Celebrity Reflection Mirrors Excellence

By David Dickstein  |  2016-08-18

Celebrity Cruise

Ground chuck makes for a delicious burger, but if you’re the type of consumer who will spend a bit more for the quality of sirloin, let me introduce you to premium cruising. I’m assuming you’ve never had the pleasure as only 15 percent of American adults have ever cruised at all, let alone treat themselves to the “better” class of cruise lines in the good-better-best marketing model. After taking 19 voyages on “good” ships, I finally tasted the sweet life of “better” and it was delicious.

What a difference spending 25 percent more makes. That was the takeaway after this self-paying travel writer took a 10-day Italy & Greek Isles cruise aboard the Celebrity Reflection out of Rome. Don’t get me wrong: Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and other Big Ship-category players generally offer a solid product at economical fares. In fact, the ship, crew and service were so good on the new Carnival Vista in May, at times it felt like premium-class cruising. But on the Celebrity Reflection, with few exceptions, there was zero interruption of excellence.

Celebrity is to Royal Caribbean what Lexus is to Toyota. Premium ships, marketed as a more personalized alternative for an upper-middle-class demographic, are typically smaller, and that holds true here; the 3,046-passenger Reflection is the newest and largest in Celebrity's fleet, yet dwarfed by every Royal Caribbean ship launched in the past decade. The next generation of Celebrity ships is scheduled to debut in 2018, and it has big hulls to fill thanks to the feature-rich Solstice class now gracing many of the Seven Seas. When Reflection debuted in 2012, it immediately set itself apart from its four older siblings with an additional deck, more staterooms and roomier restaurants, lounges and theaters.

Food, Glorious Food

With over a dozen eateries, including six specialty dining venues and a buffet that blows away those on the megaships, going hungry is one activity never on the daily program. Bright and cheery Oceanview Café is a buffet that gets it right, offering sumptuous made-to-order pasta, pizza and stir-fry alongside other international fare. The carving station actually has leg of lamb, and nearby is hand-scooped gelato ranging in flavors from pistachio to tiramisu. We climbed the mountain of shipboard buffets, yet things only went higher from there.

Two-level Opus is the main dining area. Elegance without pretentiousness, a vibe running throughout much of the ship, welcomes all passengers. Like the main dining rooms on less expensive competition, Opus’ menu includes prime rib, salmon, pork chops, escargot – you name it – but the quality of ingredients, preparation and plating is noticeably higher.

Well above average for “regular folk,” dining on Celebrity gets kicked up a notch, along with service, at the two restaurants dedicated to passengers splurging on AquaClass or suite accommodations. For suite guests, Luminae serves breakfast, lunch and dinner in an intimate, opulent atmosphere. The gourmet selections and slightly lower density of the table configuration are appealing. Blu, open for breakfast and lunch, befits the AquaClass brand by serving spa cuisine that is appropriately portioned, high in quality, taste and flavor, and nontraditional. Breakfast selections include a smoked salmon and asparagus frittata, and for dinner, it’s out with heavy béarnaise and in with a truffle vinaigrette on cuts of tender steak. Not all is perfect in Blu, however. One evening’s dessert menu contained a misprint: It said the to-die-for Café Pot de Crème has no sugar added. Yeah, I’ll believe that when I see Nacho Cheese Doritos on my sushi.

Of the Reflection’s specialty restaurants, the most unique is easily Qsine ($45 cover), serving up a whimsical “dining journey” that begins with ordering from iPads and ends with picking your own chocolate-covered strawberry from a field of grass strapped to your “tour guide” (don’t call them servers at Qsine). In between are the shareable courses of tasty tapas you selected, but how they come out is out of your hands in this guided journey. When the effervescent Nathan scampered to our oceanview table, bringing with him a tray of signature sushi lollipops, I pointed to two of them that were dusted with some sort of orange powder. “What’s that?” I asked. “Nacho Cheese Doritos,” he replied. They were incredible. So were the pulled pork spring rolls served upright in springs, and M’s Favorites that comes to your table in an open-air case with 12 compartments, each containing a sample of Mediterranean dishes.

Other specialty restaurants of note include the posh Murano ($50) for a contemporary bent to classic French cuisine, the Italian steakhouse Tuscan Grille ($45), the open-air Lawn Club Grill ($45) where you can be the grill master, The Porch ($25) for fresh seafood, and Sushi on Five (a la carte pricing).

Put Down the Fork

In between meals are many non-caloric ways to get your fill, starting with the impressive array of entertainment. “Broken Strings” is a standout production show, featuring a talented, tireless and attractive cast singing and dancing to music from this actual decade – a rarity on cruises. Mainstage shows still feature a live band, and consider yourself fortunate if trombonist Mike Daigeau is your cruise’s band director. The affable “Big Mike,” who just left the Reflection for a new contract on the Celebrity Silhouette, is a three-time Grammy winner with a crazy-impressive resume. Cruise director Sue Denning is no slouch, either, having got her start as a teen singing star in the U.K. and as an adult performed in movies alongside such A-listers as Michael Caine. On each cruise she performs a one-woman show that even Millennials were heard raving about the next morning. Catering to a more adult demographic, evening entertainment includes Liquid, more a theme than a show, transforming the usually tranquil Solarium sanctuary into a Miami Beach-style nightclub complete with DJ, pulsating music and seductively costumed eye candy in and out of the pool. Who ordered the hot mermaid?

If You Go

Through at least spring 2018, Celebrity Reflection is making Italy and Florida home. Six months of 7-day Caribbean cruises out of Miami begin on Nov. 5, then she returns to Rome for Mediterranean itineraries of 10 to 15 days from May to October 2017. Reflection resumes service in Florida, this time Fort Lauderdale, in November 2017 with a range of itineraries to the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America. Information on staterooms and bookings is available by calling Celebrity Cruises at 800-647-2251.

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Rolling Stones Exhibit Rocks Music Fans

NewsUSA  |  2016-05-24

Music fan maximizes London visit.

(NewsUSA) - Sponsored News - For a Rolling Stones fan, what could top meeting the band in person? New Yorker Alex Emanuel met Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood inside the Recording Gallery within the Rolling Stones retrospective exhibit, Exhibitionism, at London’s Saatchi Gallery.

After handshakes and back slaps with the band, Alex recalled, “It’s going to sound silly, but for a moment I thought I was a member of the Rolling Stones. It’s not every day you get to meet your idols.” He added, “The show has given me a unique glimpse of the city through the eyes of the Rolling Stones.”

Exhibitionism is a Rolling Stones treasure trove, and includes 9 themed gallery spaces with 500 items from original stage costumes, rare instruments, lyric books, backstage and touring paraphernalia, album art, photography, stage designs, personal diaries, and never-before-released audio and behind-the-scenes footage.

Celebrating the Stones’ artistic collaborations in music, art and design, fashion, and film, Exhibitionism also features original works on display from an array of artists as diverse as Andy Warhol, Alexander McQueen, Prada, Dior, Ossie Clark, L’Wren Scott, David Bailey, Michael Cooper, Jeff Koons, Walton Ford, Shepard Fairey, and Martin Scorsese.

“The exhibition offers the most in-depth insight into The Rolling Stones and their incredible career,” says Thea Jeanes-Cochrane, Director of iEC (International Entertainment Consulting), the company behind the exhibit. “We’ve worked hard to create something utterly breathtaking and it’s very pleasing to see the fans reactions.”

Chris Gottlieb, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at VisitLondon.com adds,“Alex’s Rolling Stones tour of London shows how the city is steeped in the history of one of the world’s greatest rock bands.”

Alex was taken on a Rolling Stones-themed, once-in-a-lifetime trip to London after the city’s official tourism body, Visitlondon.com, identified him as a “super fan” of the band.

Alex visited many iconic Rolling Stones locations, including Edith Grove, Chelsea, where the band lived together; Regents Sounds in Denmark Street, where they cut their first albums; the 100 Club, where they played an impromptu gig in 1982, and Olympic Studios where “Sympathy for the Devil” was recorded.

Tourism initiative Fans of London -- devised by Visitlondon.com and supported by the GREAT Britain Campaign, British Airways, and Hilton -- celebrates many special events across London this year including the Rolling Stones exhibit, Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday celebrations, and 400 years of Shakespeare’s legacy.

Exhibitionism runs until September 4 at London’s Saatchi Gallery. Tickets are available at www.stonesexhibitionism.com. Want to win a trip to London for your own music fan fantasy?

Visit www.visitlondon.com/fans.

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The Big Showdown Over Fingerprinting Uber and Lyft Drivers

NewsUSA  |  2016-05-24

(NewsUSA) - Even some Sunday school teachers are subject to it. So why are Uber and Lyft so averse to having their drivers fingerprinted that they just suspended service in a major U.S. city?

Fingerprints are widely considered the best way to weed out criminals, but checking them costs more than the simple name-based background reviews the app-based ride-hailing companies have fought hard to continue using across the country.

So a few months after the City Council in Austin, Texas, voted last December to require them anyway for public safety reasons, Uber and Lyft spent $8.6 million on a campaign blitz -- described as full of “dicey misdirections” in the city’s largest newspaper -- to get voters to overturn the regulations.

It wasn’t even close.

By a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent, voters said: Hell, yes, we want your drivers fingerprinted, just like cabbies and limousine drivers are.

And why wouldn’t they? Consider the following:

  • Ride-hailing drivers have been accused of a string of rapes, murders and other crimes across the nation.

  • Uber agreed in April to pay as much as $25 million to settle a lawsuit in California that accused it of misleading customers about the strength of its background checks on drivers. “Laws designed to protect consumers cannot be ignored,” San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon declared.

What makes the Austin vote all the more amazing is that people went to the polls knowing that Uber and Lyft had threatened to pull out if the rules weren’t loosened.

“The threat brings to mind what was, for my generation, a famous (humor) magazine image,” an Austin American-Statesman reporter wrote, referring to a 1973 National Lampoon cover of a man pointing a gun at a cute little dog’s head. “‘If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog,’” the headline said.

“Lyft and Uber told Austin, essentially, pass our (favored) regulations or we’ll kill your dog.”

The “dog,” in Austin’s case, the reporter went on to clarify, being their customers and as many as 15,000 (at least temporarily out-of-work) drivers.

Public safety advocates are hoping the Austin vote marks a turning point in the ongoing effort to get the Ubers of the world to play by the same rules as everyone else.

“Until all municipalities require suitable background checks for drivers of these ride-hailing services, we fear continued disastrous consequences as a result of digital hitchhiking,” said Scott Solombrino, co-founder of the National Limousine Association (www.Limo.org).

Meanwhile, Austin Mayor Steve Adler has offered to return to the bargaining table to negotiate a compromise, and both Uber and Lyft are urging Austinites to contact their City Council members if they want the services to resume.

And, oh, yes, at least one small, start-up ride-hailing company named GetMe -- apparently sensing an exploitable opening -- has said it has no problem complying with the fingerprinting requirement.

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Lessons Learned On a Date

Story by Alona Thomas  |  2016-05-06

I truly have so much fun exploring and writing about my discoveries for the Gold River Messenger. The stories that begin with just an inquiry about how someone gets started as an entrepreneur or what is the process that brings something delicious to our table is always a stimulating adventure. 

On a recent mini-vacation to Palm Desert I was determined to visit a date farm. Dates are wonderful by themselves and I love to use them many ways including a very easy appetizer. However, I did not know how they got to my plate.  My wish was granted by the Pato’s Dream Date Gardens located in the Coachella Valley. 

Guinea hens announced my arrival at this five acre farm which was fairly obscured by Palm trees.  Douglass and Debbie Adair, have owned and operated this organic farm since 1977. As we walked and talked about date farming, I realized I was meeting with an individual that has a very interesting life. Mr. Adair joined the United Farm Worker’s Union of America in 1965 at 22 years old after graduating from UC Berkeley. His up bring was academia, but his love of the outdoors and the hard physical work of farming brought him to the fields where he picked peaches, plums and grapes. He was beside Gilbert Padilla and Ceasar Chevez during those years of strikes and organizational struggles.  After my visit I could not wait to google him to find out the story and realized I had the good fortune to meet with a man who walks with history.

Douglass purchased the farm with nine palm trees. His intention was to grow grapes, but a friend offered to help him with the date trees and 40 years later “we grow our dates as they were grown in the times of the Bible and Koran”. Dates have a sex life — there are male and female trees and no figs will happen unless the two should engage. The female tree flower must be pollinated by the male tree pollen. On Pato’s farm this is done by a professional Pollinator which climbs the female tree and distributes the pollen by hand. There are spikes on the trees which can make this a very sticky endeavor. The water source is the Colorado River and when irrigation is required, Douglass orders the water and then regulates it between the farmers above and below his property to provide for his trees.   Palm trees are prolific and develop shoots that are cut from the mother tree and then replanted. The clone of the mother Medjool is thought to be the great, great grandchild of a single oasis in Morocco. Because they use no pesticides or artificial chemicals, the Pato dates are completely natural.

 Today, the farm is almost fully populated by date palms. Douglass only sells his dates at farmer’s markets and direct through the mail. Medjools, Halawis, Khala, and Mariana’s are all available at harvest time. It is possible to purchase a frond with dates and have them hang in the kitchen and pluck at will as they become softer over time.  They also sell the tall palm to landscapers that will need a tree of a certain height. They come to the farm, measure the tree for the exact requirement and then dig it up for a future at a resort or home driveway. 

It was great day to not only learn about dates, but to meet Douglass Adair also known as Pato.

Alona’s hobbies are food and delicious times. Contact Alona at: alonathomas@gmail.com

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Spring into Summer in the Lone Star State

Brandpoint  |  2016-04-26

(BPT) - When it comes to spring and summer vacations, Texas is full of possibilities, boasting more than 600 miles of coastline, scenic mountain ranges, historic sites and more. With activities like dolphin watching, deep sea fishing, bird watching and hiking, visitors will never be bored.

For a Gulf Coast adventure, Corpus Christi is a must-see and one of the world’s top kiteboarding destinations. Just down the road from Corpus Christi is Port Aransas, a coastal town where chartered boats with local guides and equipment are available for deep sea fishing experiences that will have you reeling in red snapper, wahoo, blue marlin and more in a matter of hours. Galveston, a unique 32-mile beach town, offers everything from soft sandy beaches to one of the largest, most historically significant collections of 19th-century buildings. Additionally, Galveston is one of the top locations for birding in the United States as the island is home to more than 500 species of birds.

If you prefer mountains to waves, West Texas is the place for you. You’ll be amazed by the beauty of the Big Bend National Park in Big Bend, the Davis Mountains State Park in Fort Davis and the Franklin Mountains State Park in El Paso. In addition to hiking through scenic mountain ranges, West Texas is home to many outdoor activities. Take a dip in the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool, Balmorhea, horseback ride, white water raft on the Rio Grande River, kayak, canoe, stargaze at the McDonald Observatory and more.

Another popular state park, Palo Duro Canyon, cuts through the heart of the Texas Panhandle just south of Amarillo and is nicknamed the Grand Canyon of Texas. At roughly 60 miles long, up to 20 miles wide and around 266 yards deep, it is the second largest canyon in the country. Further South in the Texas Hill Country, Enchanted Rock is an ancient pink granite dome that has attracted visitors for thousands of years. A variety of outdoor activities are sure to keep visitors busy, including hiking, camping, rock climbing, birding, geocaching and stargazing. In fact, Enchanted Rock is one of two Texas state parks designated as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association.

Want to make a splash? Take a swim in one of Austin’s swimming holes. Barton Springs Pool is one of Austin’s famous landmarks and easily the most popular swimming hole in the city. Spring fed, Barton Springs Pool is over three acres and remains 70 degrees year round. Another famous swimming hole, Hamilton Pool, was created thousands of years ago when an underground river collapsed creating the sunken grotto. With a 50-foot waterfall spilling from an outcropping of limestone into the jade green pool, it is a site to behold.

South of Austin in New Braunfels, Schlitterbahn Waterpark Resort has been named the best water park in the nation for 17 years. With tube chutes, water coasters, a sea creature cove, lazy rivers and more, visitors of all ages will have a blast at an affordable price.

Not near New Braunfels? Don’t worry! There’s plenty of fun to be had in Arlington at one of the biggest theme parks in the state, Six Flags Over Texas. Its claim to fame is The Texas Giant, while the kids will enjoy Bugs Bunny Boomtown. Across the street, more than 3 million gallons of water await at Six Flags Hurricane Harbor. In San Antonio, Six Flags Fiesta Texas offers a variety of musical performances and shows in addition to rides. The park is home to Batman: The Ride, a new world class 4D Free Fly Coaster that thrusts riders into an immersive, high-speed Gotham City adventure.

Perhaps the most important theme park of all in the state of Texas is Morgan’s Wonderland. Located in San Antonio with inclusion as its guiding principle, Morgan’s Wonderland was designed with special-needs individuals in mind and built for everyone’s enjoyment. The 25-acre, completely wheelchair-accessible park features more than 25 attractions.

Not to mention, San Antonio is home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site San Antonio Missions. The state’s most iconic mission is the Alamo, however, Spanish priests established five additional Catholic missions: San Antonio de Valero, San José, Concepción, San Juan and Espada, along the San Antonio River. The traditions established by the mission’s friars still influence the culture of San Antonio today.

With great weather and plenty to do, you can't go wrong when spending your spring and summer in Texas. For more information about travel experiences in the Lone Star State, visit www.TravelTexas.com and find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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The Gal's Guide to an Unforgettable Girlfriends' Getaway

Brandpoint  |  2016-04-21

(BPT) - Looking to satisfy your wanderlust? There are no better travel partners than your girlfriends. From Mayo Clinic to Harvard University, research shows friendships improve health, happiness and longevity, so it is time to seize the day, or in this case, the weekend. Whether you want to reconnect or simply experience something new, planning a girlfriends’ getaway will not only make you happier and healthier, but is a snap if you keep a few expert tips in mind.

Bren Herrera is no stranger to travel, and girlfriend getaways are her forte. As a private chef, Herrera’s passion for food is only trumped by her desire to spend each weekend exploring the culture and cuisine from coast to coast. Her top tips to guide girlfriends to the best travel experiences include:

  1. Wander for the weekend
    Careers, family and other responsibilities make life busy. With so little time, a weekend getaway is an easier commitment than a weeklong adventure. In fact, more people are taking advantage of the weekends to pursue experiences tied to their passions, with travel topping the list, according to a recent Hampton by Hilton survey. These individuals are known as “Seekenders.” No matter where you live, there is some place incredible to explore just a couple of hours away.

  2. Create a “non-agenda” agenda
    With a packed schedule, your typical day goes from one item on the to-do list to the next. Agree with your girlfriends to adopt the idea of having a “non-agenda” agenda for your getaway. That means you can relax, go with the flow and enjoy the simplicity of random exploration. You can explore a few must-see spots, but avoid over planning the trip. Spontaneous adventures make for the best memories. Don’t forget free-spirited photo sessions to forever capture those magical moments!

  3. Select the ideal hotel
    Choose a hotel that offers friendly service and a variety of locations so the ladies have a place to primp and pamper. For example, with more than 2,100 properties globally, Hampton by Hilton is the ideal option for girlfriend getaways. Weekend wanderers nosh on Hampton’s free breakfast, check in with complimentary Wi-Fi and can squeeze in a quick workout in the fitness center or take a break while sipping a freshly brewed hazelnut coffee, all at no extra cost. Visit HamptonbyHilton.com and find your dream destination and learn about the 100 percent Hampton Guarantee.

  4. Forget the diet, savor the local cuisine
    There’s no room for a diet on a girlfriends’ getaway. Forget rules and enjoy the authentic cuisine your destination has to offer. That could mean visiting a small, independent cafe for lunch and splurging on that 5-star restaurant you have been reading about for dinner and drinks.

  5. Hit the city hotspots
    You won’t be able to explore every inch of a city in one weekend, so brainstorm with the gals and hit your must-see hotspots. You’ll be surprised how much you can get done in a half day. In just four hours, Herrera and her best friend explored San Francisco, finding time to drive through the Golden Gate Bridge State Park to Lombard Street and Union Square, eat brunch at Bulga, ride a streetcar and, of course, snap a hilltop photo of Alcatraz.

As part of Hampton by Hilton's Ultimate Seekender Team, Bren will continue to embark on weekend adventures. With these tips, you, too, can travel in style and on budget with your gal pals. For some inspiration, trip ideas and to learn how to embrace your inner Seekender, visit HamptonSeekender.com.

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Super Fans from LA Meet Star of Harry Potter Movies in London

NewsUSA  |  2016-04-07

James Phelps with Adam, Daniel and Victoria Johnson at Warner Bros. Studios.

(NewsUSA) - Sponsored News - A Los Angeles family visiting the British capital was left amazed when they came face-to-face with actor James Phelps (aka Fred Weasley), who then took them on a one-off VIP tour of Warner Bros. Studio Tour London -- The Making of Harry Potter.

Phelps, who played one-half of the Weasley brothers in the blockbuster movies, met the Johnson family as they visited the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London -- The Making of Harry Potter. The actor then took them on a very special tour of the studio.

The family, consisting of mum Sam, Victoria (14), Daniel (13) and Adam (11) knew the trip involved a Harry Potter theme, but had no idea they would be embarking on a once-in-a-lifetime tour with one of the stars of the movie series.

The Johnson family, which runs a successful LA-based charity that helps local children overcome bullying, were picked by the city's official tourism body, VisitLondon.com, for a special trip as part of the Fans of London tourism drive for the capital.

Speaking about his day with the Johnsons, Phelps said: "I had such a great time with Adam, Victoria and Daniel, showing them around the film sets, telling them stories about when we shot the films and even teaching them a few magic tricks...London is one of my favourite places in the world and fans of Harry Potter can still enjoy so much of its magic across the city."

"My mum used to read the books to me and my brother and sister even before we were born," said Harry Potter 'super fan', Adam Johnson. "When I think of Harry Potter I always think of London. Our trip was so much fun, especially meeting James Phelps, and I really wish I had a real-life Firebolt broomstick so that I could fly back to London whenever I want!"

Fans of London celebrating the blockbuster events across London this year, such as The Queen's 90th birthday celebrations, 400 years of Shakespeare's legacy and the world's first exhibition on the Rolling Stones, EXHIBITIONISM. For the chance to win a trip to London, go to www.visitlondon.com/fans.

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