May 30

The Sydney Ferries

 Anyone who visits Sydney will quickly become aware of the Sydney Ferry System, or whatever they call it, since it’s such a popular way to get around the city.  Due to the strange lay out of Sydney, it seems to have been developed on both sides of the harbor.  I guess it makes sense if you want to maximize views, but it’s really a pain if you’re trying to get around the city.

Of course there is the Sydney Harbor Bridge to get around, but you need a car for that. So if you’re a tourist, without a car, or don’t like traffic, the Sydney Ferries are a great option.

When I was planning my visit, friends suggested I skip the harbor cruise and just ride one of the ferries. While still cheaper then the harbor cruise, the ferries are not cheap. I believe I paid $15 round trip to Manly Beach. That trip included some breathtaking views of the harbor and the Opera House.

As for doing a ferry trip instead of a harbor cruise? I guess this is the same as saying skip going to see the Statue of Liberty and take the Staten Island Ferry for free. Ok, maybe not exactly the same.  But it’s the same logic. The harbor cruises are expensive and if you’re already taking a ferry trip and are focused on just seeing the harbor or taking a few pictures. Then yes, save your money and just take the ferry.  However, if you enjoy the relaxing views and hearing lots of information about a city, then a harbor cruise, although expensive, may be a better value.  Either way, hop on a boat and see the city from the water.

Before you go, check the schedules and get there early if you want a good seat. Seats with views can be taken quickly.

Sep 26

OHEKA Castle Tour

OHEKA Castle has an interesting history as far as castles go, it reminds me more of the history of Alcatraz then of a castle.  I just want to start by saying that my guide, Lowell, was wonderful, full of history and a passion for the castle.  She lives right around the castle so she is a local with an invested interest in the success of the castle.

Grand Staircase

Lowell started the tour in the entrance to the castle with the history.  Otto Herman Kahn bought 443 acres of land in 1914 to build this as a summer and weekend home on a high point of Long Island, since it wasn’t the highest point, he built it up to be the highest point.  Today the castle land is only 27 acres, much of the landing having been sold off after Otto’s death in 1934.  The home was built with 127 rooms, it was then and still is the second largest home in the United States.

After Otto passed away in 1934 his wife sold it off.  Being the tough times of the depression she didn’t have many offers and it was purchased by the NYC Department of Sanitation to be used as a retreat.  That didn’t go so well and only lasted 2 years.  Then it was taken over by the Marine Radio Operators before being purchased by the Eastern Military Academy.  The Eastern Military Academy was a respectful owner of the building, if you don’t mind tanks driving around the gardens.
Library

In 1978 the Academy went bankrupted, they basically left everything, locked the doors and left.  The castle became a home for vandals, squatters, and kids doing bad stuff.  By 1983 the only reason the building was still standing was because Otto Kahn was so paranoid about fire that the building was very fire proof (there was almost no wood used in the construction).  So although there was no roof in areas, there was fire damage throughout, and plaster had simply fallen off the walls due to cold Gary Melius thought this was a good investment.  He bought the castle for $1.5 Million and has put in another $37 Million dollars into repairing the castle.

 Today the castle restoration is the biggest restoration project of its kind.  70% of the castle has been restored, with plans in the works for the other 30%.  The castle is currently functioning as a hotel, restaurant, catering hall.  I think catering hall is an understatement.  You may have seen OHEKA on Platinum Weddings or in photos of Kevin Jonas wedding.  You may have also seen it in The Emperors Club, What Happens In Vegas, Royal Pains or in ads for Audi, Victoria’s Secret, Ralph Lauren and every bridal magazine – just to name a few of its accolades.
Charlie Chaplin Room

So the tour started at the Grand Staircase, which was modeled after a staircase at Chateau Fountainbleu in France.  From there we moved upstairs to the second floor and the main living floor of the castle.  Our first stop was brief in the Foyer before moving to the main ballroom.  The main ballroom was one of the early rooms to be restored, due to it’s location across from the entrance and it’s allure as a venue space to rent out.  The room had once been a gymnasium, complete with basketball nets.  Today is has ornate ceilings, wood floors, chandeliers and serves as a main dining room for guests.  To the right of the foyer is the formal dining room, and the new Terrace Room that was added to accomodate larger parties, up to 450 guests.

Formal Dining Room

To the left of the foyer is a series of smaller rooms.  The library has been restored to the state it was in when the family owned the house and it’s wonderful.  There are also sitting rooms, the Charlie Chapman Room and the bar is in what used to be the billard room.  Outside this wing is the formal gardens, which have been fully restored from the days of being a tank field.

4th Floor Hallway
After this we moved upstairs to the 4th floor where most of the suites are.  We got to see the bridal suite and a Fairbanks Suite (a different one then featured on the website).  After the 4th Floor we went to the wind tunnel, which functioned as 1910’s air conditioning and then to take a peak at the pool from the outside.  The pool is a long lap pool and for several reasons is not open to the public.  Although it is partially restored, it is still part of the 30% of the estate to still be completed.  After this we were brought  back to the ballroom for coffee and cookies, a really nice way to end the tour.  And it allowed you to take a look around the castle some more if you didn’t have time to check everything out.

Bathroom in Fairbanks Suite
Fairbanks Suite
Fairbanks Suite
Bathroom, Fairbanks Suite
Entrance to Bridal Suite
Bridal Suite
If you’re out on Long Island this is absolutely a wonderful site to see, although there are some other historic mansions on Long Island this one is unique in it’s history.  I think you’ll also find OHEKA Castle to be a very warm and home like environment compared to many other mansions you could see in the country.  This could also have to do with the fact that Gary actually lives in the castle and calls it his home.  Yes, while waiting for my tour Gary came by the grand staircase and said hi to anyone who was waiting for the tour and welcomed us to him home.
Tours operate daily at 11AM, if you are planning on visiting I would recommend asking if there are any events going on when you are there.  If they are filming or have a party you may find areas of the castle are off limits for the tour.

Feb 25

Traveling Solo or on a tour??

In the travel world there’s a bit of a separation between those that travel independently and those that travel on a tour. I’m a tour girl. It’s not that I don’t like to travel independently, but I tours suites me better.

I’m often traveling alone, I occasionally find a friend to travel with; but I travel so much and sometimes quite far away that I can’t always find someone to travel with. I don’t really like to travel alone either, it’s lonely. I know I could meet people along the way, but what if I don’t? The thought of traveling to foreign cities for 2 weeks without meeting people, or constantly meeting new people but not connecting with any of them is daunting. Imagine having no one to really talk to for 2 weeks, to discuss the things you did and the things you want to do. If you’re on a tour then you have instant friends (ok, I know that sounds bad.) But you’re with people who are more or less in the same boat and with the same interests. And if you keep your tour in the 2-3 week range you’re unlikely to get to know people’s annoying habits. But there is a certain comradery that develops on a tour. Picking place to see in a city, helping each other with problems that arise, sharing knowledge, and getting to know another culture through meeting people from different places. There is a lot to get out of a tour socially, and I’m still friends with many of the people that I travel with.

Then there is the idea of planning the trip – hotels, transportation, dining, ugh! I don’t mind it, but it is a lot of work and sometimes more then I have the time and patience for, especially if you’re looking at seeing a lot of places in a short period of time. A tour makes all this easier.

But there are some cons to traveling with a tour: you do often end up being sheparded around in a large group (though there is a lot of free time too,) being stuck with annoying people, limited control over your schedule and time. Overall though, I’ve enjoyed all the tours I’ve been on, felt they were a good value, and the people were absolutely worth meeting and getting to know. I am however looking at expanding the types of tours I use. A bus of 50 people is great, but I think a smaller group of people is better.

Feb 15

Disney World Tours

On my last trip to Disney World in October of 2008 Terye and I did two tours. The first was the Keys to the Kingdom tour, the second was a Segway Tour of World Showcase at EPCOT.

The Keys to the Kingdom tour is a 4 and a half hour tour where you learn some of the secrets of Walt Disney World (primarily the Magic Kingdom) and get to see some backstage stuff at the park. The tour starts on Main Street and our guide, Johnnie, showed us some of the names in the windows and told us the origins of those names. We learned about the 4 “keys” – Safety, Show, Courtesy, and Efficiency. Here are some examples of these: Safety – when they do bag checks at the park entrance they are looking for glass (among other things) – glass cuts people when it breaks. Courtesy – You’ll notice that cast members use a 2 fingered point, it’s apparently friendlier then the one fingered point. Show – cast members use the Utiladoors to move from land to land at the Magic Kingdom, you’ll never see a cast member from Fronteir Land in Tomorrow Land. Efficiency – you’ll notice that menues have limited choices at the parks and resorts, it makes it easier and faster for you to choose your meal. We went backstage in the area between Adventure Land and Fronteir Land. This is the area where they keep and service parade floats – we got to see many of the parade floats being tested. We got to ride Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion, and had a nice lunch at Harbor House. At the end of the tour we finally got to see the Utilador, which was very exciting. There is a whole network of underground tunnels under the Magic Kingdom which allows cast members and stuff to move around the park without being seen. They’re similar to something you would go through if you worked at a major sporting arena (that’s the best example I have since I worked in one,) but with just a little bit of a Disney flare to it. An interesting fact for all you recyclers out there. Although Disney does not have recycling bins in the parks, they do sort all garbage by hand, so rest assured that your cans will be recycled.

It was a great tour, Terye and I really did enjoy it. It was a little over 4 and a half hours. It does involve a fair amount of walking, but we did have many breaks from the walking, sometimes with the chance to sit down. If anyone is interested in the tour though I suggest doing it after you have spent a day or two in the Magic Kingdom so that you can better enjoy the tour.

The following day we did the Around the World on a Segway tour at EPCOT’S World Showcase. This is a 2 hour tour. The first hour is spent learning to ride a Segway, which is a lot of fun. The next hour you get a guided tour of World Showcase with one break in the middle. We rode through most of the “countries” and got some tidbits of infomation about them. It was nice to get to see World Showcase without people in it, you could appreciate things a little more, too bad we weren’t able to take pictures while riding the Segways. The Segways were sooooo much fun to ride. I wanted one after the tour, though I don’t think one would be very useful in my regular life. I will warn that they really do kill the feet and legs. You can’t really move your feet around when you’re on the segway since you use your legs and feet to control it. Although I wanted to go longer on it, I don’t think my feet could do much more. Next time I’ll have to try the Segway tour at Fort Wilderness.

Feb 11

What is Contiki

I’ve toured several times with a company called Contiki. Since a lot of my travel involves this company I thought i would talk about what a Contiki tour is. Contiki is a large tour company that caters to 18-35 year olds. They do group tours of Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and a couple other spots. The tours typically have around 40-50 people on them, many of the people are traveling Solo. The company that owns Contiki also owns Trafalgar, Insight, Bus A Bout and a couple other companies.

Contiki operates tours from 3 days to 46 days. They operate camping tours, tours where you stay in cabins at campsites and tours where you stay in hotels. This allows people to take more roughing it styles of tours in exchange for saving some money, or spend a little more money and have more conveniences. I’m a hotel tour kinda girl!

Contiki is good for first time travelers, solo travelers, and people who don’t want to do a lot of planning. Contiki takes care of transportation, accomodations, some meals (typically breakfasts and half the dinners), basic tours of cities, and offers optional activities – meals, tours of cities or museusms, and different activities depending on the place designed to enhance the experience. The typically persons on these tour are looking to spend time touring and getting to know new place, but also looking to drink and socialize too. One tour manager said that every morning is Monday morning and every night is Saturday night. But how much touring you do and how much partying you do is up to you.

Who shouldn’t take a Contiki tour? While most people will enjoy Contiki tours, there are some who will not. Very independent people tend not to enjoy the tours. Also, people who have not researched what a tour entails and the types of accomodations that are offered. While there is a lot of free time on the tour, there are quite a few time restricitons too. If your tour is traveling from one city to another, then their is only so much flexibility in the schedule. Or if you’re not familiar with what a 3 star hotel in europe is and expect what you would get in say the US – you’ll be disapointed. Also, if you’re not happy unless everything is catered to you, don’t take a Contiki tour.

If you’re interested in more info on Contiki, check out their website at www.contiki.com