XelHa Park, Riviera Maya, Mexico

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The XelHa Park in the Riviera Maya Mexico is a great day trip for the whole family.  The park is a large natural aquarium where you can experience many different water activities.

It was a beautiful warm day in May when we had the opportunity to explore XelHa.  XelHa has a policy on the type of sunscreen you can use within the park.   It has to be organic with no chemicals.  I had thought I found the correct type but when we arrived they would not allow it.  The park gives every guest a sample pack of the sunscreen, which can last 1 to 2 applications.  So it is best to apply at least one coat of sunscreen before arriving at the park.

Our first adventure was to float on tubs down the river in the forest of mangroves.  To get there you can either take the shuttle bus or ride a bicycle.  They have all of the bikes in an area and you just get on and ride.  We choose this route and it was fun riding through the mangrove forest.  When we got to the river entrance you could choose a one person or two person tubs.  Our group started down the river, it was relaxing until I decided to move the wrong way in the tub and fell off.  The water was moving slowly but I could not touch the bottom as it was too deep and I did not want to touch the sides.  I luckily was able, with help of my friends, to get myself back on the tub without pulling anyone else in.  But it was a little unnerving and my heart was racing.  At little excitement always makes the day fun.  The river ends into the open lagoon that is great for snorkeling.

On the large lagoon there are several zip lining adventures.  All of them are at different heights and speeds.  We went on several and it was great to zip into the water.  The next adventure was cliff jumping.  The park also has different heights for jumping off.  I did try one and it was fantastic.  The employees at the park make all of these activities very safe.   There is a very large lagoon that you can snorkel in.  We saw many colorful fish around the coral rocks.  There were a few very large fish that we were not able to identify.   Snorkeling through the coral reefs was fun but tiring.

The park has many walking trails and other activities like swimming with the dolphins and SNUBA which is a combination of snorkeling and scuba diving without the tanks.   There are many areas to relax on a lounge chair and have a cold beverage.  There are iguanas all over the park and a great floating bridge that is fun to walk on.  Though you need to hang on if it is windy and the water is not calm.   I would recommend this park for families of all ages; there are so many fun things to try while soaking up the warm Riviera Maya sun.

Barceló Maya Beach Resort

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The Barceló Maya Beach Resort in the Riviera Maya area of Mexico is a wonderful family and friends getaway.  The resort is located about one hour and a half from Cancun’s International airport.   The best transfer is a private or nonstop transfer direct to the resort.

The Barceló is made up of 5 separate all inclusive hotels, the Barceló Maya Beach & Caribe, Barceló Colonial & Tropical and the Barceló Maya Palace Deluxe.  Similar to the Iberostar Resorts, the Barceló Resorts offers guest reciprocal use of the sister hotel you are staying at.   The entry level Barceló Beach & Caribe guests have use of all of the restaurants and facilities within these 2 hotels.  If you choose to stay at the mid level Barceló Colonial & Tropical, you will have use of both the sister hotels as well as the Beach & Caribe complex.   The top tier is the Barceló Maya Palace Deluxe where guests have the use of the full Barceló Maya Beach Resort.  The entire complex offers 18 restaurants, 19 bars, 10 pools, a kid’s water park, disco, fitness center, a spa with a special kid’s spa, and the Barcy Kids Club.  The Barceló complex is located on one of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean with 1.5 miles of white sand and crystal clear water.   The beach, which is private by nature, is towards the southern end of the Riviera Maya is good for swimming as the surf does not get as rough as in the Cancun area.

We dined at several of the restaurants within the resort.  The Kyoto was great with the chef cooking the Japanese cuisine in front of our table.  We had lobster tail with some other great oriental dishes.  La Brasserie with its French cuisine was a great dining location overlooking the ocean.  The buffet restaurants set near the beach offered many choices for breakfast, lunch and dinner.   There was plenty of dining selection to choose from at the Barceló.

The rooms at each of the sections were all well appointed.   They offer either king or double beds with a spacious sitting area and a balcony that depending on where you are at the resort either looks over the tropical vegetation or the pool.  The bathrooms in rooms were very spacious with a nice shower and tub as well as generous space around the sink.  The Club Premium rooms offer towards the ocean and are closest to the pools.

The grounds and the pools at the Barceló are wonderful.  The lush green lawns, swaying palm trees make it a great place to stroll around and find the many iguana’s that are on property.  There is a great kid’s play area with a trampoline, water area, tennis courts, and soccer field.  The largest of the pools is within the Barceló Maya Palace Deluxe section, it is an enormous pool with in the water lounges and a great pool bar and snack bar.  In this section there is an adult’s only pool area where the adults can have some quite time.

I have sent several clients to this resort and all of them come back with high marks for a great family vacation for families of all ages and size.   Ever since I returned from the Pleasant Holidays trip, my children cannot wait to visit the Barceló Maya Palace Beach Resort.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

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Our last day of the river cruise is ending in Amsterdam, Netherlands.  It has been a wonderful trip and there is still so much to see in this great city.  Amsterdam is among the most livable cities in the world due to its numerous cultural institutions, modern architecture, and diverse variety of ethnic restaurants as well as its liberal policies on everything from euthanasia to drugs and prostitution.   As we got off the boat our first site was of the train station where you get a sense of how the residents of Amsterdam get around; there were thousands of bicycles at the commuter rail station.

Our accommodations are at a nice small hotel called the Die Port van Cleve hotel, in the heart of downtown Amsterdam.  Our room overlooked De Nieuwe Kerk Museum, one of the many museums in Amsterdam.  The Die Port van Cleve is the original site for the first Heineken brewery.

Our first tour of the city was on a canal tour.  Amsterdam has over 150 canals and 1,200 bridges and is sometimes referred to as the “Venice of the North”.  The boat took us down many of the canals that make up the city of Amsterdam.   Some residents of Amsterdam choose to have their home on a houseboat.  We saw some that looked very livable while others looked as if they may not stay afloat.  Along the canals were many beautiful buildings and tree lined streets.

Next we were onto the hop on hop off bus tour of Amsterdam.  This is a great way to see any city and get acclimated to where everything is.  Our first stop was near the Heineken museum where you can do the Heineken Experience which takes you through the history of Heineken Beer.  We had lunch in a great pub that sat on a corner of a busy intersection.  While at the pub I took a video of the street light changing with all of the bicycle riders.  It is truly was a great city to people watch.  You would see one person on a bike, then two on a bike with one on the front and one on the back.  Then there were the woman in their high heels, skirts and long wool coats riding to work.  Also the mother would be riding the bicycle with one child on the front and one child on the back.  Nearly every resident in the city owns a bicycle since drive is discouraged.  No matter what the season, the residents of Amsterdam are always riding their bicycles.

After a great lunch we went to the Van Gogh Museum.  The museum shares a beautiful park like area with the Rijksmuseum.  Between the two museums you could spend a whole day viewing all both have to offer.    During the evening we walked down to the famous Red Light District.   This was a very interesting area where there where many food shops, coffee houses and many other types of shops that are well known in Amsterdam.  One thing we noticed was that there were many vacant windows in the Red light District, all with for rent signs.  We wondered if this was a sign of the economy in the city.

Amsterdam is a great city with so much to see and do, you can easily spend several days there.  I cannot wait to go back to spend more time in the city.  In the morning we will board our flight back to Boston but not before we get to shop at the Schiphol Amsterdam Airport.

The Windmills of Kinderdijk, Netherlands

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We woke this morning in the next country of the Netherlands.  The sunrise on the Waal River was beautiful today.  We were on our way to Kinderdijk, a tiny village located on a strip of land between the Lek and Noord rivers.  Kinderdijk is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the largest concentration of operational windmills.

The state of Holland was made from the bottom of the North Sea. When the water retreated, dunes were left over to create Holland.  The dunes are vital to the protection from flooding.   The windmills were brought to the Netherlands from Spain, to remove the water.  This is how the Netherlands was created.  More than half of the country of Netherlands is below sea level.   Ships on the rivers pass over your head since the water is above you.

The windmills are here for one function and that is to pump water.  Every Dutch windmill has 4 wings and they always turn counterclockwise.  The only operate by wind, no motors. The cap of the windmill is operated by man power.  It is turned to follow the direction of the wind.  There are two doors to account for the fact that you need two entrances to go outside if the wings are turning past one door at 90 times a minute, you would not want to get struck by the wings if you exited out the wrong door.

There are only 1000 windmills left in the country for the operation of water management.  The windmills are kept up by families living there to maintain and run them.   Nowadays the windmills do not do the work of removing the water; it is done by many pump stations throughout the country.

Kinderdijk got is name after a devastating flood in 1421.  The storm flooded the villages and a legend developed about a child in a cradle that was kept afloat by a cat jumping from side to side keeping the cradle in balance. “The Cat and the Cradle” became a well-known fairly tale and the area became known as “Child Dike” or Kinderdijk in Dutch.

Next we disembark in the beautiful city of Amsterdam.

Cologne Cathedral

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As we walked up to the largest Gothic cathedral in Germany, the magnificent Cologne Cathedral, we were struck by its size, detail and beauty.   The cathedral is locally referred to as The Dom and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The cathedral was constructed over a period seven hundred years and was completed in 1880.  The outside is intricate in its detail.  The two soaring spires look over the city of Cologne.  There are 509 stairs to the top of the spires and the view is spectacular.  It was well worth the climb to the top.

Inside the cathedral there are many beautiful stained glass windows.  One dates back to the 1300’s.  Each tells a story, from the Birth of Christ Window to the Epiphany Window.   In a protected glass case is the Shrine of the Magi,  also referred to as the Shrine of the Three Wise Men.  There is a plate on the side that is removable and during the Epiphany, the 6th of January; the Festival of the Magi, the three skulls of the Wise Men with their golden crowns can be viewed through a screen.

Viewing the lighting of the Cathedral at dusk was awesome.  The lighting starts out yellow at the top and then a green at the lower part of the cathedral. Then the entire cathedral is lit up in a bright yellow.  It was great to be able to see the Cathedral a night in person after seeing so many pictures in brochures.

The best way to show this beautiful structure is with pictures…..

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The City of Cologne, Germany

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On the morning we arrived in Cologne, Germany it was foggy and drizzly, but soon the clouds cleared to a beautiful day.  Our walking tour began along the Rhine River with the many restaurants and pubs that lined the avenue.  There is a clock on a stone pillar next to the Rhine that does not look like a time clock.  Our guide told us that this was the water level of the Rhine.  There was a plaque on the pillar describing the largest flood and the most recent floods in the summer of 2013.  The water level mark was at 6 and that was high water for this time of year.  The levels are normally at 4.

The architecture and old buildings in this city were beautiful.  Our walk took us through the cobblestone streets, past the many pub and beer gardens.  We would be sampling many of these later tonight on our pub crawl.  We viewed the Renaissance city hall and the remnants of an ancient Jewish bathhouse.  Cologne was the city where the first eau de cologne was invented by Farina in 1709.  Here you will find the Farina store where you can sample many of the new scents.  There are many quaint shops and bookstores where you can find unique gifts.  We visited a shop that makes amber jewelry and purchased some very pretty pieces.  Cologne is also known for its number of museums from Museum Ludwig, devoted to modern art, which has one of the largest displays of Picasso.  Our other favorite museum was the Schokoladen Museum, dedicated to chocolate making.  This museum had a wonderful chocolate store where you could find many chocolate bars, chocolate liquors, and the largest selection of advent calendars.

Another great site in Cologne is the Cologne Cathedral, a magnificent Gothic cathedral.  I will describe our tour in depth in a separate blog.  The best view of the Cathedral is from is from Hohenzollernbrucke Bridge “Cologne’s Locks of Love Bridge”.  This bridge has over 40,000 padlocks locked to the bridge to display the love of every couple that added the lock and threw the key over the railing into the Rhine River.

Later this evening our pub crawl took us to 4 different beer houses, one of which was visited by Bill Clinton when he was president.  This pub was not the Presidents first choice but the original pub would not give over it recipes to the Secret Service in order from them to approve the establishment.  The owner figured his bar and customers were more important than any US President.

Next we are on to Kinderdijk, Netherlands to tour the windmills.

Marksburg Castle, Braubach Germany

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We arrive in Braubach, Germany for our trip to Marksburg Castle.  This Castle is one of the finest along the Rhine River since it has retained nearly all its original construction and is one of the best preserved castles along the river.

Marksburg Castle sits high atop a hill overlooking the Rhine.  The location is one of the reasons it was never destroyed in the many wars in the region.   When you first begin the tour, the guide unlocks the gates and then once everyone is in, she locks the gates behind us.   The stone staircases into the inner part of the castle were very well worn.  Many of the family crests from the Counts that resided here were on display in this stairway.  We saw a few workers doing regular maintenance on the castle the day we were there.   Once we got into the inner walls of the castle the view from an outer walkway was spectacular of the valley and the Rhine River below.  Here is where they were growing an herb garden with many of the herbs used back in the days of the castle being occupied.

 Many of the rooms are very well preserved from the sleeping quarters to the dining room, the wine making cellar. We toured Knight’s Hall where all of the knights’ armor over the centuries was displayed.  You could see the differences in the armor over the years.  The kitchen is still used today to hold parties and events.  The Chapel was a small circular room with a painted ceiling.  The Chapel is dedicated to Saint Mark, from who the castle gets its name.  Today Marksburg Castle is home to the offices of the German Association of Castles.

As we depart Braubach, the ships next stop will be Koblenz, Germany, where the Rhine and Moselle Rivers intersect.