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Travel With Marilyn

Luxury Accommodations Add to South African Experience

Marilyn JonesA hotel can stand alone as a destination anywhere in the world. While traveling throughout South Africa I stayed at several hotels and resorts that were much more than a place to hang my hat and get a good night’s sleep. They had history, character, and charm.

The Saxon Hotel, Villas and Spa

The Saxon Hotel, Villas and Spa in Johannesburg was originally a private home. Many esteemed and honored guests — including Nelson Mandela, when he was finishing his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom — stayed in the home. After it became a hotel, villas were added, each like mini-hotels with private lobbies, a bar, and service staff.

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In addition to the beautiful grounds, luxuriously appointed rooms, and excellent restaurants, the staff is one of the best attributes of the hotel with their friendliness, professionalism, and willingness to help no matter what is requested by a guest.

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Located in the residential area of Johannesburg, it is quiet and serene, very peaceful and relaxing.

Grootbos Private Nature Reserve

Two hours south of Cape Town, almost to Africa’s southern tip, is Gansbaai and Grootbos Private Nature Reserve.

The Garden Lodge has 11 freestanding suites, and the Forest Lodge where I stayed has 16. There are also private villas. My suite was located in an enchanting Milkwood forest with a view of the Atlantic Ocean and featured a living room, bedroom, and two bathrooms.

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Activities include nature walks, horseback riding, whale-watching cruises, and shark-cage experiences. Nearby are the African Penguin & Seabird Sanctuary and Danger Point Lighthouse.

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Everyone was friendly and helpful, from the gift shop clerk to the restaurant wait staff.

Grande Provence Heritage Wine Estate

There are two options at Grande Provence Heritage Wine Estate in Franschhoek: The Owner's Cottage, where I stayed, and La Provençale Villa in the Vineyards. Both offer luxury accommodations, beautiful and welcoming décor, and impeccable service.

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Wine production can be traced back to French Protestant Pierre Joubert, who hid his Bible in a loaf of bread and fled his hometown of La Motte-d’Aigues in Provence to avoid religious persecution. In 1694, along with other Huguenots, he arrived in Olifantshoek (Elephants Corner; later to be renamed Franschhoek) and began the farm where Grande Provence is located.

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In addition to wine tasting and winery tours, there is the lovely town of Franschhoek with gift shops, art galleries, and sidewalk cafes.

The Silo

In 1924, a grain silo opened near Cape Town’s waterfront and served its original function until 2001. Most recently, the grain elevator portion of the silo complex was turned into a hotel, restaurant, and rooftop bar above what will become the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art.

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The Silo has 28 rooms, including a one-bedroom penthouse. Each room was individually designed and decorated by Liz Biden. Bright, colorful, and eclectic pieces contrast with the modern, industrial architecture. Rooms are bright, colorful, and offer either a view of the water-front or the city and Table Mountain.

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Royal Malewane

There are so many different things to do in South Africa, but it would seem sinful to leave without witnessing the magnificence of this country’s animals. Voted one of the top 50 resorts in the world by Conde Nast Traveler readers in 2016, Royal Malewane is a perfect base for game drives.

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The luxury safari lodge in Greater Kruger National Park offers amazing game viewing with the most qualified guiding teams in Africa.

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My guide, Noelle, and her tracker, Lawrence — both exceptional at their jobs — allowed me to witness the Big Five (elephants, giraffes, rhinos, lions, and leopards), all manner of antelope, gazelles, exotic birds, wild dogs, and hippos, as well as other African wildlife.

South Africa has so much to offer including luxury accommodations where surroundings and service are exceptional destinations in their own right.

Ho Chi Minh City Cyclo Tour

Marilyn JonesA cyclo is three-wheeled bicycle taxi popular in Vietnam and, for an afternoon, my transportation around bustling Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

 

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At first I was skeptical; I mean, you just go ahead and read the description of a cyclo. But I was with an Exodus Travels tour group — my family for two weeks last summer — and almost the entire group decided to go on the tour. So I decided to put a little adventure into my stay in the city.

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The cyclist would be my chauffer for the afternoon along main thoroughfares and into back alleys. Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam with a population of more than 10 million in the metropolitan area. This is a bustling city with a lot of traffic. At first it was a little unnerving; hundreds of motorcycles and cars swallowed us up as our guides and cyclists took us past towering skyscrapers and beautiful parks. Soon though, I relaxed and just trusted I would be safe. Traffic seemed to accept cyclos and not just tolerate them.

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Soon we left the busy streets and headed down an alley. We rode past vegetable stands, tiny shops, and into the flower market. This is a large area with several streets and alleyways. We were surrounded by colorful blossoms, their scents floating on a slight breeze. Stopping for a walk through the area, we were able to admire and photograph creative bouquets and unusual varieties up close.

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Back on the cyclo, we headed down residential streets. Children waved from balconies and we were met by smiles at every turn. We also made a stop at a Buddhist temple before heading back out into heavy traffic for the journey back to the hotel.

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It was a fantastic experience! I would recommend it to anyone visiting Ho Chi Minh City.

If you are interested in a cyclo tour, ask the concierge at your hotel for recommendations.

Luggage to Withstand Airline Handling

Marilyn JonesI travel a lot — usually one international destination a month. So I am always on the lookout for the very best in packing tools: the right luggage, packing cubes, RFID totes, and so forth.

My beautiful, hard-sided luggage was, shall we say, a little mistreated by several airlines this past year. With each trip, little by little, cracks began to appear until there was a hole in one corner. Not good.

Planning for a trip to South Africa, I was in need of a new piece of luggage. Not only had my last suitcase become a victim, the suitcase I was using before it had turned up on the baggage claim conveyor belt with a big dent in it the very first time I used it.

What’s positive about hard-sided luggage is obvious: it protects what’s inside, including your precious souvenirs. I love to shop in foreign lands and often fill every nook and cranny with my purchases.

So what’s the answer? I’ve seen rips and tears in soft-sided luggage as well, and the protection isn’t there, so I decided to do some research before deciding on the next piece of luggage.

My conclusion? It’s about the “bones” of the piece — material and zippers. I know that may sound too simple, but there are vast differences in all three. After reading a lot of reviews and descriptions, I found three I felt would serve me well:

Briggs & Riley Transcend 24" Expandable Upright

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Photo courtesy Briggs & Riley

The North Face Longhaul 26"

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Photo courtesy The North Face

Eagle Creek Gear Warrior AWD 26

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Photo courtesy Eagle Creek

All three are excellent choices, but I chose the Gear Warrior AWD 26, mainly because my Eagle Creek backpack has served me well, price and design. When it arrived I knew I had made a wise choice. It is made out of the same durable material as my backpack and has all the features I was looking for.

Although I chose a soft-sided piece, I packed all my South African purchases in between clothing to the center of the luggage or carried items in my carry-on. Everything arrived home safe and sound. And so did my suitcase!

If you travel by air, it is worth the research to find a good quality piece that will serve your needs. Once you check that bag, it’s out of your control!

Sunrise, Sunset — Life in the South African Bush

Marilyn JonesSouth Africa has so much to offer, including its wonderful wildlife! I spent several days at Royal Malewane Lodge touring Thornybush Private Game Reserve near Kruger National Park. Reserves are open to the national park, allowing access to a much wider area for animals like elephants, lions, rhinos, wild dogs, giraffes, leopards, impalas, and several species of antelope and exotic birds.

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My guide, Noelle van Muiden, and her tracker, Lawrence, traveled all over more than 35,000 acres in search of animals. “There are more than 60 types of mammals, more than 300 different birds, and approximately 150 different species of trees and shrubs,” Noelle explained as we bounced along in search of our next sighting.

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Game drives take place early in the morning and late in the afternoon when the animals are most active and the light is perfect for photographing the glories of South Africa. By understanding animal movement and communicating with other guides, as well as Lawrence’s incredible sight and listening abilities, the pair usually had a plan when we climbed up into the truck and set out on an adventure.

One morning, Noelle was driving down a road when Lawrence says simply, “Owl.” She backed up, got out her binoculars, and couldn’t see it. Then she got out and invited her four passengers to get out and look. None of us saw it until it moved and eventually flew away. How he saw it while we were moving still boggles my mind.

On another occasion he said, “I hear elephants drinking.”

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Noelle drove slowly drove off-road through thickets and brush until we came to a pond where a dozen or so elephants were drinking water. We sat in the truck along the water’s edge, watching and photographing the amazing scene. One elephant came quite close to me and looked me in the eyes before moving on. Others began to eat from trees lining the pond.

Lawrence often spotted lion tracks and could recognize when they were made. We saw several lions on our game drives as well.

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Every day, we saw the sun rise and set on this magical land.

“How do you put a feeling to the experience?” asked Director and Head Ranger Juan Pinto one day just after lunch.

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Indeed — there are no words to describe the feeling of being in the presence of these majestic animals in the wild.

Insight into Guatemalan Coffee Production

Marilyn JonesI am not a coffee drinker, so I was just going along for the ride with my fellow Bella Guatemala Travel tour group as we left Antigua for Café Azoteca Coffee Estate, in business since 1883. Our coffee museum guide began our tour by explaining coffee production worldwide before telling us about the history and traditions here.

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Azotea farm was purchased by doña Dominga Mont and her son-in-law, don Marcelo Orive. Together they began the cultivation of coffee. We passed exhibits and dioramas that illustrated the history of coffee harvesting in Guatemala and explained the growing and processing of the bean.

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“The coffee plant is grown under a dense canopy of shade trees,” he explained.  “At harvest time, our workers hand-pick only the ripe red beans. The beans are then wet milled, sun dried, and dry milled. Processed beans are hand-selected to assure quality and uniformity.”

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Outside, we walked along a wide dirt road into an area where the beans were being grown. He showed us the red, ripe beans and explained that the farm uses an organic pest control system as well as composting for fertilizer. “We are very environmentally friendly.”

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Azotea, which is a Rainforest Alliance Certified farm, is staffed by 65 workers during the high season and hosts 3,000 visitors a month.

We walked through a beautiful garden with colorful flowers of every description; many I had never seen before.

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We then headed for the coffee shop. Many on the tour sampled the coffee and purchased bags of the fragrant beans. After we had time to look around the store, our Bella Guatemala Travel guides, Jose Antonio Gonzalez and Emilio Faillace, invited us to yet another museum — Casa K'ojom Mayan Music Museum.

Here we learned the history of Guatemalan musical instruments, with numerous instruments and dioramas adding to the understanding of this history. A short film was shown as well, bringing what we had learned to life with spectacular sound and color.

The gift shop was a wonderful collection of traditional souvenirs along with handcrafted items including instruments made by local artisans at very reasonable prices.

I can easily recommend the tour, museums, and gift shops to everyone visiting Antigua, whether you drink coffee or not!

Sometimes It's Good to Take a Break

Marilyn JonesIt’s a three-hour drive from my home in Henderson, Texas to the north side of Houston where I had a meeting on a Friday afternoon. I knew I could drive back home on the same day, but I decided to spend the night at The Woodlands Resort & Conference Center instead. I wasn’t disappointed with my decision.

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The Woodlands (the city) is located about 15 minutes north of Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport, just off I-45. It started as suburban development and bedroom community in the early 1970s, but soon attracted corporations. Today the population is more than 100,000.

The mastermind behind the community was American businessman George P. Mitchell. With the closest hotel located almost 45 minutes away, Mitchell’s first order of business was to build a local hotel where he could host investors and corporate partners. Here they could experience firsthand Mitchell’s concept of living and working in a natural environment. The Woodlands Inn opened down the street from the community’s first neighborhood, in the Village of Grogan’s Mill, in 1974.

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For anyone looking for a weekend getaway, The Woodlands offers some 200 specialty and family restaurants and upscale shopping. There is—according to the city website—“7,790 acres of green space, 130 neighborhood parks, 205 miles of hike and bike trails, 200-acre Lake Woodlands, golf, tennis [and] kayaking.” 

As impressive as the city is, so is the resort. When I arrived, I was more than pleased with its serene setting. s-TW5

In addition to beautiful rooms and public space, the resort has two 18-hole golf courses, a full-service spa, an amazing outdoor pool area including a lazy river, and a tennis center.

Although there are three restaurants, and an outdoor café during warmer months, I chose to eat from room service because I don’t care to eat in restaurants alone. On Friday I ordered lunch and dinner, and breakfast on Saturday. In all cases the food was excellent and arrived quickly. Room service menu items are a sampling of what is offered at the restaurants, so I am confident in saying that the restaurants are excellent as well.

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With free Wi-Fi and the beautiful view out my patio door of the resort’s natural setting, I was quite content to hang around the room and get some work done. It was unseasonably warm, so I took several breaks to roam the grounds and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere.

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Sometimes you just have to take a break from your own surroundings and enjoy beautiful accommodations, wonderful meals you wouldn’t necessarily make for yourself at home, and reflect on the beauty of nature.


If you go:

The Woodlands Resort & Conference Center is located at 2301 North Millbend Drive, The Woodlands. Room rates start at $169. For more information or special promotions, call (800) 433-2624.

Remembering the Taj Mahal

Marilyn JonesTravel, in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder, a part of experience.
– Francis Bacon

Memory... is the diary that we all carry about with us.
– Oscar Wilde

As a travel writer and photographer, all too often I get home, edit my photos, write any print assignment articles, post the photos on social media, and write blog posts before heading to my next adventure, forgetting to look back once in a while. Recently though, I started taking time to look at photo files to relive the joy of discovering yet another amazing place.

One time, in Agra, India, I arrived late afternoon at the beautiful Oberoi Amarvilas Hotel. I knew that every room offered perfect sight of the Taj Mahal, and I was anxious for the view.

From my balcony, in the distance, framed by lush foliage, I could see the symbol of love that is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. That moment is forever etched in my memory.

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The next day, my friend Norma and I were transported to the gates by an electric vehicle. After passing through security, our guide began to tell us the love story behind the monument: The ivory-white marble mausoleum on the south bank of the Yamuna River was commissioned in 1632 for 827 million dollars (2015 equivalent) by the Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, to house his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

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Almost immediately, we saw the Tal Mahal gleaming in the morning sunlight. People jockeyed for position to get just the right photo of the iconic site before heading closer.

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We wandered through the gardens taking more photos before going inside with hundreds of Indian residents to view the final resting place of the emperor and his beloved wife. Hundreds of barefoot people crowded into the small, dark space to get a glimpse of the two caskets. When a guard blew a whistle, everyone shuffled out and a new group pushed its way in.

We admired the inlaid, semiprecious stones and took in the view of the river before walking back to the entrance for one last gaze at the iconic scene.

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It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience filled with perfect memories to reflect on.