally evoke a grander feeling, even if the rooms weren’t already large. But it’s the high ceilings that allow for the large paintings, multiple levels of windows, and the grand visual experience of looking through a long series of arched doorways.

One surprising feature of the main Château is the size of the King’s Bedchamber. It appears to be one of the smallest rooms although it was centered right on the palace axis, and it had a marvelous view right out onto the Marble Courtyard. I don’t believe that the King spent a lot of time in his “bedroom” looking out to see who was coming to visit (he usually knew anyway), but the design was done to represent that the King was “at the center” of everything.

P1100142The view out of the King’s Bedchamber was right out onto the central Marble Courtyard.

Although you could spend an entire day absorbing the beauty, the grandeur, and the history inside the main Château, it would be a loss if you didn’t go out to the gardens and groves. Remember when I said that Tuesday crowds were typically quite large compared to the other days? I didn’t give you the entire reason up front.

Each Spring, from April to mid-May, and then from July through October, the groves of the Versailles Château come alive with energetic classical music. Called “The Musical Gardens,” the piped music plays from morning till early evening as do the water displays in the Mirror Fountain. The music’s not in every grove, but when you walk from one fountain or grove to another, and there are twenty-eight of them, you’ll enjoy being surprised when the music comes alive.

P1100166Geometrical patterns adorn The Orangerie where plants are stored and trees are stored during the winter.

The Mirror Fountain is especially delightful as the water fountains are timed to frolic and dance along with the music. There is plenty of grass for seating, and the rhythmic beats bring smiles to all those around the 300-year old fountain. Not to miss out on marketing opportunities, the Château de Versailles sells a CD of the music that’s played, and there’s a new CD each year — how’s that for marketing genius!

The expanse of the groves and fountains covers so much more area than the main château, and you’ll definitely get in your walking steps as you go from one area to another. It’s a little deceptive as you walk through the groves as you move away from the château; there is a slight downhill incline that you don’t notice until you’re ready to head back — back uphill.

P1100191Gardeners use wooden cutouts to precisely trim the bushes into geometrical shapes.

Shapes are abundant, whether they’re whimsical or plain ornamental. Framed cut-outs are used to ensure consistency in the decorative bushes, and the “faces” in the fountains aren’t readily apparent at first glance. But once you see one of them, they all come into focus.

P1100200The shell faces embedded into the water fountains look like South Pacific islanders.

After you make your back up the hill to the château, visit the WC and the gift shop, it’s time to stroll to the train station. There’s no need to be in a rush because the frequency of trains makes it very convenient for returning to Paris. And since all the trains go into Paris, there’s no need to worry about getting on the right train or the wrong train. The short 35-minute ride gives you time to think about the majestic sights you just saw, to organize your digital photos, or maybe it’s just enough time for you to relax so you can head back out into town once you’re back home in Paris, the City of Light.


Stuart Gustafson is America’s International Travel Expert® who speaks on cruise ships, writes novels, writes a monthly newsletter, and loves everything about travel. Visit his website at www.stuartgustafson.com.