While an excuse is never needed to visit exotic locales, it’s advisable to have an anchor activity for your visit.  The Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival near Montego Bay, was my initial reason for revisiting Jamaica.  I had been there decades ago with a group of college chums. Other than the palm trees and azure waters and the natural wonder of Dunn River Falls near Ocho Rios, I don’t remember much.

The Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival is a three night event, held this year at the Trelawny outdoor stadium near Montego Bay.  The musical line up of acts was impressive, fun and educational.  Reggae is not in my lexicon of favorite musical styles, as the first night was all nominal Reggae from local and regional bands.

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The second and third nights the caliber of musical entertainment increased with well-known performers including: Mariah Carey, Arturo Tappin, Richie Stephens, Peter Cetera, Charlie Wilson, Pointer Sisters and Soja, who were nominated for Best Reggae Album at the 57th Grammy Awards this year.   While many expected Carey to be the highlight of the Festival, it was Charlie Wilson and Peter Cetera who earned the adoration of the music fans.

 

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Before and after the evening concerts I visited several Jamaican attractions that offer variety, education and fun.   Be sure and plan to visit the restored 1760 Rose Hall plantation house.  Here with a personal tour you can step back in time to imagine the lifestyle of a sugarcane plantation owner.  The most famous inhabitant was John Palmer’s wife, Annee, who turned out to be called the White Witch by her slaves for her cruel treatment, as she murdered a few husbands and herself was killed in the house. It is said she still haunts the house to this day.  While the house was in ruin until in 1965, we are thankful it was completely restored to what might have been its glory days.

 

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Chukka Caribbean Adventure Tours (www.chukka.com) offers  ATVs, dune buggy rides and Zip lining.  It is a safe and enjoyable soft adventure to drive a two person dune buggy through the orchards with majestic views of the distance Jamaican mountains.  Zip lining is always an adventure, for no two locales are ever the same. As you sit down into your harness and let go, you never know what jungle vistas will be zipping by. Going through the fork of a large tree, is indeed a thrill.  The expert guides at Chukka are to be commended for their skill and attention. Chukka also offers, nature canopy tours, river floating and rum tastings.  If you can work into your time, visit the great house. The view from atop this hilltop mansion of the Egg Crate Mountains provides a unique memory.

Over in Ocho Rios, be sure and visit Mystic Mountain (www.rainforestbobsledjamaica.com) with its dry bobsledding ride, Dolphin Cove (www.dolphincovejamaica.com)  with its sea life and aviary, and it goes without saying to visit iconic Dunn River Falls (www.dunnsriverja.com) .  For Jamaican history visit the downtown Montego Bay Cultural Center, by Sam Sharpe square with parking in the rear.

 

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In Montego Bay you may wish to stay at the adults only, all inclusive, upscale Hyatt Zilara hotel (http://rosehall.zilara.hyatt.com) with its extensive pools and palm fringed private beach.  While I don’t know if it’s officially recommended, but with eight all inclusive (no bills) dining locales, where reservation are not taken, your own impromptu progressive dinner could be enjoyed.  What a luxury to sample an appetizer here, and entree at another venue and then dessert at another.

 

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Hyatt Zilara offers Brazilian style dinning; Italian, with fresh made oven baked pizzas; an anytime buffet at Horizons, and a favorite of all, the on the beach Jerk stand, with melt in your mouth grilled chicken, port and sausage. Open till 6 pm, a beach side sampling, always hot and ready, is indeed a vacationer’s dream.  Beach and pool side servers are available to take and deliver your beverage requests. More eating options are also available along with a Crepe stand near the lobby, operating until 2 pm. And don’t forget 24 hour room service. At Flavorz, I had a Welsh Rabbit, Sunday Roast with Yorkshire Pudding (a pastry), topped off with Jamaican Fruit Cake which is more like a chocolate mousse cake infused with fruit flavors.

On my first night I was delighted at the service and ambiance of the dress code-enforced Petit Paris restaurant.  Stewart, my server was informative, efficient and personable as he served me scallops, a house salad, Steak Frites and an out of this world Coconut Crème Brule. I added another perfect martini made from the Stirz bar adjacent to the main lobby.  Not many bars in the best resorts can make a proper martini or follow directions, but at the Hyatt Zilara, over several days of enjoyable testing, I found them all accomplished.  With an evening beverage in hand while strolling along the balmy ocean surf at dusk, you can create for yourself a true lux resort experience.

You need not wait until next year to visit Jamaica during the Jazz and Blues Festival, for as you can see Jamaica has many other attractions around which to center your visit. My thanks to the Jamaica Tourist Board for their assistance, as they can also help you plan your Jamaican visit.  (www.visitjamaica.com)

A stay in the resort area of Cancun, Mexico is always a treat, but to get further away from the world, a 30 minute boat ride over to the Island of Cozumel is mandatory. Outside of the docking terminal hubbub, things are a bit more tropical and relaxed. There are still upscale hotel accommodations, gourmet meals and azure clear water, but the Island mentality can also happily wash over you.

I stayed at the Hotel B, where written in the zero infinity pool were the words, “Just Be.” It is a fitting philosophy for any vacation. This does not mean that you should just vegetate at your hotel pool or ocean side beach, but to let Cozumel’s attractions infuse your stay. I found the —- a pleasant semi open air motel-like hotel with a staff trying their best to accommodate its guests. Hotel B is a mini resort or boutique, in that the real estate area is small but packed with areas for sunning, dining, swimming in their pool or in a small and exotic ocean side lagoon.
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There’s plenty of history on Cozumel of the early Mayan culture, the influx of Spanish conquers and even tales of Pirates who used the island as their retreat. In your visit to the Mayan archeological site of San Gervasio, you are stepping back into history by visiting the remaining ruins of a civilization. The stone structures are not as complete or as inspiring as better known Mayan sites, but still you can come away with an appreciation of the past civilizations of Cozumel. Some of the temples may have held worship for the goddess Ixchel, whose name is a combination of the Mayan words, female and white faced. You will need to drive there or take a guided tour – both recommended.
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With a car you can circle the island and stop at your own scenic attractions, such as the eco beach park of Punta Sur, with natural mangroves, the Colombia lagoon, the Celarain Lighthouse and its museum. The famous Mayan ruin El Caracol is said to be an ancient lighthouse, too. Or a privately owned beach bar/café, and a beer in a hammock may fit your mood perfectly. The crashing surf and artistically gathered drift wood accentuates Cozumel’s off the beat track nature.
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For a more commercial venue, the Chankanaab Adventure Beach Park, offers, food and beverage service from your acquired beach chair beneath a thatch shade, while observing holiday families with an ocean backdrop. Or for more the active visitor, you may rent scuba or snorkeling gear, take a Mayan steam bath, called a temazcal session. And if time permits you might swim with dolphins or pick up traditional Mayan and Mexican souvenirs or relax in one of the three restaurants. Deep sea sport fishing is also available in Cozumel.
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For an island away from the island, a real treat is an excursion to the private, Passion Island, with its acres of white sand beach and symmetrical placed palm trees. It’s 25 minutes by boat from downtown, or as I was, picked up at your Hotel ocean side, for a day of all inclusive and simple luxury. Passion Island is the perfect place to find your place in the sun or shade or private romantic spot, with food and unlimited beverage service.
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For additional dining options I can recommend the Kondessa Cozumel Restaurant, the historic Hacienda Mission Restaurant, and the Occidental Grand Cozumel grill, at the upscale and expansive Occidental Grand Resort. With the all many activities Cozumel has to offer, you might forget to “JUST BE.”

Before you go check out:

www.kondesacozumel.com www.missioncoz.com www.cozumelparks.com

www.CozumelToday.com www.hotelbcozumel.com www.isla-pasion.com

A recent trip involved “kicking the tires” at the newly opened RIU Playa Blanca in Panama. One vacation souvenir I always shop for is headwear. So, what could be more appropriate than adding an iconic Panama hat to my wardrobe? Another reason to own one – this is the Panama Canal’s centennial celebration.

It had been 20 years since my last visit to Panama City. At that time, it was an unremarkable third world capitol; grimy and run down. Landing at the sleek Tocumen International Airport in Panama City was my first hint that a lot had changed. I was further amazed as my shuttle to the beachfront RIU Playa Blanca whizzed past glittering skyscrapers lighting up the picturesque harbor. Arrival at the resort was welcoming and efficient; always appreciated after a long travel day. The stylish, comfortable room provided a quiet, restful night.

The Panama Canal is an essential sightseeing stop. I was able to stand near the lip of “the Big Ditch” at the Miraflore Lock (where there is also a visitors center). By chance, a tanker and a sailboat were both in the lock. Our guide estimated that the sailboat paid $800 and the tanker $300,000 for the transit; cruise ships pay up to $500,000.
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Next on the schedule was a day-trip to Valle de Anton. This quaint village is located on the floor of a collapsed volcano crater. Its mild climate, trails and artisan markets make it an ideal tourist destination. A highlight was a hike through the rain forest to the Chorro El Macho waterfall. The area is also one of Panama’s premier birding spots and home to the Blue Morpho (one of the largest butterflies in the world) and the endangered Golden Frog.
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Our tour stopped at the Tuscan inspired La Casa de Lourdes, a bed and breakfast, with a world-class restaurant. The setting is memorable, featuring lush gardens and mountain views. Sound asleep at the RIU that evening, I was awakened as my bed gently rocked and rolled to a 6.8 earthquake located off the coast 80 miles away. I called the hotel operator for confirmation and laughed when I discovered that we were both from California and perhaps the only two who realized what had happened.

Urban discovery followed as my home base moved to the cosmopolitan, five-star RIU Plaza in the financial district.

Panama City offers upscale shopping and fine dining, but for me it provided the opportunity to explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site of colonial Old Panama, Casco Viejo.
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Perfect for wandering, there are restaurants, bars, shops, galleries and open-air markets. Don’t miss the informal Fish Market (www.facebook.com/fish.market.panama) serving first-rate Panamanian specialties.
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My experiences at all RIU Hotels have been consistent; top-notch service and a quality product. Their new all-inclusive Playa Blanca Resort is a jewel. There are 573 guest rooms and suites, four restaurants, five bars, disco, fitness center, four pools, water-sport center and, of course, the beach.
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Plan on spending time in Panama City at their luxurious high-rise RIU Plaza. There are 644 beautifully appointed guest rooms and suites, 24 hour room service, three restaurants, lobby bar and sushi lounge, free wi-fi, pool and a wellness center. For all RIU destinations and reservations, go to www.riu.com.

Tourist friendly Panama provides 30 days emergency medical assistance free to visitors. And, there is a big immigration push to attract Americans and Canadians via tax incentives, etc. For information go to www.visitpanama.com.

Summing it up: RIU and Panama make an impressive pair. And, to top it off, a Panama hat has been added to my collection.

Safe travels and enjoy the journey…

Howard Hian, Travels-with-Hian.com

One good thing about having travel and life experiences is revisiting them later in life. In my college days I visited Cancun, Mexico and marveled at its prime attraction ~ the clear aquamarine waters. Revisiting that stretch of glorious sandy beach recently, I can attest, it is still there and as beautiful and mesmerizing as ever.

I stayed at the Fiesta Americana Grand Coral Hotel, with its own stretch of paradise, and enough amenities you may not want to venture out. With two towers of rooms, with most providing an expansive view of the ocean with stunning sunrises, there are views of several swimming pools and water features, dotted with dining venues. A breakfast indoors or out is an invigorating start to your day at the Vina del Mar. The extensive breakfast buffet includes everything you could desire: pastries, fruits, cereals, juices, hot entrées and made to order eggs. If you are eager to celebrate the day, champagne is available. Lunch can be taken at the Contoy Restaurant, Coral Cafe or pool bars, with restaurants; Isla Contoy, La Joya, or Coral Café, for your evening dining pleasure. The rooms are large and most with a small private balcony lets you enjoy the ocean breeze and stunning vistas, letting you know you have arrived at one of the world’s most desirable locales. If you can, I suggest booking on the executive level where one flight up is a semi private lounge with complementary beverages, snacks and more ocean vistas.
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Housekeeping is efficient and prompt. Every large hotel property may present a brief problem and a hotel’s handling of that bump in your stay, is a test to their customer care. I had an issue and it was generously and quickly resolved. Large fresh bouquets of flowers accentuate the welcome to the hotel and its large lobby atrium. Not to be missed is their extensive Gem Spa and its journey through water therapy. There was little need to explore the touristy shops outside of the property, but if it’s your desire to pick up a souvenir or two, shops are conveniently available. As the populous actively seeks your purchases you may have to give your touristy “No Thank You” reply more than you would like.

On my previous visit to Cancun, an hour’s drive south of the city is the area known as Rivera Maya which was just a thought in designer’s mind on my last visit. Today it hosts several upscale and enticing resorts and attractions. One attraction is the cultural park known as Xcaret. On the extensive grounds is an historic hacienda, craft and music demonstrations amid jungle growth. The impressive historical pageant presented in a grand covered arena is not to be missed. Even without knowing Spanish the pageant visually and musically takes you from the life of the original inhabitants, through colonization. A recreation of the “ball game” played by early Mayans is a highlight and a rare opportunity to see the skill needed to succeed at this hand’s off sport. Also you may take in the Aquarium, a Mayan cemetery, underground rivers, Mayan village and sample archeological reconstructions. A buffet lunch with beverages is included with the admission price.
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For your future enjoyment Cirque du Soleil Riviera is in the process of creating a unique show, called Joya, to tell the story of Mayan life. For the first time the company is creating its own arena/theatre complex with connections to the Grand Mayan resort. While construction is underway, and schedule for a late 2014 opening, you can enjoy the opulence of the Grand Mayan hotel, and its expansive pools and luxurious accommodations with dining at the Grand Mayan Palace Restaurant. Tickets are now on sale in several price ranges, with and without dinner, for the shows which promise to offer more audience interaction than any other Cirque show. This is not a touring production and will only be offered here in the Rivera Maya. With the forethought and the quality reputation of Cirque, this show in Rivera Maya may become a destination unto itself.
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Still in Rivera Maya is the Rosewood Mayakoba resort. If arriving during daylight hours you are greeted with a refreshing beverage as your luggage is delivered to your bungalow, while you are escorted by small private boat through jungle like lagoons to your resort accommodations. Along the way you may spot many varieties of the wild life native to the property. Luncheon might be served in a large palapa like structure next to a sampling of the coastal beach. The buffet dinner I enjoyed was complete with made to order beverages, sushi, pork, side dishes and a selection of sweet deserts. Relaxing on the outside benches, while the sunset was in lingering to dark, and with the accompanying sounds of the surf and salt air, one knows they have sampled a touch of the lux life.
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There are many more resorts in Rivera Maya and you may want to peruse the Moon Palace, and the Hotel El Cid Puerto Morelso. For your trip planning be sure and look at:

http://www.fiestamericanagrand.com/en/mx-cancun/hotel-grand-coral-beach

http://www.xcaret.com ~

http://www.rosewoodhotels.com/en/mayakoba-riviera-maya

http://www.thegrandmayan.com/riviera-maya

http://www.cirquedusoleil.com/en/shows/joya/default.aspx

Picture this: From 1948 to 1999, the U.S. Department of Navy bombed the hell out of its own country. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration — but here’s what happened. From the early 1940’s, the U.S. military used a good part of Vieques, Puerto Rico, a small island off the coast, as a training ground for ship-to-shore gunfire, air-to-ground bombing, and Marine amphibious landings. Up until April 1999, about 120 days a year were devoted to integrated land-sea-air live-fire exercises (i.e., exercises with explosive ammunition) by U.S. aircraft carrier and amphibious-ready groups preparing to deploy overseas. Although residents had strongly objected for decades, it was not until a Puerto Rican security guard was accidentally killed by an errant bomb in April 1999 that the opposition began in earnest, garnering support from the mainland, including political leaders and celebrities from around the world. As of May 2003 all military operations were suspended, leaving the island isolated and decimated, but ironically with much of its undeveloped natural beauty outside the military compounds intact. And therein lies the rub. Now picture this: From bomb site to beach resort — and therein lies the story. While the Navy has been busy these past 10 years cleaning up the parts of the island it destroyed, the rest of the island is gearing up — albeit slowly — to join the rest of Puerto Rico as a Caribbean tourist destination. . The massive clean-up involves getting rid of unexploded ordinances, metal and scrap debris and chemicals in the soil. As one safety notice advises: If you didn’t drop it, don’t pick it up! Not your usual anti-litter admonition.

Okay, the island still has no traffic light, no movie theater, no American fast-food restaurants (thankfully), and no nightlife. Still, there are now seven more car rental companies than during the Navy occupation (when there was one) as well as a couple of dive operations, horseback riding stables, sailing options and several tour companies. And did I mention a W Hotel? That’s got to mean something. But although the 157-room property is a tourist magnet, the next closest property in size is the 30-room Brik Hotel, which hasn’t yet opened. The rest are guesthouses. The island is not exactly leap-frogging into tourism territory.
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But Vieques is not without its unique attractions, two of which are its wild horses, descendants of those brought over by the Spaniard Conquistadors in the 1500’s, and its Bioluminescent Bay, the most glowing — literally — of the five bio-bays that exist in the world. Caveats to come.
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First, the horses. They have the run of the island and the hour’s drive from one end of the island to the other can take a lot longer depending upon how many you run into — using the term loosely… We even watched a pool boy at the upscale W chase a horse apparently to deter him from taking a dip in the resort pool. We followed close behind only to find him snacking on the property lawn, posing long enough for us to take his picture. As I turned around, I almost bumped into a sign reading, “Caution: Wild Horses Poop.” And indeed, he had.
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And, oh yes, the bio-bay. First some background. The unfortunately aptly named Mosquito Bay, considered the brightest bio-bay in the world, is home to half-plant, half-animal organisms, at a rate of 720,000 per gallon, that emit flashes of bluish/green light when agitated, preferably under a moonless night when the effect is most dramatic. And dramatic it is — as the entire bay explodes beneath you in a fireworks display you’ve never seen before. But not for us. Because of some ill-will of nature, blamed at the time on excessive rain and cool temperatures (for Puerto Rico), the bay was mostly dark.

Still, just the stars alone were worth the trip — almost. With two people to a kayak, the darkness all pervasive, the quiet almost surreal, I felt like I was floating in a private, other-worldly lagoon, hampered only by the knowledge I was experiencing only the slightest remnants of what should have been an amazing Technicolor adventure. Putting my hand in the water released a flurry of gold sparkles, reminiscent of an abundance of Fourth of July sparklers beneath my fingers, as though a vast array of shooting stars from the sky fell into the water — and this was just a fraction of what it should be when a blue-green haze dominates the water and the fish swimming around trigger a reaction that brings the entire bay alive. My disappointment at having missed such a spectacle made me feel like a little kid deprived of a toy I desperately wanted.
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I came to Vieques with a preconceived notion that because of all the destruction that occurred, the resurrection of Vieques as a tourist destination would revolve around conservation, sustainability and decreased environmental impact. Not so — or at least, not yet. Ironically, although tourism has indeed increased, there does not seem to be any island-wide plan to deal with it in any coordinated “green” fashion.

There are less than 10,000 people on Vieques — and seemingly, everyone knows everyone else. Locals have a fierce pride in their island and a universal disappointment that so much has been planned or promised and so little has been done. You can see the wistfulness in their eyes as they talk about what the island so desperately needs in terms of education, health care provisions, infrastructure, environmental protections and tourism services.

And in truth, they are also in conflict over how much development they want. More and more foreigners — which is how they allude to Americans, despite their shared U.S. citizenship — are invading their quiet, undeveloped, pristine locale with its sparkling, isolated beaches opening restaurants and other tourist establishments, and they are unsure what the future will bring –- and whether it will be positive. Vieques may or may not be on the verge of a tourist boom, and it’s questionable exactly whom all this new development will actually benefit.
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Everyone on Vieques has a story and everyone who comes there knows someone else who either had their own story or knows someone else who did. You don’t come to Vieques by accident. With Caribbean island tourism not yet a reality, the question most often asked by one visitor to the next? “What brought YOU to Vieques?” And the answer is almost always a friend, a relative, a colleague; it is never advertising or travel agent. And while tour companies, diving operations and sailing options have doubled in the last five years, infrastructure has lagged. Although many of the main roads are easily traversable, there are some leading to recommended beaches that boast car-eating potholes ahead and jeep-attacking tree branches on all sides, and are so bumpy that none of my limbs and internal organs ended up in the same place they started out in. At some point this will change.

Vieques is a visual delight, a portrait in green and blue — and many shades of brown if you count the horses — and you have to — they’re everywhere. It is undisturbed by development — but that will not always be so. Go now while it is still unspoiled (by anything other than the Navy…) and before it becomes just another over-developed Caribbean island, possibly losing the unique character that is so very much Viequesian. For information about visiting Vieques, call (800) 866-7827 or log onto seepuertorico.com/en/destinations/culebra-and-vieques.

Puerto Rico claims to be the culinary capitol of the Caribbean, and after a short visit there I concur. I started my culinary investigation at their SABOREA food festival, where a tented carnival atmosphere is the setting for sampling a number of gourmet treats, and beverages. The festival location next to the ocean offered cooking demonstration as well as small tented venues with a variety of offerings. The alcoholic beverage area was a popular venue where samplings of various brands could be consumed. For more detailed information check out the SABOREA web site for next year’s tickets and dates.

I had a Chefs private tasting dinner at the Pikayo Restaurant at the Condado Plaza Hotel, prepared by Chef Willo Bennet. The elegant small plate preparations provided a plethora of taste explosions. My favorite was the Corned Beef Brisket Stew and Coconut Milk Polenta.
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The Condado Plaza where I stayed provides two towers of rooms; one facing the ocean and one a lagoon. While I thought I wanted the ocean view – I found my sunrise side lagoon quite enjoyable were I could view the water sport activities from my balcony and the skyline of San Juan. The hotel’s location away from Old San Juan was enjoyable, but if you want a more intimate lodging you might try the Bed and Breakfast, Casa Sole. A newly renovated home, where each room is its own character and the food offered is freshly prepared upon ordering. The atmosphere is charming, adding to the appeal of its location in Old San Juan proper.
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The recommended eating venues are so numerous, space here does not do them justice, but I must list them for your San Juan culinary explorations. Café Cialitors is a gourmet coffee lovers delight – where Joaquin Pastor takes great pride in his carefully hand selected beans which he brews. He might take you in the back room for a more in depth explanation of the coffee process.

Lunch at the Hotel El Convento, again offers gourmet meals in an old world renovated convent. There I got a very special Mojito Recipe from Bar Expert, Luis Flores, who also created a most delectable Pina Colada. They also offer Mango, Guava or Passion Fruit Rum Mojitos. Their lunch of Red Snapper and a Lime Beurre Blanc along with a beverage is a must respite while touring Old Town.

Quesos Casa Lila Rose, upon appointment, can help you make your own artisan cheese, with flavors you choose. And while wine always goes well with cheese, you should not miss a tour of the Barcardi Distillery, where I learned in a VIP tasting the process of various Barcardi Rums. The regular tour includes two rum drinks before your tour of the visitor center to learn the history of the Barcardi family business.

My lunch at La Casita Blanca in Santurce offered authentic Puerto Rican food in an intimate home-like atmosphere where fresh tortillas are made before your table. My dinner was at Santaella in La Placita de Santurce which is an upscale, popular restaurant offering flavors with global influences. I had an acceptable Filet Mignon, with exquisite Fried Plantains, Chocolate Sponge Cake and a Citrus Martini that needed assistance. With one wall encasing a green jungle garden, it’s a dining venue you should include.
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Breakfast came with a sweet tooth at the Casa Cortes Choco Bar where chocolate pervades most all of its offerings, from pastries, to hot chocolate varieties. Casa Cortes is another example of a family owned tradition. The famed chocolate is now being offered in gourmet tins (Forteza), and accompanies the art gallery on the upper floors promotion of indigenous artists, in a space for community events. I am impressed with Casa Cortes’ many entrepreneurial ventures.
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My favorite dinner venue was the Olive Restaurant in the Olive boutique Hotel, where the private roof top lounge offers surprising elegance with an old world Mediterranean ambience. Out of five courses my favorite was Oliva’s Signature Crème Brule. Another outdoor balcony dining can be enjoyed at Chef Trevino’s Budatai restaurant a short distance from the Condado Hotel. The unprepossessing entrance disguises the elegant upscale décor with an efficient kitchen team, and their unison good natured chant of “Working!”

You can alleviate your guilt of over eating by touring the El Yunque Rainforest, via the Rico Sun Tour Company, which was my expert host for many of my epicurean excursions all over San Juan proper and its suburbs. I’ve offered my recommendations here and so now it’s your turn to explore in person or via cyberspace, Puerto Rico’s culinary delights.

Explore: www.thecondadoplaza.hilton.com, www.fincacialitos.com, www.loizadark.com, www.casacortespr.com, www.wilobenet.com, www.elconvento.com , www.ootwrestaurants.com , www.santaellapr.com, http://saboreapuertorico.com/, http://rstpuertorico.com/tourspuertorico/home.php, www.casabacardi.org/

Day 1: We’re off!

Our family of six has left home for our final vacation before our oldest graduates and heads off on his own. Tomorrow, we will embark on a seven night Carnival cruise through the southern Caribbean. We’re especially excited for this particular cruise because, instead of just the standard five stops, this week-long cruise ports at six different islands. As enjoyable as a cruise ship can be, the real fun for us comes from exploring islands and getting a bit more “cultured”.

So on day one, we’re visiting the beautiful island of Puerto Rico. We flew into San Juan a night early, to be sure we wouldn’t miss the ship. The cruise port and the international airport are only 15 kilometers apart, so we split the difference and stayed in Isla Verde, almost exactly halfway between the two. From the airport, we jumped in a taxi which comfortably fit all of us, and headed to a condominium we had rented through vrbo.com. The trip was quick (6 kilometers), the conversation fleeting (the driver knew little English, and I know less Spanish), and the fare reasonable (being regulated and standard across the city.)

Since it was still early afternoon, we ventured out on a walk, looking for a place to eat lunch. Isla Verde is close to the water, so the area attracts both tourists and seasonal residents alike and so in turn hosts many restaurants, hotels, stores, and a vibrant nightlife. After enjoying just a few blocks of leg stretching and sunshine, we stumbled upon a treasure. Gorda’s Baja Taco, located right on Avenida Isla Verde, beckoned us with its brightly colored storefront and invitation to try its fish tacos. Ivan, the restaurant’s sole proprietor (and cook, and cleaner, and accountant), told me he had eaten at a similar establishment while visiting Arizona and fell in love with it. So he came back home to his native Puerto Rico and opened up Gorda’s, with the same flavors and dishes he experienced, but with his own Puerto Rican flair.

According to my oldest daughter McKell, it was “like a food truck in a building!” ‘Cause we love food trucks. Even her sister Kaylee proclaimed, “I don’t even like tacos, but I love these!” After looking through the menu of burritos, quesadillas, nachos and tacos, we took up the invitation to try the fish tacos and ordered those and a few other kinds.

“This is the best taco I have ever had!” When my wife compliments the food that profoundly, it means something. Truthfully, the tacos really were good. My favorite was the chicken, which meant it had to be absolutely delicious, as good as the fish taco was, as promised. After lunch, we found the nearby beach and dipped our toes in the water for a few minutes, and then hailed a taxi and spent the rest of the afternoon in Viejo San Juan, the historic center and oldest settlement of the island. We spent some time enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of the old city, but it’s always the old architecture and history that calls to me.

So I dragged the family (who were thankfully willing to go) to Castillo de San Cristobal, the largest fort built by the Spanish to guard the old settlement of San Juan. About a third of it has been torn down to make room for the growing city, but it still looms over the coastline. We didn’t pay the six dollars to wander its quarters and tunnels, since the old walls and guerites, or sentry boxes, that looked out into the ocean were free and open to the public. The stone walls and towers offered a fun place to climb, but I have to admit, since they tower high above the shoreline, and there are many spots with no barriers, I got nervous watching my kids peek over the edges. But I did it too. It’s hard to resist! But we had to be careful.
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Day 2

We’re on the island of St. Thomas. The ship has been fun, and we like all the eating, but we were excited to disembark in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas’s capital. We had signed up for a scheduled excursion with Castaway Girl for a half-day catamaran and snorkeling adventure, so we immediately found the tour guide and made our way to the boat, harbored just a short distance from the cruise ship.

Our catamaran, despite its size that could easily fit fifty, was fast. Simply under the power of the wind, we were still faster than many of the other boats leaving the harbor. The smooth ride over the water was thrilling, the brisk wind cool, and the sight of the St. Thomas coast speeding by constantly reminded me I wasn’t in Utah anymore! The captain sailed us over to Buck Island, a small uninhabited piece of land just off the coast. Buck Island claims the second-oldest lighthouse in the Caribbean, but the real draw was the potential of seeing turtles in its small bay and the pieces of shipwreck lying under the water just off its protected beach. We stopped a few meters from the island, dropped anchor, and proceeded to jump off the catamaran’s deck, which sat about 6 feet above the water. Even though there is a ladder we could have climbed, the jump was much more fun.
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We followed the snorkeling guide to a spot where we could see the turtles, fish, and other wildlife in the ocean. The water was clear enough to see the bottom and get a good view of the vegetation and rock formations. My family loves to experience new things, so when the tour guide dived down, brought up a Brittle Sea Star, and asked, “Who wants to put this in your mouth?”, McKell was the first one to yell out, “I do!” This turned out to be one of the greatest pictures of the vacation. The starfish crawled out of her mouth on the first attempt, but she got it to stay for the picture on the second try. The starfish wasn’t harmed, and the guide eventually put it back on the ocean floor, but what a great experience I’m not sure we would have had anywhere else. This journey just keeps getting better.

Day 3

It’s our day at sea. We enjoy the all-inclusive food and drinks, the professional shows, the games and fun on board, and not having to unpack more than once this whole trip. Enough said.

Day 4

We’re in Barbados. I had read the island is known for its luscious pink and white sand beaches. That reputation is well deserved. This island easily had the best beach on our trip. We had looked at a few maps and done some research, and thought we could just walk off the ship and over to a beach. It would have been a 25 minute walk, which didn’t seem too far away. We spurned all the taxi drivers offering us rides, until we finally gave in just outside the port entrance. A driver offered to take us to a much better beach for only $3 a person, rather than the double and triple amounts that others were charging. We climbed in his van and rode off through Bridgetown, ending up at a beach in Carlisle Bay you wouldn’t realize was there from the street unless you knew where to go. We rented a beach lounge chair and umbrella from the local vendors, but I ended up not using it much. The beach was a gorgeous white, cool to the touch, and the softest sand I have ever stepped in. Even throughout the day, with the sun beating down on the beach, the sand stayed cool. I didn’t want to stop standing in it! Just running my toes through the soft sand is an experience I still haven’t forgotten. No other beach, even the ones with nicer boardwalks and stores, could stand up to this one. Ah, that sand!
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Day 5

Another island, another beach, another glorious day in the sun. We are here on the absolutely gorgeous St. Lucia. Out of the all the islands, this one is the most beautiful. There is so much green covering rolling hills and high mountains. Based on what we thought was good research, we walked out of the ship, by the small stores, and past the drivers asking for $40 or more a person to take us to one of the many beaches on the island. We finally stopped and asked one to take us to the much closer Choc Beach. At only $5 a person, we thought it was a great deal.

Once again, just as in Barbados, listening to the experience and guidance of the locals turned out to be our best choice. The taxi driver, willing to take us wherever we wanted to go, strongly expressed how unappealing Choc Beach is. No security, no services. Frankly, it was the no security that sold me, wanting to watch out for my family, but it wasn’t until he drove us past the beach, a small stretch of dark sand and broken trees with no one on it, that we decided to take his advice. Of course, the fact that he only raised his fare by $10 for our entire family helped sway us, so off we scuttled to Reduit Beach in Rodney Bay, a beautiful area built up for tourism and with a good view of Pigeon Island and its small ruin. The beach was nice and renting another chair and umbrella made it comfortable, but unfortunately the constant hawking of wares by the locals got to be a bit annoying. Every one of them was kind and gracious, but when you can’t rest for 5 minutes without being offered aloe vera straight from the plant, bowls and hats made of banana leaves, an assortment of jewelry and shells and scarves, or what admittedly looked like a very tasty assortment of chickpeas, potato, and meats wrapped in flatbread, it was difficult to relax. We still enjoyed our time and purchased a couple items (the banana leaf bowl still sits on our counter at home), rented a kayak for a ride out in the bay, and took a stroll down the beach, before our time was up and we were heading back to the ship.

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Day 6

St. Kitts was our day off from the beaches and water. The ship docked right at the capital city of Basseterre, so we spent our day wandering the town. It is small, only about four blocks square, but has well-restored buildings and local flair that drew us in. We headed first for St. George’s Anglican Church and were rewarded with a wide open and welcoming structure. We climbed the restored bell tower, up some very steep stairs. Above the large cast iron bell, the hatch was open to the roof, so we promptly climbed up and out. I am sure it isn’t the safest place on the island because of its height and has no barriers to stop us from tumbling over the side, but it was refreshing to be in the cool wind and take a panoramic view of the city, the harbor, and the surrounding island.
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After the steep descent, we wandered the church grounds and cemetery, and then made our way a couple blocks further to the Basseterre Co-Cathedral of Immaculate Conception. This Catholic church seemed much newer, and still provided a calm, peaceful visit, but it didn’t quite hold the history and feel as the other church. However, it gave us an opportunity to see the everyday life of St. Kitts a little bit closer. Situated directly behind the church is a school. The students were out for lunch, and we said hello to some, who were dressed very nicely in matching school uniforms and rushing off to buy local fare from either the street vendors or the grocery store, or just spending time in the neighboring Independence Square, a one-block park that historically was the site of the slave market.

We followed the students, Trina and I laughing at our kids (and my) reaction to the large fish heads being sold on the street, and found ourselves in front of the grocery store. We were a bit tired and thirsty from our walk, so we jumped at the chance to buy some “local cuisine” in the shape of juice boxes. We chose the most unique we could find, sampling currant berry juice and peanut butter drinks. It wasn’t the cuisine we’d been eating on the cruise ship, but it was just as refreshing. Day 7 It’s our final port, St. Maarten (for the Dutch side) or St. Martin (for the French side). We wanted to get to Maho Beach on the Dutch side of the island, the place made infamous by so many youtube videos and travel shows we’d seen, showing off how close to the beach the planes have to land on the short 7500 foot runway.

We found our way to the beach by way of a bus. It takes a little longer than a taxi, but at $2 a person, it was much less expensive. The taxis and busses look the same, but we figured out which one to take by looking at the license plates, which prominently say either Bus or Taxi on them. We made it to Maho Beach after a 20-30 minute ride, and promptly put down our bags and set up our towels. Even with all the warning signs of possible jet blasts, we didn’t think too much of finding a spot right in the path of the landing planes, since we wanted to get the best pictures and videos possible. Planes frequently came in to land, some small, some larger, and we enjoyed every one, feeling so close to each plane it seemed like we could reach up and touch it. None gave us any trouble, although the noise of the larger ones required us to cover our ears. Once in a while, a smaller departing plane would back itself up close to the fence bordering the beach before taking off, but they didn’t cause much alarm. A couple who had arrived earlier in the day said they experienced one “that was interesting”, but gave no reason to move from the beach.

And then it happened. We were so excited to see the largest plane yet back up closer to the fence than any other we’d seen. We jumped up, with our phones and cameras at the ready, standing on the beach close to the fence, excited to see what this one was going to do. Then it revved up its engines.

I haven’t ever stood in front of a sandblaster, but now I know exactly how it would feel. The propulsion from the jet engines was so strong, and lasted for so long before the plane actually took off, that I couldn’t think of anything but finding a way to block myself from the torture. I couldn’t even come to enough presence of mind to think of walking sideways out of the blast zone. There I stood, trying to wrap a towel around me to block the barrage of tiny bullets in the form of blowing sand. People were running and screaming, and I suddenly realized towels and bags and hat and glasses were flying by us into the ocean. We all jumped into the water to save what we could, all while sand kept blasting into our skin, our ears, our hair. Finally, it ended. The few seconds it lasted seemed to have gone on for minutes, but I was finally able to lift my eyes and look around. I don’t think anyone, at least anyone dumb enough to sit in a blast zone, realized what it was going to be like. Least of all me and my dear family. We were covered in sand, but with only the loss of my sunglasses, we fared well. It was an experience I would never, ever recommend, but it was one we will remember the rest of our lives. Day 8

Then it was all over. Cruising is a fantastic way to visit so many different locations on one trip, while enjoying the ease of prepared meals and the same room every night. It’s been one of our kids favorite vacations so far, but I think and hope we’ll create many more memories for them. But we’d all do it again tomorrow if we could.

Sad to leave the gorgeous Torres de Paine National Park, we boarded the bus to El Calafate, about five hours away. Partway along our route we left Chile, but we had to stop at the small, non-descript check point and go inside and show our exit visa. That took about 30 minutes. Then about five miles farther down the road we stopped again to show our passports by going into the Argentine check point where we had to show the expensive visas we had purchased before leaving Texas. This was another half hour but we were able to buy sandwiches (jamon & queso…surprise, surprise!) for the ride. We arrived at El Calafate after 9 pm, but it is not dark till nearly 11 p.m. in December. A van was awaiting us on the road and we were transferred to our Hosteria Cauquenes de Nimez, about 10 p.m. We learned that Cauquenes are the pairs of large water fowl we have seen in many places. This hotel is right on Lake Nimez in El Calafate Ecological Reserve, adjacent to the huge body of water, Lake Argentino.
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The next morning we were transported by a tour company in a small bus to Glaciers National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site where thirteen large glaciers comprise the gorgeous scenery. During an hour ride we learned all about the area and glaciers from our bi-lingual guide. We arrived at Perito Moreno Glacier where we boarded a large catamaran cruise ship with comfortable seating inside a glass cabin, and our group got a table for six by a large window.
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We cruised very close to this enormous glacier to get the feel of the 80 meter high ice walls which extends 5 kilometers wide. The Perito Moreno Glacier is a 30 kilometers long river of ice. This is one of only two glaciers in South America which is advancing instead of retreating. The enormity of it is amazing. The deep, rich blue colors within the ice reveal that it was formed centuries ago, as scientists can determine partly from the hues.
The day was very cold and windy, but we were well bundled and loved every minute of the spectacular cruise. We could see the calving periodically when huge chunks of ice broke loose from the glacier and floated free. One edge of the glacier is constantly moving against a huge boulder along the shore where the depth of the water changes significantly, creating a unique effect.
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Then we walked for several hours on the miles on the steel platform along the shore. I counted 650 steps divided in groups of six to twelve, which we descended as the sturdy pathway led to many different views of the glacier and through lovely shrubs and trees. Then we had to climb up these hundreds of stairs (or there is an elevator for those who need it) to get to the cafeteria, which resembled a ski lodge. We took hundreds of photos and were thrilled with the day.
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Returning to our Hosteria Cauquenes, we enjoyed local wine and played board games, watching the large trees just outside bend almost double in the high winds, typical of this area. Promptly at 8 p.m. dinner, a delicious Argentine Stew typical of the area, was served by the hotel staff in a prix fixe menu of three courses. We all really like this small hotel, with its friendly staff who make you feel like guests in their home. The rooms are small, very clean and comfortable, and each one is different. The town of El Calafate has only 20,000 residents but welcomes and cares for 350,000 tourists each summer season. There are many small hotels and good restaurants.

 

If You Go: http://www.cauquenesdenimez.com.ar/ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perito_Moreno_Glacier http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g312851-d605459-Reviews-Cauquenes_de_Nimez-El_Calafate_Province_of_Santa_Cruz_Patagonia.html http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patagonia

When I was first blindfolded, I felt disoriented, out of control, with the added annoying question lurking in the back of my head: I am a travel writer, how am I supposed to take notes? But our Mayan guide propelled me back into the moment by explaining that when our sight -– our main sense in relating to the world around us –- is cut off, the others senses are expanded. And I had better start paying attention.
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Thus began our Sense Adventure Tour, part of a larger eco-oriented nature park and sustainable tourism program at the Hacienda Tres Rios Resort in Riviera Maya, Mexico.

So I initially sensed the jungle, rather than saw it.

Nothing can hurt you, we were reassured. Just trust in yourself and follow your senses. Do not talk, please – communicate only with yourself. And become one with the universe. How does one do that?
First came the sounds. Were they cymbals? Triangles? What did they mean? Were they supposed to mean something? But I didn’t have time to ponder before the next sensory assault — this time different textures caressing my feet as we proceeded blindfolded and bare foot, one hand on the shoulder of the person in front of us. From gravel to burlap, wooden slats to smooth slate to soft rug, we moved about our mini-jungle over an hour’s time. Then a baby laughed – or was it crying – followed by a clash of thunder and then the sounds stopped being a focus and just began to wash over me, as did the bucket of pebbles dumped on my head. I felt like I was being buried. Was that it? Were the baby’s cries rebirth? I had no idea.
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The only time the blindfold was removed was within a tent with constellations of stars twinkling overhead — the universe we’re supposed to feel a part of. Blindfold back in place, the avalanche of sensory overload continued – smells, textures, taste, sounds. All the senses were challenged, often in conjunction with one another, sometimes competing, sometimes complimentary – should I pay attention to the Native American chants or focus on the pebbles pored over my body or the cinnamon under my nose or just give in to the swaying of my body being encouraged by the guides.

Periodically, the guides placed our hands on our heart, reminding us to breathe – the theme repeated – listen to your heart beat – this is what keeps us alive. Feel the universe living and moving inside you.

More sounds, this time a beating drum, ever increasing tempo – guides moved various body parts where they wanted them, hands in front one moment to smell a splash of oil, waving about another in time to the rhythm of the beat. Now chanting once again — feel small seeds flowing through my fingers, taste a sliver of chocolate melt upon my tongue, gravel this time beneath my feet. I’m somewhat annoyed with myself for thinking I’m pretty sure I’m going to find a bunch of pebbles in my underwear later that night. Such a plebian thought feels antithetical to the experience. I refocus – hear a semblance of a heartbeat in the background. I’m not sure whether it’s mine or theirs.
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Then I felt the coldness of a small candle holder in one hand and heat generated by it as my other hand passed over it. The transient thought of how do they do that passed through only to be overshadowed by the incongruous reality itself. And shortly thereafter, I was once again moving to the sounds – I lost track of what they were – but I knew I was simulating the flying motions of a bird. Even though I had no idea what ritual I was taking part in, I felt a sense of belonging – that I was somehow connected to something that was important in some past culture.
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I didn’t know how it was done but it was not important – I breathed in – I exhaled – I moved my arms and swayed my body – I was alone yet part of a larger whole – and it all felt right. And again, my hands were placed on my heart. When not floating in air or touching my heart, my hands were on the shoulder of the person in front of me, traversing about our own private world, wondering what tactile surprise lay ahead.

Sounds again – fire, thunder, rain, birds, planes and wind – and of course, the repetitive chanting – but with maracas in hand now, I could share in the experience directly. And yes, this was my dance – with that of the others – whoever the others might be – everyone moved to their own rhythm – somehow in concert with each other – and I could feel that even through the blindfold.
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I was given a smooth stone soft to the touch with which I was told to caress my face – supplemented by a more rigid scraggly conch shell which I could easily identify. I couldn’t resist holding it to my ear to try to hear the ocean – but then I realized the sounds were coming from behind me – crashing waves. And now, I felt the rainwater I only heard before – icy cold and down my back. It was the only time I heard collective sounds of first shock and then guffaws from my compatriots.

Thunder abounded – and then the raindrops flowed – followed by a windstorm. Somehow I knew that it was all being manufactured, but I didn’t care – it felt real. Now I was asked to clang the smooth stone and the rugged conch shell together to make some more native music, and yet again, the hands are returned to the heart – of course. I started to welcome the gesture as a way of coming home – feeling grounded.

I followed all the instructions as the guides moved my body, arms and hands in different directions and knew I had the choice – I could resist and ask why – or acquiesce and say why not? I feel both on a personal journey and part of a larger connection, as though I was attuned to some greater Mayan or Native American or whatever other culture I sensed was behind it. I felt connected with the elements, with nature.

“And so nature comes to say to us the earth is my body, the water is my blood, the air is my breath, the fire is my spirit,” so sayeth the guide as we near the end. “In front of you is a mirror. See your reflection and know that somewhere inside you, if you have a question, you will find an answer. All the universe is inside you.”

As I removed my blindfold and gazed upon my reflection in the cenote pool in front of me, I was not sure I felt one with the universe but I certainly felt I had experienced a very unique part of it in a magical hour’s time.

For more information, visit http://www.haciendatresrios.com/riviera-maya/nature-park/nature-park-activities where you will find not only the Sense Adventure, but a number of other unusual activities such as snorkeling and kayaking in a cenote, an Xtreme Adventure tour, Segway rides and Hobie Cat outings, and an introductory tour of the many trend-setting sustainable tourism aspects of the hotel. Hacienda Tres Rios was constructed only on areas of low-environmental value with the least adverse impact, and includes water-saving techniques that don’t sacrifice pressure, rooms that are “intelligently designed” to be both high tech and high comfort but low impact, with 120 varieties of native plants in the park that do not require much in the way of water, fertilizer, or pesticides. It has recently been named to TripAdvisor’s 2014 list of the Top 25 Resorts For Families.