Oct 092006
 

By Kathy Greenwell

Rome, of course, included the history and ancient ruins.  We did a ton of walking, but nothing too strenuous.  We saw the Spanish Steppes, the Trevi Fountain (where our guides provided three coins for each of us to toss [for luck, or to ensure a future return to Rome]), the Pantheon, the Forum, and other ruins/ancient architecture too numerous to mention. We visited the Coliseum which was amazing.  We had dinner at a very old restaurant, where they have records to show it’s been operating since at least 1824, and probably is older than that.  We had a private room there with a private gladiator show.  Those guys really went at each other with their swords and shields – ouch!  One other word – gelato!  My new favorite treat!  We went to one of the better gelato shops and this ice-creamy-type treat was the best!

A visit to the Vatican was on the list as well.  I was totally unprepared for the crowds.  But they told us that August is actually the least crowded time in most of Europe, as many Europeans take the month of August for their own vacations – even the Pope was on vacation!  I cannot imagine the crowds we encountered there as “light” – Whew! – but the Vatican museum is just full of wonderful pieces of art; the Sistine Chapel is amazing.  To see that ceiling and try to imagine Michelangelo lying on his back painting those detailed scenes just boggles your mind.  We learned, however, that apparently Michelangelo was a bit full of himself!  He pretty much told the church what he was going to do, not the other way around.  When you see his talent, I suppose you can understand how he would have developed such a big ego.  St. Peter’s Basilica is huge and beautiful.  Standing in St. Peter’s Square, imagining the thousands of people I’ve seen on TV crammed into that area during the Pope’s Easter and Christmas Masses, gave me such a feeling of awe.

Then on to Tuscany, where we stayed in the most interesting accommodations we’ve ever encountered.  In the mountains they have all of these little hamlets (called borgos), which were like small town compounds that over the years became abandoned.  People are buying them and turning them into bed/breakfast type places.  But they are clusters of buildings that used to be the hamlet, turned into charming rooms.  I can’t begin to describe it to you; suffice it to say we’ve traveled a great deal and never encountered anything like it.  They had put in the most gorgeous pool which overlooked the sides of the mountain.  Olive trees and vineyards everywhere – the views were wonderful, quiet, peaceful at night.  Even the windows opened – casement windows with the outside shutters that you could throw open, gauzy curtains that swayed in the evening breeze – my goodness, it was just like you’d picture it on TV!!!!

From that base, we headed to genuine medieval towns (Sienna and Orvieto).  Seeing these throwbacks to a time long gone was amazing.  The cobblestone streets, the fortress type buildings, the quaint town squares, the shopping – oh my!  Their history is so interesting – like towns that time forgot.

Then into Florence – a beautiful center of culture and art.  The sculpture is amazing and prevalent.  The crisscrossing streets are jammed with shopping – Florence is known for gold and leather.  Every huge name in upscale shopping is there – in fact, on this whole trip I’ve never seen more Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Dior, Bulgari, and Chanel stores anywhere!  You can drop some serious dollars here!  We saw the original statue of David by Michelangelo.  Had to admit, after seeing tons of pictures of this guy, I was thinking okay – we’ll see this statue.  Unbelievable!!!  It is awesome and with the information provided by our private tour guide, it just came to life.  I had no idea I would be so inspired by this seemingly common sculpture.  When you see it, you realize it is not common at all.

Another major attraction in nearly every city are the duomos (cathedrals).  These are absolutely spectacular.  If you’d like to feel that old time reverence, you must visit these glorious structures.

After our three days in Tuscany, it was time to board the Eurostar train (first class with Disney, of course) and head to Venice.  One of the first of many cool experiences was to arrive by train, walk out the front doors of the train station, and be standing on the Grand Canal!  What a sight!  We were loaded into authentic gondolas for the trip to our hotel.  The water “streets” were so neat – the water literally laps at the doors of buildings.  So much “traffic” – we occasionally encountered boat jams!  The hotel was centrally located and very nice.  One thing we discovered was that Venice is more like a maze than a city!  We felt like mice trying to find our way around tiny little alleys that count as streets.  There are no cars in Venice – which is a good thing.  As tiny as some of these byways are (you could touch the buildings on both sides if you stood in the middle of the street) and with all of the foot traffic, the situation would be unbearable with motor vehicles.  We also didn’t see any bicycles or scooters (as were prevalent in both Rome and Florence).  That made Venice relatively quiet.  Good thing – there was enough people-noise.  The tiny streets are choked with pedestrians.  Our guide said you had to have been born there to find your way around.  Even with maps we all spent some time lost.  But the charm is unmistakable and again, unbelievable shopping.

One of our Disney surprises included a trip to a Venetian Mask Shop.  They celebrate Carnavale over there, so there are tons of stores with those beautiful, elaborate masks.  We were then given the opportunity to make our own masks!  How fun was that?  We laughed and did our best to draw out our artistic sides, with varying results:  my husband managed to be creative enough to paint his mask like the Italian flag – not exactly a barn-burning design, but it came out nice and simple.  One of the guys in our group painted his mask like his dog’s face – hey, guys aren’t always the most imaginative!  Several girls made cat faces.  One made a wood nymph in dark purple and hunter green.  Came out better than it sounds.  I tried for a dainty, Tinkerbell kind of look – well, at least it was fun!

We took water taxis to the island of Murano – and saw spectacular blown glass objects.  Passed a funeral procession, boats and gondolas carrying caskets draped in flowers headed to the cemetery island, which is where everyone is buried.  Our farewell dinner was held aboard a full-size replica of a pirate ship while we sailed around the islands.  It was great fun.  Alas, on Friday morning we had to leave this watery haven, and experienced our last very cool event – arriving at the airport by boat!  How neat is that?  I couldn’t get over the juxtaposition of pulling up by boat to the airport to catch a plane!

There were so many more moments, but you’d be here reading all day. As you can tell, we loved it.  We traveled with a wonderful group of people, and the kids on this trip were such fun! Everyone got along extremely well, and we’ve already been in touch by email.  I think that’s probably my favorite part of all of our trips so far – our new friends.

Kathy reminisced on her Cities of Knights and Lights trip:
A few words about London/Paris.  The hotel was fabulous (the Renaissance at Chancery Square).  We saw the major sights (Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey).  We took a ride on the London Eye (which was installed for the Millennium celebration.) Like a giant, slow-moving ferris wheel, you get stunning views of London from every side.  On our free time, we visited the British Museum (national museums offer free admission) and saw the Rosetta Stone.  We had a proper English tea for lunch one day, and scones are one of my new favorite things!  The original London presentation of Mary Poppins at the Prince Edward Theater was spectacular!  The play was just wonderful and the cast superb!  As a special treat, Disney presented us with a program and original cast recording CD.  We also had a pre-play dinner in a private club across from the theater, and were treated to a behind-the-scenes stage tour after the production.  Truly one of the highlights of the London portion of our trip.

Then we took the Eurostar train through the Chunnel to Paris.  The train travels 198 miles per hour.  Because of its speed, when you go through tunnels your ears pop – just like on an airplane.  Our hotel, the Westin, was spectacularly located for walking to major sites (the Champs Elysees, the Arc de Triomphe, Tuilleries Gardens).  A refurbished older hotel, our room included a fireplace and antique wardrobe instead of a closet.  I managed to hit the Disney Store on the Champs Elysees (as well as the one I found in Florence, Italy).  It’s fun to check out the different merchandise abroad.  The Eiffel Tower, with dinner in the Altitude 95 restaurant in the Tower, was as impressive as you would imagine.  Getting to the top can be a bit tricky, however.  Lines are long, the elevators move slowly, and it’s a bit chaotic figuring out where the queues are.  Worth the effort though!  The Louvre (Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, Nike) was amazing.  It’s so gigantic, that if you stopped at each exhibit for one minute, it would take you over three months, day and night, to see it all!  The Palace of Versailles and the Versailles Gardens are quite dramatic!  Part of our Adventure included bike rental to ride around the Versailles pond.  What fun – although I did figure out that those bike seats are for tiny little French bottoms, not my fluffier American bottom!

We then took a day to visit Disneyland Paris (on our own, not part of our Adventures by Disney tour).  We had a wonderful time there.  It’s quite picturesque and charming.

Kathy also shares the details of her Hawaiian experience, back when Adventures by Disney was just starting out. The Hawaii itinerary is not offered for 2007:
My husband and I had the pleasure of traveling on one of the inaugural trips last summer. They did not advertise this new venture much, and from my understanding, even the travel agents weren’t given tons of info about it. They considered it sort of a “soft opening”. I had to really investigate and make a lot of calls to find out about it and get us booked. It was well worth the effort though!

They offered only two options last year: Wyoming and Hawaii. We went on the Hawaii trip. My husband had been promising me since our fifth wedding anniversary that he would take me to Hawaii. Well, it was coming up on our 30th anniversary – so as soon as I saw Disney and Hawaii in the same sentence, I said “We’re there!!!”

Because it was an inaugural season, things were being tweaked constantly; but our trip was handled with the utmost professionalism that you would expect from Disney. Travel to the start of the Adventure is on your own and not included in the cost of the Adventure. We flew to Honolulu the day prior to the beginning of the Adventure, and it was a good thing. Jet lag would have ruined my first day had we waited till the actual start day.

Our group consisted of 18: Three adult couples with grown children (ourselves included); three families with a total of 5 children ranging in age from 5 – 11; and one single adult traveler. It was a great mix of ages and interests, and we all meshed extraordinarily well. In addition, we had two tour guides: Mark, a cast member hailing from Walt Disney World; and Julie, hailing from Disneyland. They were great fun!

We hopped between three islands, and the accommodations were outstanding on each leg of the tour. All transfers of luggage and plane trips between islands were included in the price. All tours on the islands were conducted by experts, with travel in private deluxe motor coaches. We received special “Disney” treatment at some of the stops (i.e. opening to serve our group lunch even though the lodge was officially closed for the season). Most meals were included, though not all, so we had some time to explore on our own.

We saw the highlights of the islands, and enjoyed little Disney surprises all along the way. One night we had a private ‘Ohana meal on the hotel grounds, with music and fabulous food. After dinner, we were entertained by a private showing of Lilo & Stitch under stars on an outdoor screen with a fresh popcorn maker right there tempting us to overeat even more! It was truly paradise to lie on a chaise lounge under the stars, totally relaxed after a wonderful dinner, having fresh popcorn served while watching one of my favorite Disney movies. Nobody wanted it to end!

All details were handled for you, and believe me, that can get you spoiled real fast. I didn’t even have to think about what time we had to get up – even our wake-up calls were set up for us!!! There were activities for the adults and some separate ones for the kiddies so that nobody felt overwhelmed. The kids got time to themselves and the adults did too. The shared experiences were great fun as well – since our kids are grown it was fun to see some of these sites (such as volcanoes) through the eyes of the younger set again.

This was the quintessential vacation experience – and has now become our benchmark for the future. In fact, we are so taken with the Adventures by Disney experience that we are booked AGAIN! It was extremely hard to pick – and we narrowed it down to London/Paris and Italy. We went back and forth trying to decide which would work best – and finally we decided:

We’re doing both!!!

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