For my 50th birthday, I planned over a year in advance to take a huge trip to Europe. Up until now, my only European visit had been to Paris for 4 nights, 4 years ago. This trip was going to be an experience of a lifetime and it truly has been! This review is going to be broken down in components- the tour company experience, the various hotels, the destinations & touring. There is a slide show at the end of my review of some favorite pictures!
For starters, I had saved up points so that we could travel in Upper Class on Virgin Atlantic SFO-London roundtrip and the experience was awesome both ways. Service was impeccable and we were really treated like British Royalty. I was wearing my special "50th tiara" which of course brought attention my way from the very start of the trip- beginning with the Upper Class lounge at SFO. I received many "Happy Birthday" wishes and they even surprised me with dessert and sang "Happy Birthday" to me- which I really did not expect. Everything in the Upper Class lounge is free, so we had cocktails and ordered dinner. Very good food. They advised us of when we should depart and head to the gate to board. Once on board, they served champagne to welcome you aboard and had two meals to serve during the flight. The seats fully recline, so we were also able to get some well needed sleep during the 10 hour flight. We flew over on a newer aircraft- the 787, which was awesome- lots of room, lots of storage and a bathroom in the Upper Class section that was huge! I found it amusing that people actually pack their pajamas or lounge wear and change into these clothes for the flight and then change back into their street clothes about an hour before landing. I didn't get that memo, but I was definitely comfortable in my fashionable sweat suit.
As for the return flight, I've heard nightmares about Heathrow airport, but apparently those nightmares do not apply to Virgin Atlantic Upper Class passengers. We were checked in for our flight in less than 5 minutes, took a private elevator to the exclusive Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Security check point which took all of about 5-10 minutes to process through, another 5 minutes to wait at the Customs desk to have our VAT form signed off on in order to mail for our tax free purchases and we were then on our way to the lounge for approximately 2.5 hours of relaxation in a fabulous environment. We ordered Mimosas and had eggs Benedict in the lounge. I toured the lounge a bit- it's much larger at Heathrow vs. SFO- ample space to sit, lounge, etc. There is also a salon/spa where you can get your hair done and a gaming section with a pool table and some seated video games. I was very impressed with the amenities offered in this lounge. We flew back on an airbus aircraft, which is a bit smaller than the 787, but the Upper Class area is about the same in terms of layout and seat space, but not as much overhead storage. Still enough though because people don't bring everything on as carry-on luggage in Upper Class.
Our itinerary was divided into a few different components. We had our first two nights on our own in London, then flew to Perugia Italy to stay in a little area called Frontone to visit friends for two nights and then took the train to Rome where we met up with a Globus Escorted Tour for 11 days that took us from Rome, Florence, Venice, Lugano/Lucerne, Paris and back to London and then we flew home.
We arrived in London about 2pm and I had pre-arranged a driver to pick us up and take us to our hotel (more about that in the hotel section) and then we planned on having dinner that night to celebrate my birthday on the eve of my birth since we knew we'd be gone all day on my birthday exploring the countryside. I wanted to have dinner at Jamie's Italian after having such a wonderful experience on the Quantum of the Seas in the Jamie's restaurant- but have to admit, I was disappointed. The food was mediocre, the service was a bit lack luster and even though the reservation stated that we were celebrating a significant birthday, nothing special was said or done to recognize my birthday and the Lemon Meringue Cheesecake that I have been dreaming about was not nearly as good as the one we had on the Quantum. Oh well- such is life. After dinner, we walked around Leicester Square (pronounced "Lester Square") area and took the Tube to Piccadilly Circus, walked around Regent St to see the Holiday lights and do a little birthday shopping and then returned back to our hotel, we knew we had an early morning the next day! Because we knew that Globus would be touring us around in London at the end of the tour- we decided to spend the beginning of our trip doing something outside of London City proper and booked a full day tour out to Stonehenge, Windsor Castle, Bath and a pub lunch in Lacock. Our tour was FABULOUS! We had a wonderful tour guide (Lucy) who was so passionate about our sights and she kept you thoroughly entertained with her British humor and wit. The sights were amazing- definitely bucket list places to see and Lucy had even arranged with the Pub ahead of time to bring a small cake after lunch and sing "Happy Birthday" since it was my birthday on the day of the tour (yes- I wore my tiara that day too). We didn't have time or the hunger to eat the cake, but the pub boxed it up and wrapped it for easy transport. We eventually had the cake later that night when we returned back to London and had a late dinner at our hotel restaurant. The restaurant even put the candles on the cake and sang "Happy Birthday" to me again- they added their own decoration on the serving plate. We also had a bottle of wine that our Virgin Atlantic crew had given me upon landing in London along with a variety of candies all wrapped up as a "Birthday gift"- we didn't want to tote this bottle all over Europe with us, so we had it with our late dinner at the hotel.
Next stop- Frontone, Italy! One of my childhood friends has lived in Italy for 25+ years, her family is from Italy and she grew up spending her holidays and vacations in Italy, so no big surprise that she married an Italian native. We had an early morning flight from London Stansted to Perugia Italy on Ryan Air- it was definitely an interesting experience flying one of Europe's low cost leaders- I would definitely advise booking any upgraded seats, prepay luggage fees, prepay seat assignments, fast track security, etc. I did all of that and it was still a bit daunting going through Stansted airport- we ended up running for our flight once they announced our gate and really didn't need to- so the communication on screens- when they say "last call"- it's really not the "last call"- yet. We landed in Perugia and it's a very small airport- very small. We were waiting to use the one restroom when we got through immigration and I told my husband, "there must be more facilities in baggage" and proceeded to walk away and then realized that we were already in the baggage area- yes, it's that small! Once we received our bags, we walked out and my friend, Daniela was waiting for us. We had our own personal tour guide for 2 days...she took us to Gubbio where we walked around for a bit, then we drove to Frontone and met up with her husband and daughter for lunch at one of their regular places where everything is homemade that morning, it's "home"- true Italian dining and we sampled everything. The first thing Daniela's husband said when he saw us was, "Welcome to my country!" He was so excited to have another one of Daniela's American friends come to visit Italy and specifically Frontone, in the Marche region of Italy. I have to say that this was definitely one of the highlights of our trip! After lunch, we checked into our B&B- which is located right on top of the highest peak of Frontone, just under the Castello (Castle) of Frontone. Very cute place with 6 rooms and fabulous views! We spent the evening at Daniela's house and then walked down the street to a local restaurant for dinner- again fabulous hometown Italian meal- great pizza and of course these meals start with wine and then finish with Grappa and Lemon cello! You don't starve in Italy! It was a great night. Our next day, Daniela picked us up, took us to tour their own Farmhouse that they rent out to tourists (I can arrange this for you!) and then we headed to the Adriatic coast to the town of Fana. We walked through the outdoor markets that they have every Saturday- lots of potential shopping, I was good and did not buy anything and then we had a lovely 2+ hour lunch at a beachside restaurant- again endless food, wine and lemon cello to top off the meal! We had so much leftover that we told Daniela there was no need to cook dinner- we could just heat up the leftovers and enjoy time together..which we did. Sunday morning, Daniela was a trooper and picked us up early to drive us to the Fabriano train station so we could catch our train to Rome. She helped us navigate where we needed to be and waited until the train arrived.
We took the Frecciabianca train- the "Freccia" trians are the nicest and newest trains in Italy and typically run faster routes (not as many stops)..we had 3 stops on our way to Rome, the train ride was smooth and relaxing. We were confirmed in Comfort class, which is basically business class on these trains. Nothing to complain about, this early Sunday train was also not very full at all- I think in our car alone there were only about 7-8 people. Arrival into Rome, very easy and once we were off the train we followed the signs to the taxi stand and we were on our way.
This now begins our 11 day European Essentials tour with Globus Vacations. We had friends already waiting for us at the hotel in Rome, once we arrived our room was ready, we dropped our bags and headed out to explore!! Had a quick lunch at a local restaurant, walked around Vatican City and the surrounding areas. We also toured Ca' Sant Angelo, which is a Castle/Fortress and once you climb to the highest allowed point, the views of Rome are amazing! Definitely worth the time and exercise! 6pm meet up with our group followed by a group dinner filled the rest of the night. We met our tour guide (Elzo) and coach driver (Alberto) and our traveling companions for the next 11 days- including ourselves and our two friends- the group was 17, which made for a very comfortable journey on our 47 passenger coach! We had a nice mix of people- 2 from NJ, 2 from NY, 2 from Philippines & 7 from Australia. I have to say that we had such a great group! Everyone got along, nobody was late, everyone respected the times given to meet up and overall just a friendly group of people.
We had 2 nights in Rome and a full day of touring, seeing everything you could possibly want to see with free time if you wanted to have free time (we chose to see more). Then off to Florence for 1 night (could have used more time here, but I did spend a fair amount of time in a jewelry store-Happy Birthday to me!), 1 night in Venice, 2 nights in Lucerne, 2 nights in Paris and 2 nights in London. We had a very busy tour, early mornings day after day but we accomplished a lot! Some mornings were earlier than others- with the earliest on tour being 730am and latest being 830am. I am a night owl by nature, but even I found that I needed to go to bed by 10-11pm most nights. We saw and did just about everything that you need to do for a first time visit to Europe with these cities! Gondola ride in Venice, Tram ride to the top of Mount Pilatus in Lucerne, etc. In Paris, we deviated from the tour since they were going to be doing most of what we've already done before and booked a full day tour to the Loire Valley. It was supposed to be a small group tour- but it ended up being a private tour, just us and the driver/guide and it was wonderful- we toured the Chateau country- Amboise, Chenonceau and Chambord! Just like a fairy tale!
As for Globus, I have to say that I was very impressed. Our tour director was fabulous, so knowledgeable, witty, helpful and just a really nice guy. Our driver was always ready to help with luggage and greeted us every morning with a smile and "Ciao" or "Buon giorno" (he was Italian). Our luggage was handled very efficiently throughout the tour, we never had to worry about toting our luggage from place to place, we were always advised of our schedule and told exactly what we needed to know, no more and no less- but if you had any questions, Elzo was always ready to answer. Like I said earlier- we had a really great group, which I think in turn makes the tour guide's job so much easier because he doesn't have to play "bad cop" or "parent" either. Overall, the hotels that Globus put us in were good to excellent and I'm probably too picky in some cases or maybe just a little too American for my own good. The coach was deluxe- Mercedes Benz, seats were very comfortable and with only 17 of us - we had plenty of room to spread out if we so desired. I would definitely travel with Globus again in the future and now I see why many of my clients are repeat clients of Globus!
The hotels- all so different, some parts good and some parts not so good. Our first 2 nights in London we stayed at the W Leicester Square that I booked with Starwood points. It was probably the strangest room layout that I've ever seen and I was not really fond of it at all. The bathroom sink was in the middle of the room along with a tall countertop, the "potty" area was a separate room and the shower was a separate room- all in all, just a strange room. The bed was fine and we got a decent sleep, it was just a very inefficient layout for getting ready in the mornings overall. That being said, they did send a bottle of champagne and a piece of red velvet cake to the room with a "Happy 50th birthday" wish, so for that I was impressed and I'm sure that is part of the Starwood status/ownership that we have. Next 2 nights in Frontone, Italy at the Castello di Frontone B&B....very cute place, rooms were charming, bathroom was fairly large, shower small but efficient, bed was a bit on the hard side, but we've heard that European beds are typically harder than what we would consider normal. The breakfast the next day was continental with cakes, cookies, cappuccino, espresso- very Italian and very good. I'm not a big breakfast person to begin with and I also had my protein shakes that I was drinking each morning! Now we start the Globus tour and their hotel selections - The next 2 nights we were in Rome at the NH Michelangelo hotel which was very nice. Bathroom lacked counter space, but the beds were comfortable and the room had plenty of space to move around and the temperature control was set to comfortable levels. Off to Florence for 1 night at the Hilton Garden Inn Novoli which was set a bit outside of the heart of Florence which was OK because we didn't get there until after 8pm- the room was nice enough and the bed was super comfy, the bathroom a bit more functional but the temperature in the room was very hot- we could not get the temperature down and ended up sleeping with the window open, which is not a problem- until I'm awakened at 330am to the sound of a mosquito buzzing in my ear which resulted in a few mosquito bites and a terrible night's sleep. Ended up closing the window to avoid additional bites, but it was too hot to sleep comfortably. Then 1 night in Venice at the Laguna Palace located Venice Mestre- again decent room size, bed was comfortable, bathroom functional--but room temp was hot- we ended up calling the front desk to find that they needed to change the temp on their end (perhaps this was the case in Florence as well)- anyway, we did manage to get the room temperature down a bit because there was no way I was going to sleep with the window open again! In Lucerne, we had 2 nights at the Astoria - very nice hotel, centrally located, easy walk to many places in Lucerne, rooms were comfortable, bed great, bathroom well sized and the room temperature was better! Our next 2 nights were in Paris and we stayed at the Pullman Bercy which was OK- the rooms were very dark, we definitely could have used more light. The room had a door that separated the room from the hallway/bathroom that just served to get in the way, but the beds were comfortable though a bit lopsided (felt like you might roll off the side), the shower and bathroom were functional and room temperature was OK..could have been a bit cooler, but overall it was fine. Our last 2 nights were at the Hilton London Metropole which was a HUGE hotel compared to all of the others- room was probably the nicest, bed was very comfortable, the temp control really worked- so we were able to get great room temperatures, bathroom was small but functional. Rooms do vary greatly at this hotel- our friends had a very small room and they complained and were moved to another room that was better, but still not as nice as ours- we had a great room with lots of space! Globus tries to use hotels that are either in central locations or close to convenient transportation and I think that the location choices all in all were decent. Florence and Venice were definitely "outside" of the desired areas, but we were only there for 1 night each and got to each hotel relatively late both nights (after dinner), so we really were just there to sleep.
As for the destinations...I really can't pick favorites- I loved each and every place we visited for different reasons. In general, Europe is so rich with history and the architecture is amazingly beautiful. Countrysides are gorgeous, the people friendly. I enjoyed trying my various foreign languages even if I'm not that great, I did fairly well with Italian and French and would actually love to take some language classes at home if I can find the time. I really love foreign languages! If I had to pick highlights- here goes:
London- seeing Stonehenge & Windsor Castle. Also, enjoyed a taste of the European Christmas markets as it was the first day of the Bath markets.
Frontone- being able to just "be" with the locals and spending time with a childhood friend of 44 years in her home, in her husband's country.
Rome- Vatican city was impressive along with St Peter's Basilica, but I was intrigued by the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain & wish that the Spanish Steps weren't closed off for renovation.
Florence-I was surprised that the Accademia (where Michelangelo's "David" is shown) was so small. I don't think we had enough time in Florence, so I'm not really sure if I have an opinion on this city.
Venice-I loved meandering through the streets of Venice Island, so cute, so quaint and so European- I just can't find the right words to describe. I could do without the birds in St Mark's Square--but they are part of the experience, hopefully not too much of the experience! The gondola ride was pretty spectacular too!
Lucerne- the old town is something out of Hansel & Gretel...really cute and quaint, I did not expect to fall in love with this cute place. Loved sitting outdoors at 9pm in fur coats (on loan from the restaurant) eating fondue! Did I mention that it was about 30 degrees? I had to twist some arms to do this, but at the end of the night my hubby & friends agreed that it was a fun experience and the coats did keep us warm!
Paris- we had the most amazing dinner at Los Ombres where every table has an amazing view of the Eiffel Tower! We saw the Tower blink at 7pm, 8pm, 9pm and 10pm...yes, it was a long dinner and expensive but it was worth it! The trip to the Loire Valley Chateaux was also a highlight!
London- 2nd time around: seeing the Queen's Royal Horse Guard Parade was cool (no changing of the guard for us because it was raining intermittently), seeing the Tower Bridge & Big Ben! Also, taking in a West End show- "Beautiful"- the story of Carole King, which was a great show!
I took close to 1000 photos on this trip and I've made memories to last a lifetime. I can't wait to plan my next European visit! Enjoy my slideshow!
2015 European Essentials Trip