Avignon: Once Home to the Popes

The 14th century papal palace in Avignon, saved from the depredations of 18th century French revolutionaries because it was too big and difficult to knock down.

The 14th century papal palace in Avignon, saved from the depredations of 18th century French revolutionaries because it was too big and difficult to knock down.

The following article appeared in June 2013 at TravelWeekly.com, the electronic edition of Travel Weekly, a national travel trade journal. It was written by Nadine Godwin, who is the author of Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, published by The Intrepid Traveler. 

AVIGNON, France — On a recent afternoon, I walked vigorously around the old walls of Avignon and into the central city. I aimed to revisit the

Historic walls surrounding the old center of Avignon.

Historic walls surrounding the old center of Avignon.

medieval papal palace and other places I had not seen since leading a teenaged nephew through these parts nearly three decades ago.

The warm weather and late-afternoon light were irresistible — and new digital equipment let me take as many unnecessary photos as I wanted without producing a pain in the pocketbook.

I started my stroll at a little after 4 p.m., only 10 hours after leaving New York’s JFK on XL Airways’ nonstop service to Marseille. I had joined other travel journalists and a handful of New York area travel agents on the inaugural flight for the launch of the only nonstop between those two points. [Read more…]

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Palo Aboard the Disney Magic

Editor’s note: This is the second of a series of articles from Intrepid Traveler publisher Kelly Monaghan as he makes his way from Galveston to Barcelona on the Disney Magic (and beyond).

No cruise aboard the Disney Magic would be complete without a visit to Palo, the specialty restaurant that wraps majestically around the ship’s stern on Deck Ten. Here is a chance to escape (if that is the right word) from the laughing children and the happy (if mute) costumed Disney characters — a chance to dress up and enjoy being a sophisticated adult.

Colorful masks are part of the decor at Palo. (Photos by Kelly Monaghan)

The word “palo” means “pole” Italian and the restaurant takes its culinary theme from Venice. The reception area is lined with the fanciful masks worn during the Carnivale de Venezia, although the Italian theme fades away once you are led to your seat by one of the wait staff, which hails from all corners of the globe, primarily Europe.

There is a $20 per person supplementary charge for dining at Palo, but the quality of the food, the view (for those with a table by the floor-to-ceiling windows) and the personalized service more than justify the expense. There is more good news on the expense front — the wine list and the prices are pretty much those you’ll find in the main dining rooms.

We found the food to be quite good. A tasty risotto, buttery osso buco, and perfectly done fish were fitting preludes to sinfully rich desserts.

Dining at Palo.

After dinner, we were glad we had thought to book a brunch at Palo later in the voyage. This is a brunch buffet to put all other shipboard buffets to shame. Yes, there are the usual calorie-laden pastries, but those who choose to eat more sensibly won’t be disappointed. I especially enjoyed the grilled and marinated vegetables of all descriptions.

In addition to the buffet offerings, Palo’s brunch offers a number of prepared-to-order hot dishes. You can choose a breakfast omelet or lean to the lunch side of the concept with a nicely rendered veal saltimbocca.

And of course, there are desserts, all in sensibly sized portions that encourage you to sample two. Or three. Or four.

Palo bookings should be made the instant you firm up your sailing. We had the luxury of a 15-night transatlantic crossing and, perhaps because of that, neither of our meals were sold out, so we got a window table both times. I was told that on other nights, the restaurant was quite full. Of course, on shorter three- and four-day sailings, space is probably at a premium. So it’s a good idea to choose an early seating. Dinner hours are from 6 to 9 p.m. Brunch (only on cruises of four nights or longer) is from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Palo is not without its minor problems. We found the service could be a bit smothering, but that may simply have been because when we dined the restaurant was far from full. Tablemates from our regular dining rotation reported being offended by guests arriving in shorts and flip-flops, while a woman at the next table carried on a loud, 10-minute cell phone conversation — on speakerphone, no less. Apparently, the staff is powerless to enforce the stated dress code or normal restaurant decorum.

Still, the odds against your encountering problems like this are slim and shouldn’t dissuade you from making your booking as early as possible. Palo will very likely be one of the non-child-related highlights of your Disney Magic voyage.

Disney Magic Sails To Dry Dock

Editor’s note: This is the third of a series of articles from Intrepid Traveler publisher Kelly Monaghan as he makes his way from Galveston to Barcelona on the Disney Magic (and beyond).

After 15 years at sea, millions of martinis and untold vats of vino and barrels of beer — not to mention the intense partying of a whole menagerie of costumed characters — the Disney Magic is going into rehab. Make that refurbishment.

The Magic has been prettied up before, the last time just five years ago during a two-week or so dusting and cleaning. But this time the overhaul will be much more extensive, lasting more than a month.

Word is the “new” Magic will be much different. The stylish and sedate décor that harkened back to an earlier era will give way to a more modern, colorful, contemporary look. Parrot Cay, which one cast member told me was rated the least favorite restaurant by passengers, will be replaced with a Brazilian-style churrascaria. Animators Palate will be redone to take advantage of the latest technology, so the transformation that has wowed so many passengers in the past should be even more amazing. And the Topsider casual dining venue will be completely overhauled and extended out over the stern of the ship.

I was fortunate enough to join the Magic for its last transatlantic crossing prior to entering dry dock in Cadiz, Spain. From June to September, the ship will ply the western Mediterranean out of Barcelona. So if you want to see the Magic as she used to be, this is your last chance.

Truth to tell, the Magic can use a little TLC, even short of a major revamping. Carpets have faded, paint has chipped, and rust pops up here and there. What hasn’t suffered the ravages of time is the incredible Disney service, which has made the line so successful in an era where gigantism and overkill seem to be the watchword for cruise ships.

A transatlantic sailing offers many contrasts to the shorter 3-, 4-, and 7-day itineraries most guests are used to. For a start, the large number of sea days (10 on our crossing from Galveston to Barcelona) offers a chance to get to know the ship intimately. It’s also possible to enjoy the luxury of dining at Palo two or more times!

Another noticeable difference was the relative absence of children. There were 400 on our voyage, as opposed to the 2,000 that throng the shorter Caribbean itineraries. Of course, the Disney characters were still kept busy, since it seemed every adult on board wanted their picture taken with the whole lot of them. I couldn’t help thinking that the profits from

Docking at Castaway Cay (Photos by Kelly Monaghan)

photos alone make these sailings a sure-fire money mill.

As you might suspect, Disney doesn’t stint on the entertainment. Rather than recycling the same performers and shows, the Magic flew in a dazzling variety of specialty acts to keep things fresh during the long stretch from Castaway Cay to Madeira. All this in addition to the Broadway-style spectacles put on by the ship’s core company.

Speaking of Castaway Cay, during the stop there, the Dream dropped by to salute the Magic on its voyage to dry dock. It offered guests the rare chance to see two Disney ships at Castaway Cay at the same time.

Of course, a long open-ocean voyage can have its drawbacks. Rough seas have been a problem on some trips, but ours was smooth as glass. The only choppy patch, interestingly enough, was between Madeira and Gibraltar.

It was hard to leave the ship after 14 days, but we made new friends whom we will surely see again. Indeed, this is one of the nicest souvenirs any Disney cruise has to offer.

Pack Smart For Today’s Airport Security

A Packing Update Following the September 11 Tragedy

by Susan Foster, packing expert & author of “Smart Packing for Today’s Traveler”

I have discussed packing options for smooth travel with airlines, airports, and government agencies. What to Know Before Arriving at the Airport

1. There are increased passenger and baggage security screenings. Airports are managed independently. Do not expect the same security procedures in all cities.

[Read more…]

Is This Any Way To Fly Free

The Lure of Milesource

Note: Milesource is out of business.

Nothing gets my pulse running like the thought of yet another free flight. I’ve become pretty savvy over the years about using air courier travel and building a treasure trove of frequent flyer miles. So when I happened on Milesource.com, my interest was piqued.

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Phoning Home Just Got Easier

I have always wrestled with the problem of staying in touch when traveling overseas and have tried any number of solutions, from prepaid cards that always seemed to run out at the most inconvenient times, to reversing the charges (always expensive), to callback services, to rented mobile phones (also fairly pricey), to relying on cyber cafes for email communication. All of them worked, more or less, but none was ideal. Often, I felt like E.T., trying to reinvent the telecomm wheel just to phone home.

[Read more…]