Legoland Hotel – Where everything is AWESOME

I’ve had a number of questions recently about the Legoland Hotel in Florida. When we were there last, they were building the Beach Retreat. That’s completed now, and apparently they are really pushing it. I can’t really address the questions about the Beach Retreat fully since we stayed at the Legoland Hotel, but I do know a few reasons why I would choose to stay at Legoland Hotel again.

  1. It’s right at the front gate to the park, and the Beach Retreat is a half mile away by shuttle bus.
  2.  There is a castle in the lobby.
  3.  The elevator turns into a mini disco club when the doors close.
  4.  There are Master Builder classes right off the lobby, and they are free! You just have to sign your child up for a time slot. These may eventually be offered at the Beach Retreat, but I haven’t heard.
  5.  Beach Retreat is a spread-out village of cottages. At Legoland Hotel, though, everything is in one building. There’s no trek to get something to eat. It’s just downstairs.


The picture above is the hallway outside our room. I have to say that I was a little concerned that our son would think this was all too young for him, since he was turning 9 the weekend we were there. I was dead wrong. He loved it.

LEGOLAND Hotel is a child’s dream of a hotel. The decor is over the top, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. Everything is LEGO’d out, and the children love it! Even the lowest category of room is a suite of sorts, with the children having their own area with bunk beds and a TV by the door. The bathroom comes next, followed by the parents’ area, which includes a king sized bed. The parents’ area is a little more toned down (notice I said “a little”) with fun LEGO accents hanging here and there on the wall. The children’s sleeping area, however, is decked out in its theme.

Here is a picture of the wall opposite the bunk bed in the children’s room:

Even the specially ordered carpet gives you something to ponder. I wondered whether I would be able to sleep restfully with this much stimulation all around. This was one reason I only booked one night. However, I found that, as Emmett says in the LEGO movie, everything was AWESOME. One night, though, and I was thankful to move on to a more sedate and less ornate environment.

Room themes include Kingdom (medieval castle), Adventure (Egyptian/archaeologist), Pirate (self-explanatory), and Friends(the pink and purple girly LEGO characters). My son chose Kingdom theme, so the pictures you see here from our room reflect that theme. Each floor has one theme, so that from the time you step off the elevator, you are in Kingdom mode, or Adventure mode, or whatever.

And the elevator is an attraction all by itself, as I mentioned above. When the doors open, you notice that there is wallpaper of LEGO figures dancing and doing different activities. There is typical elevator music playing, such as “The Girl From Ipanema.” But as soon as the doors slide closed, the party begins! Disco strobe lights flash and songs like “Do the Hustle” or “YMCA” accompany you up or down. You can’t be in a bad mood in this elevator. You must dance, sing, or both. It’s an involuntary reaction. As soon as you reach your floor, the doors open, the overhead light comes on, and the tamer music selection begins again.  It made me laugh every time I rode in it. Best elevator ever.

The Bricks Family Restaurant, adjacent to the lobby, offers a great variety of options on a buffet. Your breakfast buffet is usually included with the price of your stay. The dinner buffet is about $20 per adult and $13 per child, which is a really good value for people who like an “all you can eat” situation. You don’t have to go anywhere, and the food is good. I had a smoked brisket, among other things. The children’s buffet is out in the middle where kiddos can get a plate and serve themselves, while adults can hover around the perimeter and find selections to suit the more grown up palate.

The Skyline Lounge is actually right in the lobby (the lobby being pictured above), and it offers a spot for parents to sit with an adult beverage and watch the children enjoying all that the giant castle has to offer. You can also order from a menu and enjoy table service in this restaurant.

The included activities make this hotel an enormous value. Between being 150 steps from the entrance to the park, having close parking, included breakfast, early entry to the park, and these classes and activities, it doesn’t make sense to NOT stay there for at least the first night. There are Master Builder Classes, a pajama dance party, and other design/build activities going on in the lobby per the schedule for the day.

The employees are so nice and friendly that you will find yourself comparing them to Disney cast members.  The restaurant staff, bellmen/valets, and front desk folks are hard to beat. The characters walking around in the hotel lobby make the experience even more special and fun for the kids.

Your children will be really bummed when it’s time to check out.

Contact Azalea Travel to book your LEGOLAND vacation, and be on the lookout for another post about the LEGOLAND park.

Azalea Travel is a proud member of CLIA and ASTA.

That time I accidentally trod upon Jane Austen

My son found my 6 hour VHS Pride and Prejudice box set this week (you know, the one with Colin Firth), and insisted we watch it together, much to my delight. So each night this week, we watched some of it until we completed it this morning. It got me in the mind of the time I accidentally stood on Jane Austen. In case you’re in the dark, she was the author of the novel, Pride and Prejudice, of which the movie is a faithful depiction.

When I visited England with my family just after graduating from college in 1994, I was particularly fond of all the stops that involved writers I had studied in the course of my English Literature and Creative Writing major. More on those in another post.

But when we visited Winchester Cathedral, my attention was suddenly captured by a window dedicated to the memory of Jane Austen. It’s a beautiful church, to be sure, as are just about all of the old churches in England. I excitedly abandoned whatever I had been admiring and dashed between pews to read the plaque. I looked up, rapt in study, until I was satisfied to step back slowly. It was only then that I looked down and realized that someone was buried under the church floor, as they are apt to do in some European churches. I had been standing on someone’s grave, much to my regret and surprise.

I never know the protocol on this, by the way. If anyone can enlighten me, I’ll be most grateful. I’ve known since I was small that we don’t step or walk upon graves in a cemetery, as it is disrespectful. But what are we to do when someone is actually buried in a floor? Floors are made for walking and standing. Are we to tiptoe around and not step directly on the person’s final resting place? I know not. But my tendency is certainly to err on the side of respect and caution, avoiding the flat stone marking the grave.

But as I stepped back from this particular stone, I saw that it was not just someone buried there. It was Jane herself.  I leapt off quickly, apologizing to her silently. I am sure I was not the first or last to stand on her. But while I am deeply sorry for having trod upon her unintentionally, I am also honored to have been at her final resting place, given my great love for her most famous work.

-Perrin Cothran Conrad, Azalea Travel

Good Old Times in St. Augustine

History, beaches, beautiful architecture, shopping, and fun are some of things you will find in St. Augustine. I’ve been trying to think of a category of traveler who would not find something to do in this fascinating Florida gem of a city, and I can’t.

There are so many things to choose from (museums, historic homes, activities, and tours) that it might just make your head swim. One thing my family did there recently was buy the Old Town Trolley passes. I thought it was a great way to get an overview of the city, get our bearings, and figure out what we wanted to do. It also helps you find free parking in a place where that sort of thing comes at a premium. The trolley passes are good for three consecutive days, so you can use them for transportation in addition to getting background info on all the famous haunts in the oldest city.

One of the places we visited was Castillo de San Marcos. Now, being from Charleston, I always think that if there’s a fort somewhere, I have to see it. But honestly, now that I’m in my mid-40s, I have come to realize that if you’ve seen one fort, you’ve seen most of them. Notice that I said “most” and not “all.” Castillo de San Marcos is bigger and has a little more to take in than the majority of forts I have seen. (Although my favorite remains Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, SC.) It offers a unique experience with live performers, areas that are set up to look as though life is carrying on in 1700-something, and stunning views. It’s worth the visit.

There’s a little free museum that you can walk through if you have the trolley passes. It makes for a nice, air-conditioned twenty minute stop. That’s nice when you are visiting in July. The attached gift shop is also a good place to get your alligator heads, all things key lime, and other touristy must-haves.

At the Mission of Nombre de Dios, you will find the Great Cross, which marks the founding of St. Augustine. Visiting this cross and the adjoining cemetery and chapel is actually a free activity, but donations to the Mission are appreciated. It’s so lovely and peaceful that I almost can’t quite describe it. It’s definitely a holy place, and just a special experience. Even if you visit on a hot summer day, it feels cooler and pleasant as you stroll through the cemetery, but that may be in part because of the river on which it borders. I personally feel that no trip to St. Augustine will be complete for me without a stop at this inspirational spot.

We skipped the ever-popular Fountain of Youth, but it was a stop on our trolley tour. We just didn’t have time for everything. I do wish we had made time for the Flagler Museum. Next time.

A walk through the old gates and through the Old City proved fruitful and fun. The Oldest Schoolhouse is on that stretch, along with many fine shops and restaurants. Columbia’s is where all the locals say you simply *must* eat.

Potter’s Wax Museum was one of our favorites. I really thought this was going to be a short stop with little value other than entertainment. But there was great historic value in this visit for the whole family. It was definitely fun, but it was educational, too.

The last thing we did before leaving town was the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum.  Be amazed, be fascinated, and be grossed out at Ripley’s. As you are probably aware, this is a chain, and there are many Ripley’s Museums, but this one was the original. Each location is going to have different things in it, and this one is in an old mansion. There’s a good ghost story that goes along with it, too.

This was a great little summer vacation for my family, but would be nice at any time of year. Due to the great variety of things to do in St. Augustine, I would recommend it to families, couples looking for a romantic getaway, a girls’ weekend for shopping and sightseeing, a guys’ golf weekend, or a nice place for retirees to toodle around.

Contact Azalea Travel for help planning your St. Augustine vacation!

Azalea Travel is a proud member of ASTA and CLIA.

Family Fun in Savannah

Rich in history and beauty, Savannah is a no-brainer as a fun family destination if you live in the southeast. It ranks right up there close to St. Augustine, if you are making your way south or north on I-95 and need a good overnight spot. Now, I may be a little biased since I lived in Savannah for two years when I was single, but it was always on my must-visit list with my husband and son. We went over President’s Day weekend, and it was unseasonably warm ( like 80 degrees!).

Our first stop was Fort Pulaski. Since it’s a national park, admission is reasonably priced. On the day we were there, admission was free in honor of the holiday. Now there’s a great “See 3 Pass” where you can get discounted admission to your choice of historic or educational sites, and it includes Fort Jackson in its range of choices. However, Fort Jackson is much smaller and doesn’t have the history that Fort Pulaski does. Fort Jackson might be closer to downtown and have daily cannon firings, but Pulaski saw actual battle action and offers a lot more to see and learn. Especially if you’re only in town for one day, I would opt for the slightly longer drive to Pulaski (located on the road to Tybee Island) and choose one of the “See 3” destinations, depending on the ages of your children.

The Georgia State Railroad Museum is also a a great stop for your kids who like transportation. I think it’s fun even for someone who isn’t that much into trains. You might find a new hobby or passion there, because the place is so interesting! Be sure and catch one of the guided tours of the old passenger cars that happen throughout the day. My son and I spent a good hour and a half at this museum but could have easily spent longer. If you’re interested in visiting the Savannah Children’s Museum , be aware that it is adjacent to the Railroad Museum. If you have kiddos interested in both, you should definitely go ahead and buy admission to both. It makes sense.

A walk down River Street is a must. The cobblestones and the steep, uneven staircases can be treacherous, but knowing that you are climbing the same stairs that pirates and merchants used hundreds of years ago is pretty fun. Your children might convince you to board one of the riverboats for a tour or a meal. You have been forewarned. If you’re lucky, you might get to see a freighter ship coming or going. It’s quite the close encounter and pretty neat.

If you have any Brownies or Girl Scouts in your family, you can’t miss the Juliette Gordon Low house, of course. Otherwise, I would save that for a grown up trip, unless your children are way into historic home tours.

As for trolley tours, the green and orange trolley never does us wrong. This is one of those hop-on-hop-off affairs and can be quite handy for seeing as much as possible without moving your car a lot.

Where to eat? Definitely Pirates’ House. This is an experience, even apart from the dining aspect. Check the website for menu choices and times, because you might prefer to go for the lunch buffet while you’re already walking around downtown. This building has been a restaurant for a couple of hundred years, but served as a place for pirates to gather back in the days of yore. Kids get a special hat (that also serves as their menu), but what will entertain them more than anything is the ghost stories and staring down into the old tunnel under the restaurant. There is said to be an underground tunnel that leads all the way down to the waterfront. Legend has it that unsuspecting drunks would pass out at the bar, then be carried through the tunnel to the pirates’ ships. By the time they woke up, they would be out to sea, kidnapped, and enslaved.

If you’re looking for a good pizza, don’t pass up Vinnie VanGogo’s. It was one of my favorites when I lived there, and it’s still the hip place to go for a pie.

Where to stay? If you’re looking to save a few dollars, try a Southside chain hotel. You will be near all the malls and chain restaurants, but with the Truman Parkway, you won’t be terribly far from downtown. There are a few good chains in great downtown locations, too, such as Hampton Inn or Doubletree. But if you’re going to stay downtown, the fun places with ghost stories and local charm are River Street Inn and East Bay Inn. Parking costs in downtown Savannah, whether it’s at your hotel, metered places on the street, or garages.

One more thing – I downloaded the ePass app on my phone, and I do recommend it for a weekend or more. It provides you with discounts and specials all over town for dining, activities, and more. I only used it once – at the Pirates’ House – but it paid for itself after one use.

Contact Azalea Travel to assist you with your travel plans including cruises, group travel, and Disney!

Cabana Bay Beach Resort – an Orlando favorite


Whether you are visiting Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, and the new Volcano Bay water park opening in 2017 or not, the Cabana Bay Beach Resort is a fantastic place to park yourself when in Orlando. As an official Universal hotel that is connected to the parks via shuttle bus service, it certainly has a lot to offer if those attractions are your destination. Aside from that, the 1950s and 1960s decor is so much fun, you might just find yourself wishing we were still living in that era. When you call guest services for things like extra towels, the person on the phone will tell you to “have a swell day” before you hang up. They are all in when it comes to the theme, and I love it!


On the day my family and I checked in, everything was decked out for Christmas, which made it even more spectacular. The teals, oranges, blues, and crisp whites in the color scheme had me thinking I had just gotten out of one of those classic cars parked out front and left my gigantic hard suitcases in the back seat.


This lobby is actually one where you might spot a few Universal characters. We saw Scooby Doo wandering through when we first arrived. A few minutes later, we had the most delightful visit with Lucille Ball, who gave my son an extra “free piece of cake” coupon since it was his birthday. The employees and characters go the extra mile and make the place truly special – even down to the folks at the cash register in the gift shop.



There are several dining choices at the resort, but we tried Bayliner Diner, which is similar to a food court in that you have many choices, and Galaxy Bowl, because my son had become obsessed with the cosmic bowling on the first night, so we elected to just let him bowl while we ate there on the second night.  There is also a Starbucks, Swizzle Lounge for procuring your adult beverages, and the Hideaway Cafe near the lazy river.


What a beautiful Florida night this was (see picture above).

We were upgraded to a suite in the Starlight building, which was quite pleasant and welcome, considering I had just booked a standard room with 2 queen beds. We had a small living room, a tall kitchen counter with stools where we could eat, and a small kitchenette with fridge, sink, microwave and Keurig (because let’s face it, some modern conveniences are “the most”). There was a sliding door separating all of that from the bedroom, where we had 2 queen beds and a closet area. The sink and mirror were in the same room, but the toilet had its own room to the left, and the shower plus another sink had their own room to the right. Fantastic set-up with 2 televisions. The rooms do mostly have outer entry, like an old-style motel, but some have interior entry if you prefer that.





There was more to Cabana Bay Beach Resort that we didn’t even have time to explore, since we were there to enjoy the Universal Parks, too. Speaking of which, there are regular shuttles that run back and forth to the parks and City Walk every 10 to 15 minutes from 7am to 2am. You also get into the parks an hour earlier than the general population, since you are staying at one of Universal’s hotels. This also means you have some dining plan options at your hotel, if you are on the Universal meal plan.

This was such a fun place to stay. I think we would stay there again even if we were not going to the Universal parks, but just visiting Orlando for other reasons.

To book your stay at Cabana Bay, contact Azalea Travel, a proud member of ASTA and CLIA.

Club Med Sandpiper Bay


All-inclusive resorts are not exactly on every corner in the United States. Club Med Sandpiper Bay is special for that reason and a number of others.

In May, I had the good fortune to attend a travel industry conference at this beautifully landscaped compound in Port St. Lucie, Florida. As you may know, Club Med is a French company, so the resorts have a very European feel to them, whether they are located in Europe or not. In fact, I noticed that a good many guests who were not part of our conference were young European families.

Families are exactly who would do well here, and would be the first category of travelers for whom I would recommend it.

Tucked away on the St. Lucie River, the resort is a quiet respite from busy beach scenes, although you can take a shuttle to the beach if you’re yearning for the oceanside. What Sandpiper Bay does have is a small sandy area on the riverbank where you can relax and watch the boats go by. I wonder if some guests come here, particularly maybe from Europe, with preconceived notions about Florida and are surprised to find that this resort is not on the beach. There’s still plenty to do, though.


Active travelers can consider the included activities like tennis, trapeze (no, that’s not an auto-correct mistake), or golf lessons. The outstanding kids’ programs are also part of the package. Leave our child with them for the day, and when you go back to pick them up, they’ll be doing impressive circus acts. The pools and surroundings have a luxurious feel to them. Unfortunately, since I was there on business and spent a lot of time in conference rooms,  I didn’t get to enjoy these things as fully as I would have liked. Better planning for the next conference, and I’ll leave some more “me time.”

I did find the food to be quite good. I took most of my meals in the Marketplace, which is a buffet style restaurant that does not disappoint. There are tons of options at every meal, and I did not have anything that tasted less than great. There were always selections to keep both the parents and the kiddos happy. At lunch and dinner, there was a pizza bar, hamburgers and hot dogs, a variety of salads, charcuterie, cheeses and fruits, plus hot entrees and veggies. I know I’m forgetting something. Breakfast had just as many choices. There are other restaurants on the property to choose from, too, including one premium one (extra charge applies).


The room was nice, particularly for just one person. It was quite large, containing a king bed and a sofa that doubles as a bed for a child. The tile floor was very simple and Florida-ish. My balcony had a nice view of the marina on the St. Lucie River. The buildings were older, but are all undergoing refurbishment or have already been refurbished. The closet was HUGE. Forget your typical hotel room where you step over your bags which are in every corner on the floor. My family could have moved in for a week and had ample space.


Public areas were very attractive and clean.

Here are some great pros for a vacation at Sandpiper Bay:

  1. You can drive there from Charleston (7 hours away).
  2.  It’s all-inclusive.
  3.  Great golf and tennis.
  4.  Great children’s programs.
  5.  Good food.

Club Med periodically runs some really good specials (like 4th night free or discounts on certain dates). Call Azalea Travel to help you book your Club Med vacation when you’re ready.

Watch the video here: CLUB MED SANDPIPER BAY



It’s not summer without . . . this.


Growing up on the coast, there were certain things we just did every summer, without question. We went out in the boat. We went fishing and threw a castnet into the brackish rivers to catch shrimp. I visited my best friend (who lived in another town), and she visited me. I watched way too much TV. We always took a trip, of course. Some of the most memorable include a fishing lodge in the Bahamas, a fishing lodge in British Columbia, two weeks in England, and many trips with extended family to High Hampton Inn in Cashiers, NC.

But there’s one thing that I need now, as an adult, to make summer official. I just can’t do without time at the beach. Since my family had a beach house when I was growing up, I think it was just part of my DNA from the get-go. I need that time, even if it’s just a few days, to live on that lazy schedule and not be able to get all the sand out of my shoes.


What were those beach weeks like when I was growing up? Well, let’s see. Wake up later than usual to a sunny morning where you can hear the cicadas getting cranked up for the day. Eat an abnormal breakfast that might consist of something like waffles and candy. Finally put on your bathing suit around 10 and walk down to the beach. Rubber flip flops from the drug store, inflatable rafts, and Coppertone are the basic survival gear. Come inside around lunchtime, and have a sandwich. The rest of the day is up for grabs and may or may not include running from a thunderstorm when you see it coming, naps, or talking into the box fan to sound like a robot. But some things that will be certain are a screened door slamming shut many times over, a nice breeze on the incoming tide, sweat dripping off your face during the change of tides, and everyone taking turns with their showers before dinner. Dinner may involve a local seafood restaurant where at least one person in your family knows at least one person who works in the restaurant.

I look back now at how much work that was for my mom, even if we went out to dinner every night (and we didn’t). Cooking, cleaning up, etc. Now that I’m a mom, I much prefer going to a resort or a villa rental when on vacation than having our own place. But I digress.

My parents bought a beach condo when I was about nine, and that became part of my summer beach routine, as well. The absence of the screened door and the addition of a pool and air conditioning were the big differences, but it was still the beach.


So, for me, it’s not summer without sand, waves, and Carolina “island time.” What is it for you that makes it summer? Is it a trip to the mountains? Maybe it’s sitting by the pool with a good drink? Jimmy Buffett concert or outlet shopping with old friends? Lightning bugs? Comment on our Facebook page and tell us what you can’t do without, when it comes to summer.

Azalea Travel, proud member of ASTA

Disconnecting feels good.

Vacation seems to be no exception to the new rule that we are all accessible 24 hours per day. Communication seems to have taken over our lives. E-mail, texting, and social media are always in our back pockets (or purses). It’s no longer just a convenience.

Cruise lines, resorts, and phone companies have all gladly built systems to accommodate those workaholics, social mediaholics, and parents with separation anxiety trying to have a romantic getaway who just can’t seem to disconnect. One of the most common questions I get from cruise shoppers is how they can access WiFi on the ship. A few cruise lines will even include the WiFi for free. But what’s the real benefit? Hasn’t this stuff overrun our lives? What happened to the days of “Gone Fishin’?”

I submit that we should backtrack in time to the days before technology took over. When you board the cruise ship, put your phone in airplane mode and leave it there until you return home. There are only a small handful of things that truly need your attention when you’re on vacation. Your family and friends with whom you are traveling are at the top of that list. There are undoubtedly reasons why some folks want to maintain the ability to connect with home, but why not keep it to a minimum? Why not do what you went on vacation to do in the first place? Have a different experience, and get a change of scenery.

I was recently forced (by spotty WiFi) to put the phone down and be present in the moment. This is what I saw:

Oh, look! I’m out on the ocean.


Oh, HEY, Cuba! (Look closely, and you can see it. But only if you’re paying attention and not looking at your phone.)


Oooh, another ship.  I wish I had brought binoculars. Note to self for next cruise . . .


Now Cuba is so close, I can almost touch it. (We were just sailing past it, though.)


And this view was a great backdrop for my reflections on the way home:


I spent considerable time on my balcony, just staring at the sea. I had to time to think, pray, and write in my journal. I did some yoga out there, drank some coffee, and contemplated life with the gentle splash from the bow as background music. When I left my stateroom, I ate some meals in peace, without scrolling through my newsfeed or reading Huffpost. Other meals were taken in the company of new friends, who I never would have met with my nose pointed at my phone or tablet. We all toted our phones around, but only to be used as cameras. By the end of the week, I felt reacquainted with myself. There was no noise in my head from the latest political articles on Facebook, because I hadn’t read them. And they didn’t matter to me.

When we returned to the dock in Miami, I hesitantly switched my phone out of airplane mode. When I did, the thing buzzed for a good 60 seconds with notifications, texts, etc. Stuff happened while I was gone, like getting summoned for jury duty, a friend announcing she was moving away, bills coming in, an emergency allergy shot for my son. But guess what? Everyone and everything was okay until I got home. The world did not fall apart because I went away for a week. After my electronics were back on, I found that I had learned not to reach for the blasted things every 10 seconds.

I came home refreshed, rested, and happy. And always ready to go back and do it again! Never again will I have to be forced to unplug. I can’t wait until the next time I get to do it.

So, take my advice, and totally unplug on your next trip.

Be present in the moment.

You won’t regret it.

Azalea Travel, Proud member of ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents)

Fathom’s Dominican Republic Cruise – Part 2 Impact Activities


In my last post, I mentioned that a cruise to the Dominican Republic on Fathom is more than a vacation; it’s life changing. Where that phenomenon takes place is on the impact activities on land. You certainly may have an epiphany while you’re snorkeling, or you may be fulfilling a lifelong dream on your offshore fishing charter, but the impact activities are where you have the greatest potential to reach deep down and learn something new about yourself.

This out-of-the-ordinary seven night itinerary sails from Miami on Sundays, giving you a full day at sea on Monday, arriving in Amber Cove on Tuesday at midday, and sailing again on Friday afternoon. After another day at sea Saturday, you’re back in Miami by Sunday morning. There are 6 time slots during which you can schedule various activities or shore excursions. Fathom recommends that you participate in three impact activities, so that’s what I did. I started off with something easy and relaxing, though: the Playa Dorada Beach excursion. It was a nice enough beach, and I would recommend it to anyone who would like to spend an afternoon being a beach bum.

When I returned to the ship, I rode the elevator with a lady who had just been telling someone how she participated in the Community English impact activity. She said to me half-jokingly, “I saved the world today. What did you do?” I looked her square in the eye and said, “I went to the beach!” I then explained that I would be doing impact activities later in the week.

On Wednesday morning, I took a bus ride into the mountains to Altamira, where Chocal is located. This is an organic chocolate factory run by and for women who used to have to travel far away from their families to find work. These women can work close to home now, and with the help of Fathom travelers, they will be able to meet demand for their product. This will, in turn, enable them to hire other people with the added revenue, and get their business rolling. Once Chocal is off and running, Fathom will find another such business to assist. It’s a wonderful way to leave a lasting economic impact on the region. It’s more than just buying trinkets and leaving a few dollars behind, although that helps, too.


We helped the women and employees of Chocal sort beans, sift through and pick out shells from processed beans, pour chocolate into candy forms, and package/label the bars and candies. It was quick, lively work, peppered with laughter and jokes.  The Dominican people I encountered love to laugh and make jokes. For those of us who couldn’t speak more than a few Spanish words, there were hand gestures and nodding and such going while we tried to figure out how to tell the bad cacao beans from the good ones.  After working all morning, we had a brief tour of the cacao tree nursery, then were served a delicious traditional meal in the community center next door.


I still wasn’t sure we were actually helping, though. I had a fleeting thought that maybe the cruise line was paying these businesses to allow tourists to come and in feel like they were doing something good. But I realized that for every job station, there was one local person supervising us, while about six or eight of us worked.  So, for the hours we were there, we may have worked more slowly than the women themselves would have, but there were still many people doing the work that one person would normally have done.  Okay, I was about halfway convinced that this could make an impact.

I was a little tired after helping the ladies at Chocal all morning, but still had to get on another bus and visit Puerto Plata’s Top Ten Places to See. This was what I refer to as my “rock star day,” because I did an impact activity and an excursion.  It can be a tight schedule, depending on the things you choose.  I highly recommend going to the shore excursion desk once you are on the ship and confirming that you have not overbooked yourself. The Top Ten tour was good, and like the other traditional excursions, it was priced a little lower than most of the other cruise lines’ excursions. It was very reasonable, and the value was about right for what I paid.

Thank goodness, I slept very well on the ship, because this busiest day really wore me out.


Thursday, I took the hour-long bumpy bus ride up the mountain to a school in a small village, where we worked with sixth graders on their conversational English. The children greeted us in the library with a dance, after which we did a few icebreakers.


There were about 30 travelers and about 40 students, so many of us worked one-on-one with students. Since I speak little to no Spanish and they are just beginning their English learning journey, there wasn’t much conversation, unfortunately.  I had managed to figure out how to say that I have one son and ask whether they had brothers and sisters. But mostly, we worked on the task at hand: greetings, such as “Nice to meet you,” a few simple vocabulary words, and the alphabet in English. One young girl and I would just laugh when we got to the letter W, because it is so difficult and strange.



You might wonder why in the world Dominican children who live in a small village in the mountains would need to learn English. The answer is simple: because of Americans like me who don’t speak Spanish. American tourists are flocking to DR every day, and tourism is growing by leaps and bounds. New jobs are being created, but only for those who can speak English.  More English speakers are needed, and the best will be hired. As roughly half of the country lives below the poverty level, they are desperate for better education and a better economy. Even the teachers in this small village have very limited English. By helping these children with our language, we are empowering them to get better jobs when they grow up.


And they are so grateful and excited that we are there. Their sweet smiles really captured my heart. A few of the students stood up and told us at the end how much it means to them that we are there. Our impact guide translated for us. The last student even became teary-eyed and said, “God bless you.” When is the last time you felt that appreciated? This is was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done in my life. No, my two hours at that school will not mean that someone now speaks fluent English. But together, over time, Fathom travelers will make a difference in these children’s lives. The cumulative effect of contact with native speakers will be profound.


After we left the school, we were served a catered lunch of Dominican food at a public park. Local children were playing basketball on the court next to us and others were playing catch on a baseball field adjacent. Baseball is the most popular sport in DR. It’s said that most families with sons dream of their boys growing up to play professional baseball.

On Friday morning before departing the port at Amber Cove, we had time for one last activity. I chose to go to RePapel (a paper recycling business), which is about 10 minutes down the road from the port, in the heart of a city area. Just like everywhere else we went, children stared at the alien Americans driving up in a bus. I think we are just as fascinating to them as they are to us. As we entered RePapel, the women were chanting and clapping with enthusiasm at our arrival. We heard stories of how almost all of the women are single mothers and used to travel 4 hours to Santo Domingo to find work. They would have to leave their children behind all week long, hardly ever seeing them. But now, because they have the opportunity to own RePapel together, they can work close to home, see their children each day, and have more hope for the future.

First, I worked at various craft stations, where you can assist with making coasters and jewelry for tourists and travelers to buy. You can also help make candles, which are very much needed at RePapel. Because there is not enough electricity to go around, the city has rolling blackouts. Sometimes in the middle of their work day, the power will go out. They also give candles to some of the people who live in the neighborhood and can’t afford them. But let’s get down to the business of making recycled paper.


They do not have a shredder, so people shred the paper by hand. This was another place where I saw that we were most definitely actually helping. One lady worked with us and supervised, while about six of us did the work she would normally do by herself. At another station, we helped make the pulp for the recycled paper. We also helped sift it onto screens and put it onto boards where it can dry and become a rough, bumpy piece of paper.


The last station was the most physically demanding, where we used a piece of pipe to smooth the dried paper.


These women’s warmth and beautiful spirits were inspiring. If I thought I had never felt gratitude and appreciation like that of the students the day before, this was even more significant. As a female business owner myself, it was special to me to come alongside these women and help them in their enterprise for a couple of hours. It was meaningful to me before I even got there, but then I connected with one of the ladies who was just so full of joy and personality, that we didn’t need a spoken language to communicate. We communicated through smiles, dancing, laughter, and work. It was beautiful.


When we left that day, we were told that our group of travelers had completed, in about two hours’ time, the equivalent of three days of regular work for those ladies. Their products are in demand, and without the travelers, they will never be able to meet that demand. But with our hands working alongside theirs, they can meet demand, build their business, and create more jobs.

Some other impact activities include making water filters, mixing and pouring concrete floors in homes that have dirt floors, going to someone’s home to help an individual family with English, reforestation, and sports & arts camps when school is not in session. Since many Dominican homes don’t have access to clean water, absenteeism in schools is about 30% from waterborne illnesses. One water filter makes a big difference to the family who receives it. In the village where travelers are pouring concrete floors, about 80% of the homes have dirt floors. With Fathom travelers’ help, it is expected that every home in the village will have a concrete floor by the end of 2016. Fathom will then move on to another village.

As we sailed away from DR on Friday afternoon, I looked back at those verdant, lush mountains and thought, “I did something here. In some small way, I helped and left a positive mark on this place.” I’ve never felt that way about any other trip. I want to do it again and again.


You can be part of this incredible movement. You can have this amazing experience, just like I did. Contact Azalea Travel for more information.


Fathom’s Dominican Republic Cruise, Part 1


You’ve probably seen the Fathom Adonia in the news lately as the first ship to travel directly from the US to Cuba in over 50 years. Two weeks per month, you have an opportunity to take advantage of that incredible new itinerary. But during the other weeks, this innovative new cruise line is taking a different kind of journey. On a seven night cruise to Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, you can sun yourself, go ziplining, or whatever you like, but you can also leave the Dominican Republic a little better off than you found it. You have opportunities to do volunteer work while you’re there. It’s called Impact Travel, and I just returned a few weeks ago from their second such sailing in the history of this new company.
Take a good portion of what you know about cruising and forget it. Impact Travel is a new category of travel, unto itself.
Sure, you still have an elegant, beautiful ship with lovely staterooms, outstanding service, fine dining, and a pool. It was a P&O ship in its past life.


But this is so much more than vacation. This is life-changing. It’s important. And I’ll venture so far as to say it’s not for everyone. I thought I was going down there to check out this new cruise experience for the sake of my travel agency, and I was even excited about the prospect of helping people in a third world country. But what I received was unexpected. I have never felt such appreciation and love from perfect strangers. Sure, you get “all the feels,” as they say nowadays, from doing something good for someone else. But this went beyond that in the gratitude I felt from the beautiful Dominican people.
If you’ve ever wanted to see more than the plastic-peddling tourist shops and really get inside the local experience, you will love this. All those things you might normally like to do in a cruise port are available. You have plenty of time to visit a museum or go snorkeling. But there’s also time to explore the deeper experience that is offered here. Get beside the locals and communicate with them. Go into a local home, or visit a classroom in a local school. See what life is really like, and be a part of it. I’ll go more into the impact activities in my next post. Some of the choices include: making water filters for families with no access to clean water, pouring a concrete floor in a home with a dirt floor, helping children with their English so they can get a better job when they graduate, helping local business women meet demand for their products so that they can afford to hire more Dominican workers, creating more local jobs.

Fathom operates on this concept of alongsidedness. It may not be a real word (yet), but it’s a very real concept. They asked the people of the DR what they needed most. The answer was help with education, the economy, and environment. It’s not a handout, though. In fact, handouts are not permitted. Some well-meaning person on my ship took a bag full of school supplies and was told she couldn’t take them to the school she was visiting to help children with their English. What Fathom is doing is better than just giving stuff: you’re helping the people build the resources that will enable them to get things for themselves. And they are so thankful.
Now, up to the point where you get on the ship, the experience feels pretty much like a traditional cruise. Once on the ship, you meet your Impact Guide, who is going to help you learn about the Dominican customs and essential facts. Your Impact Guide will lead your cohort group, where you can share things before and after your stay in DR: your expectations, what you learn about yourself and others, and how to move forward in your own life with this new information.
If you’re rolling your eyes about what sounds too touchy-feely for you, please know that nothing is mandatory! You are welcome to lie on the pool deck and have a drink or read in the gorgeously-appointed library instead of going to the sessions. Nothing on the ship is mandatory, even impact activities. But if you just want to go on a 7 night cruise, you might just want to choose another cruise line. I heard some folks complaining last week about things like, “There’s no soft serve ice cream machine in the buffet restaurant.” Really, that’s not why we’re here. And you can still get ice cream in a couple of other places on the ship. If you’re looking for the casino or the video arcade, you might feel a bit lost. Those are things which are not exactly in keeping with what Fathom is doing. 99% of the passengers I encountered were ready to go do some good and were excited about sharing that with other passengers.
As DR grows in tourism, there will be more and more jobs created for Dominicans who can speak English. The only problem is that not many of them do. Another one of the projects you can participate in is to go to someone’s home and help a family with their English, so they can be better equipped to work in tourism. You don’t have to speak Spanish, and the curriculum is provided for you. It’s the same curriculum we used in the classroom experience. All you need is provided. You just have to show up and have a heart open to helping.
In my next post, I will go more into detail about the projects in which I participated, and the impact we had. Rest assured, this has the potential to be a life changing trip. This is not simply a marketing gimmick. Fathom travelers are truly going to do some good in DR, and they already have. After spending four days in Puerto Plata, I told my rickshaw driver that I loved his beautiful country and its beautiful people, and that I hoped to come back again and again. I really meant it. I came away feeling a special bond to this country that I had never thought about visiting before.

I also left this place a tiny bit better than I found it. If you want to feel this way about a trip, call me. I can help you get there.
Azalea Travel

Click here to see Part 2 of my Fathom experience!