December 29th, 2011 by Tom Smith

Tom’s Travelogue Part 1:  Spain in the off-season

Dear Travelers,
Here is Part 1 of my travelogue from Spain.  I spent the month of December from the North to the South in this amazing country.
This was a very special trip to Spain this December.  I have always liked to travel and explore since I was a kid and so a nice slow trip to a destination just suits me.  I have never been a fan of the packaged, programmed visit to a destination, but rather a slow discovery of the treasures of a foreign land. My jounrey began with flying into Barcelona. This is the city of Gaudi, The Rambla and it is Catalonia!  I stayed at the Hotel Colon, which is driectly across from the main cathedral in the center of the city.  It was a great location, comfortable and cozy room and a wonderful breakfast every morning of fresh squeezed orange juice, baked breads, manchego cheese and great Jamon Iberico (Spanish ham).  The service and graciousness of the staff were wonderful and I would recommend this hotel to any of my clients.  After a full 3 days of sightseeing in Barcelona, my buddy and I rented a car and headed north to Girona (the province between the French border and the Costa Brava).  This is an area of Greek and Roman ruins, small coast towns and mountain villages.  We stayed in Girona, an ancient city of ramparts and walls built by  the Romans.  We stayed at the Hotel Ultonia which was just outside the Medieval walls and very nice and super modern.  A great thing was the convenient parking as it was a difficult city to drive, but a wonderful city to walk.
From Girona we headed to the coast and hung out in the delightful coastal villages of Pals, Empuries, Escala and Cadaques.  We hiked the Cap de Crues (the most eastern point of Spain).  We based outselves in a tiny village of Torrella de Fluvia and stayed and the wonderfil L’Hort de Sant Cebria.  This small hotel run by Juan Carlos and Jorge is a gem, a true find in the region.  It is a perfect place to base yourself for amazing day trips to the region (both coastal and mountains).  Our room overlooked the pool and gardens and the 13th century Roman church on the other side of the garden.  Room was comfy and the bathroom was huge.  The breakfast each day was delightful and plentiful and kept us going until tapas at 4pm!  I would recommend a stay here of at least 3 nights and there is so much to see.  The owners gave us wonderful recommendations of restaurants and places to visit.  We visited a winery run by friends (La Vineyata) and sampled the wine and olive oil they make on the property.  This was such a relaxing place to stay……… and very romantic.
I’ve created a visual itinerary for my favorite hotels in Spain if you’d like to know where they’re located and what they look like.

 

 

-Tom Smith’s Travels in Spain Part 1.  See Part 2 for  Madrid, Cordoba and Seville.
January 23rd, 2014 by Tom Smith

Because I know it and I know Spain.  I am a Certified Specialist with the Spanish National Tourist Office, a Certified Specialist for UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Cities of Spain, a Certified Specialist with the Catalan Tourism Board and several other specialist certifications in Spain.  So I have a wealth of experience and knowledge to share with you as your travel consultant.  For the Camino

Tom Smith Travel -The Travel Society –  A Virtuoso Member

P.O. Box 28134  Portland OR  97228 USA

Tel. 503 477 5341   Email:    tom@tomsmithtravel.com   

 

 

January 23rd, 2014 by Tom Smith

Here’s a fact seldom discussed when the topic of travel agents arises.  When the airlines began cutting commissions to travel agents in the mid-90?s, the real problem wasn’t commissions. No, the airlines had another reason for wanting travel agents out of the picture. Travel agents told clients how to obtain the lowest fare.  Call American Airlines directly and they don’t tell you Continental has a lower fare.  But a travel agent would.

Know what?  They still do.

Because I’m obsessed with travel research, I believe in the value of a good travel agent.  Well- trained travel specialists offer very valuable services and information almost impossible to uncover by yourself regardless of how diligently you search online. A good travel agent will save you time, save you money and provide insights into the logistics of your trip.  Good travel agents keep their ear to the ground.  They know which tour operators to use and which to avoid. They know the difference between a hotel in city center and a cheaper but far less convenient one on the outskirts of town.

I am an experienced traveler.  Yet, I personally always consult a travel agent. Don’t get me wrong, I also like to research on my own. My travel agent welcomes my research and questions.  I am always glad I asked for her assistance even if what she is doing is no more than agreeing with my choices. After all, she is researching travel every day.  She’s good at what she does and that makes me better at what I want to do.

Let me give you an example of why. Let’s say I want a simple airline ticket and hotel for Bangkok.  The published fare for an economy ticket is $1,534.    I call my travel agent and tell her what I’ve found in my own research and what I’m trying to accomplish.  She says she will call me back.  About an hour later, she calls back with my flight and hotel for $1,460. She’s used a tour operator with bulk pricing to purchase the trip. She also points out that one of the days during my stay is a government holiday.  I didn’t know that and now that I do, I shift my trip by a couple of days. She makes some suggestions for sightseeing and has scored an upgrade on the room from the concierge.

That’s why I use a travel consultant. They are another research tool.  Just like Google, only human and a lot more focused on my needs.

Most people think travel agents sell travel.  The fact is, however, a great travel agent doesn’t sell me anything, but instead helps me buy wisely.  She researches along with me and we discuss the options.  She steers me away from obstacles and looks into nooks and crannies that I might neglect.  She helps to insure the quality of my trip. Time and again, my travel agents have saved me money, made good supplier choices on my behalf and helped me purchase wisely.

How valuable is that?

I pay a fee, gladly, for that bit of insight and assurance. I value my time,  especially my travel time.  I want my travel to be logistically smooth as possible.  My agent helps me accomplish all of that and still leaves room for the spontaneous, the pleasantly unexpected and unscheduled.

How do you find a good travel agent?

The best possible way is by word of mouth.  A referral to a really good agent is invaluable.  Ask around.  Ask your best traveled associates who they use.  There are also nationally recognized experts for various destinations and activities you can access via popular consumer travel magazines.  There are also matching services like Tripology that put travelers together with travel agent specialists.

Interview prospective travel agents.  Ask about their specialties.  Ask about their fees.   Does their support network, consortia or franchise have relationships with the hotel, cruise line or resort I want to use?     A key attribute of a great agent is their ability to empathize, to understand exactly what you want to achieve from your travels. Look for intelligence, for the ability to think beyond your own immediate needs and for a sense of organization.

Finally, it is important to LIKE your travel agent. Find one with whom you resonate and can have a solid professional relationship.

If you find all of that in one package, hang onto them. And tell your friends.  They will thank you for it.

How about you? Do you use travel agents?  Why or why not?  Ask Tom Smith Travel

January 24th, 2013 by Tom Smith

AlcazarTravel in Spain is first of all, easy!  The train can take you to most places in the country easily and fast.  However there are special places where you just need a car.  Extremadura is one of those places.  This would be a place you could visit on your way to Cordoba/Seville/Granada.   Extremadura is a state that lies southwest of Madrid along the border with Portugal.  It is ideal for nature lovers and those who want to get off the beaten track  and discover old Spain.  It offers beautiful drives, ancient sites from Roman times (and before!), wonderful nature preserves, the Templar towns in the Sierra Morena and the wonderful Mideval towns of Caceres, Trujillo, Merida and Guadalupe.  You will need a minimum of 4 to 5 days to do this special part of Spain justice.  I suggest starting out from Madrid (it is only about 2.5 hours of easy driving on one of the main highways (the A-5) get off the freeway and drive south towards Guadalupe but make a stop a Bohonal de Ibor and see the magnificent Roman Ruins that stand above the lake.  In Guadalupe you will find the huge Monastary founded in the 14th century. In 1496 the monastary was the site of the baptism of some of the first native Caribbeans brought to Europe by Columbus.    The Hospederia Monasterio is now a wonderful and comfortable hotel and rivals the Paradore so there are two great places to stay and explore this town.

Visit my Blogs for Spain:  http://wp.me/P3CFgs-1

Merida, Spain
The Roman ruins

Moving on westward you will find the town of Merida, just 127 km away.  This was one of the most important towns of Roman Spain.  Founded in 25 BC by Augustus, Merida was the cultural and economic capital of Rome’s most western province.  There are many things to see in this town among them are:  the Roman theatre, one of the best preserved in Europe, the amphitheatre and gardens, the incredible Roman bridge across the Rio Guadiana along with the aqueducts and my favorite is the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano. This museum is built within ruins and is of a modern design.  It displays the rich archaelogical treasures of the area.  Sculpture, mosaic, and excavations.  There is a wonderful Paradore to stay that was an 18th century convent.

The Medieval Parador
Caceres, Spain

Moving on to Caceres, just 66km you find a wonderful town of towers, palaces and stately homes.  This Renaissance town dates from the 15th and 16th centuries.  Caceres has been untouched by war so you will find a preserved city.  Easy to walk in and enjoy the sites.  There are several grand museums and ancient churches. The town is a delight to just get lost in.  The Paradore is located just down from the San Mateo Church and is in a 14th centgury palace, but the inside is totally modern.  Very comfortable and a great location.

The ultra modern & chic
Atrio in Caceres, Spain

Next door is the famed restaurant (2 Michelin Stars**) and hotel Atrio.  This restaurant is a desintation in itself for many “foodies” from around the world.  The creators of this place Tono and Jose are the real deal.  They have created a wonderful hotel and restaurant.  It is upscale and expensive and worth every Euro!  The wine cellar is said to be the best in all of Spain.  I was a guest for lunch that lasted from 3pm to 6pm.  It was truly an experience of a lifetime.

 

Ancient bell towers
Trujillo, Spain

Paradores in Spain are historic buildings and settings with a modern luxury hotel inside!

Special for Paradores of Spain:  For 2013 when you book a standard room category at any Parador you will receive a Superior Room! This applies to standard rates and Senior Citizen rates!OK so from Caceres head north and east to Trujillo, 40 km away.  This is the town of the Conquistadores.  Orellana, Paredes and most famous Pizarro. The town is built on a hillside with a big castle on top.  The main plaza, the Plaza Mayor is one of the most beautiful in Spain.  It is huge with a big statue of Pizarro on is horse in the middle. There are lots of things to explore here including a small museum that was Pizarro’s home and of course the Castillo bilt in the 9th century by the Moors.  Trujillo is a great place to explore Extremadura.  The Paradore in Trujillo is a former 16th century convent with two cloisters.  The dining room specializes in the wonderful ham that comes from those pigs who only eat acrons their entire lives!  It is 43 km to Monfrague Natural Park which is a wildlife preserve and the best place to see the famous Griffen Vultures.  along the way se rolling hills of ancient oak trees with pigs eatin the acorns that fall down for them to feast on.  From Trujillo you can head south to Cordoba or head back to Madrid.  Or you can continue west to Portufal  The pace is slow here in this section of Spain.  This is relaxed Spain at its best.  The people are friendly, it is not overly touristy and the countryside is delightful.  Viva Espana!

October 17th, 2012 by Tom Smith

A typical dinner served at your room in Koyasan

The enchanting little train from Osaka to Mt. Koya

A special  journey to Japan.  A customized trip to Japan taking advantage of the rich cultural and spiritual heritage of this island nation. An idea for a great 2 or 3 day side trip from the hustle of Kyoto or Osaka would be a visit to Mt. Koya and the village of Koyasan. Explore Mt. Koya,  Japan’s best-known Buddhist Mountain Retreat and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its eight-forested peaks reach eight hundred meters into the clouds, surrounding the high plateau with a sense of serenity. Boasting over one hundred temple complexes, Koyasan offers a wonderful respite in the mountains of Wakayama.  Relax in a fabulous shukubo or temple lodging which is one of the best ways to experience Buddhist life in Japan, rising with the birds for morning prayers with the monks. An absolutely gorgeous and spiritual setting.  With the help of the experts at JapanQuest Journeys we can put together a customized and wonderful journey to any part of Japan you want to visit.  Tom has been traveling to Japan for almost 40 years and knows the country intimately.  Give us a call or email at Tom Smith Travel for help with your journey to Japan!  We can help you with accommodations, Japan Rail Pass and special tours to the enchanting places of Japan.  There are many places that are perfect for 2 to 4 days to retreat from the cities in Japan.

A typical room during the day. At night the futons appear for a restful sleep.

Tom is a Japan Specialist with the Japan National Tourist Office.  He has the connections to make a wonderful journey happen for you in Japan.  Either independently or small group tours or a cruise!  Let Tom be your guide in Japan!   He has been traveling to Japan since 1973!

March 21st, 2012 by Tom Smith

PrintTS small LOGOvirt_mem_275 MarchselloHere continues the story of a wonderful trip to Spain this winter.  From Barcelona I flew to Madrid.  A word about the airports here.  Barcelona’s airport is wonderful.  New, clean, slick and easy.  You can take the train into town or the bus.  And it is very close to the center of Barcelona.  I also drove into the airport and that is a snap as well.  Madrid’s Barajas Airport is modern clean and easy as well.  The train to and from the center of Madrid is fast and reliable.

 

Atocha Station in Madrid

 

 

 

Atocha Station in Madrid is the main train station.  It is connected to the subway and the AVE trains (high speed) to just about everywhere in the country.

 

 

 

There are the Top Ten things to do and see in Madrid and here is my hit on them:  #1 Palacio Real.  The Royal Palace.  Really magnificent.  Great place to take pictures.  Go early in the day as it gets crowded.  They have a great changing of the guard at noon. #2 The Prado.  My feeling is that it is the greatest museum in Europe.  Some will argue with me, but I feel it has something for everyone and is organized so well.  You can buy a Art Walk ticket that gets you admission into the Prado and other museums.  This is a good deal.  Purchase at the tourist office. The museum has the greatest treasures of Spanish painters and others as well.  You will be blown away with Velazquez, Goya and the Flemish and Dutch painters.  For me this museum is such a great place.  And the cafe/restaurant has outstanding food! #3 The Plaza Mayor.  A grand place.  It is huge and in the center of Madrid.  My place to meet friends is under the statue of Felipe III.  So if you ever want to meet me in Madrid that is where I will be!  The cafes and bars are really fun here and it is a great place to people watch. #4 El Rastro.  This is the best open air market in Spain.  It only happens on Sunday.  It is crowded and fun.  You can find just about anything here.  #5 Reina Sofia Museum.  Think d’Orsay Musee in Paris.  All the great contemporary art is here.  Picasso, Barcelo, Dali, Gris.  The most famous painting here is Picasso’s Guernica painted during the Spanish Civil War.  Spend some time with this painting and read everything you can about the Civil War before you visit.  #6 Retiro Park.  The big breath of fresh air in the center of Madrid, next to the Prado.  Sculptures, lakes, gardens and beautiful trees….a great place to relax.  #7 Museum of America.  This is the museum that tells the story of conquest and settling of the new world.  There is a fantastic collection of gold here.  #8  Puerta del Sol.  This is the place of Kilometer “0”.  Distances to anywhere in Spain are measured from this square.  It is a fun and beautiful plaza.  Great 18th century buildings and good cafes and bars.  There is a statue here of the bear of Madrid (the symbol of the city).#9 La Latina.  A great part of Madrid for good bars and restaurants.  #10  Museum Thyssen-Bornemisza.  What the Prado doesn’t have this museum does.  Important paintings from all eras.  A great museum to spend some time.

Columbus buried at Seville Cathedral

From Madrid it is an easy train ride on the AVE to Cordoba.  This is such an intersting city. This city was Roman(572 AD), Arab((756 AD) and Catholic(from the 12th c).  The big thing here is the Mezquita (Mosque).  This was the largest mosque in the world and then the Catholics took over and built their cathedral right in the middle of it!  The mixture of Islamic art and the art of the Catholic kings is an amazing blend of great styles.  The Jewish quarter next to the Mezquita is a maze of narrow streets and white-washed buildings.  Great restaurants and bars here.  Be sure to walk across the Roman bridge over the Guadalquivir River and take in the view.

Outside the great Mezquita of Cordoba

It is a short train trip (1 hour) to Seville. This is a big town that feels cozy.  This is the town that Columbus set sail for the new world! This is the town that Spain brought back the treasure of the new world for King Ferdinand.  It is rich.  The cathedral is the one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in the world.  There is the great La Giralda, or Bell tower.  You can climb up inside of it (actually a very easy walk) and get a great view of the city.  Be sure to take time in the cathedral.  Columbus is buried here.  The cool part of town is Santa Cruz.  Narrow streets, the best bars and restaurants.  And treat yourself to a visit to the Alcazar.  The royal palace.  The story that the palace shows in Islamic and Catholic art is amazing.  The gardens are breathtaking.

The gardens of the Alcazar in Seville

 

 

September 10th, 2011 by Tom Smith

Beautiful Milford Sound

First about the air.  The flight is so easy.  You leave in the evening from LAX and arrive into Fiji (or New Zealand) in the early morning.  Yes, it is a long night on the airplane, but there is really no jet lag..if you fly “in the front of the airplane”.  Premier Business Class on Air New Zealand or International Business Class on Qantas or even Tabua Class on Air Pacific make the going great.   However, here is the “Private Journal” scoop on these three business classes:  Air New Zealand’s Business Premier offers seperate check-in at LAX and Auckland (much nicer in Auckland of course) , use of the Koru Club Lounge (although the club in Auckland needs some refurbishing),  I love the club at LAX (great food and better wine selection than in Auckland!).   They do share the club with Air France so be prepared for some Francaise stuff and attitude. On board Air New Zealand’s “fully flat bed” is very comfortable, meals are created by the likes of Rex Morgan (Huka Lodge). (more…)