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Ocean Attractions

Enjoying star treatment on Celebrity Cruises’ Summit

I was seated at the wall of windows that wrap the Waterfall Grill, enjoying cinnamon waffles and omelets, when a pod of playful dolphins sprung from the twirling sea, one after another, to kiss the warm morning sky.  Over the next five days of our sojourn aboard Celebrity Cruises’ Summit from Los Angeles to the Mexican Riviera, I anticipated more magical experiences in a departure from the ordinary.

The Summit boasts 11 passenger decks and 1,059 suites that accommodate 1,950 guests, whose epicurean tastes are satiated with 45,000 pounds of beef, lamb, lobster, and fish.  The crew, made up of more than 60 nationalities, provides Vegas- and Broadway-style entertainment; prepares and serves 9,000 meals daily in three dining rooms; and facilitates socials, seminars, and shore excursions.  ConciergeClass is one of three unique brands of services—offering guests preferential pampering.  At this level of service, staterooms are appointed with 24-hour butler service, guests receive dining seating preference, VIP invites to onboard events, and a variety of in-suite comforts.

Each day at sea allowed for indulging in a tireless roster of fun opportunities.  To view the poolside cooking competition and live band, I joined Kathy and Gregg McCree from Brooklyn, New York, who had dropped anchor in a sun-kissed whirlpool spa.  “We usually cruise for birthdays and anniversaries,” offered Kathy as we ordered smoothies, “we were told Summit had a mature crowd; so far we’re in the whirlpools most of the day.”  That evening we dined in the plush, art deco Normandie, which is distinguished for its decoupage, flambé tableside service and dine-in wine cellar featuring 175 fine vintages.

The abundance of tequila factories in Puerto Vallarta, our first port of call, supports the popularity of this excursion. Mario, our guide, steered us to a crowded demonstration and sampling of two-dozen flavors of the legendary libation.  Later that evening, after dinner — and more tequila — we donned white attire and attended the masquerade ball in the whimsical Cirque du Soleil-designed lounge.  Roughly a dozen excursion options are crafted for each port.

A colorful folkloric showcase followed by sightseeing along the waterfront, then silver shopping in the Golden Zone, easily filled our itinerary in Mazatlan.  Founded in 1531, it’s Mexico’s oldest town.  Cabo San Lucas is the hot spot for aquatic adventures. Qevin and I chose the two-bay snorkeling experience for the chance to swim amid flamboyant fish and got a great adrenaline rush wave-running back to the ship.

Michelle and Stephen White of Quartz Hill, California, on their fifth and first cruise, respectively, were among the guests snapping farewell photos as the anchor lifted.  “I’m a casino girl myself,” whispered Michelle as we recapped the trip.  “I wasn’t looking for a 24-hour party boat [which Summit isn’t]; the costume ball, bingo, and Broadway show are a good blend of entertainment.”

The last dinner at sea is a regal affair with tailored tuxedos and elegant gowns.  A string quartet serenaded patrons as captain Michail Karatzas greeted his guests.  At our table, Sandra and Dexter Bryant of Orange County, California — usually fervid conversationalists — were still in sensory heaven from the romantic Cleopatra Slipper treatment they enjoyed in the AquaSpa.  To chart a course for your own divine cruise experience, visit Celebrity Cruises.

© SEAN DRAKES

Previously published.

[ 404.654.0859  |  SEANDRAKESPHOTO@gmail.com ]

Short Stay: Jo’burg Rising

South African capital grows

as business tourism attraction

My first mission upon landing in Johannesburg was to find a perch from which to soak in a South African sunrise.  Equally warm greetings showed up all along my itinerary which was packed with mild adventures of dining on stewed ostrich, trailing springbok in the wild, and visiting historical sites.  There is a glow around Jo’burg, as it’s fondly called.  The city feels like a phoenix rising from an ominous spell.  Dozens of cranes are weaving towers into the skyline, an underground subway is on a fast track to realization, and the country’s GDP growth rate hit 4.7% in the third-quarter of 2006.  Confidence is strong and infectious.

Slice of Jo’burg.

South Africa’s profile as a destination for meetings, conventions and incentive travel is poised to soar.  “The reasons for optimism,” offers Cameron Brandt, International Markets Editor for Emerging Portfolio Fund Research, “include the government’s conservative and consistent economic policy, the rapid expansion of the Black middle-class, forecasts for 10% GDP growth in China [which has] positive implications for commodity demand, and planned public infrastructure spending tied to the [2010 FIFA] World Cup.”  On the flip side, caution is encouraged because of “the expansion of household debt and lack of experience many of the new middle-class have when dealing with credit, still very high levels of unemployment, and the country’s large current account deficit.”  Visit www.southafrica.info for more insight on doing business in South Africa. Travel is about the journey not just the destination.  On our 15-hour intercontinental flight from Atlanta in Delta’s BusinessElite Class ($6,600-$7,900) the pampering began at the gate with VIP compliments in Delta’s Crown Room Club.

Blue Dot performs at Moyo.

On-board service deflects jet-lag and pleasures your senses with personalized five course gourmet dining and flavorful wines, all-leather luxury sleeper seating equipped with a state-of-the-art entertainment system, private video monitors, and a slew of comforts that make for a faultless five-star experience. Sandton, Jo’burg’s gleaming uptown district, bustles with Mercedes-Benz taxis shuttling folk to the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, Sandton International Convention Centre, restaurants in Nelson Mandela Square; among them is Lekgotla with its tribal chic ambiance, and a massive mall with designer boutiques like Shakur Olla and Sun Goddess, all set near our hotel, the Michelangelo Towers.  Italian heels and Swiss timepieces adorn guests who zip from tables at the lobby restaurant “8” to suites like my tech-savvy duplex ($715 per night).  The ultra-swank Cupola suite has a 360-degree view of Jo’burg, private rooftop pool, butler and security staff and commands $5,700 per night for unrivalled luxury. Considered the ‘urban heart’ of South Africa, Johannesburg is set like an axle in the center of eight provinces:  Cape Town, on the picturesque southwest coast, is famed for its lush winelands and whale watching, Cape Point, where the Indian and Atlantic oceans lock arms, and the historical site Robben Island.  The North West province is home to the super-sized extravagance of Sun City which contains four hotels, that offer family attractions, casino gaming, two 18-hole par 72 golf courses and conference facilities.  The ultimate safari adventure is in Mpumalanga in the northwest, where 10,000 elephants and prides of lions roam Kruger National Park.  My guide, Joe Motsogi, owner of JMT Tours, charted a fulfilling excursion that included shopping at Chameleon Village and an exhilarating sunset safari drive. Seasons in South Africa are distinguished by precipitation rather than severe temperature changes.  Rain or shine there are eventful attractions year-round: Durban July is an illustrious horse racing event steeped in aristocratic tradition; young and celebrated musicians rule the spotlight at the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival; golf enthusiasts flock to majestic greens for the Million Dollar Golf Challenge and the Nelson Mandela Invitational Golf Challenge; and wine connoisseurs attend Winex to sample and shop for vintages from over 200 South African wineries.

Apartheid Museum.

Near downtown Johannesburg is the Apartheid Museum, a sleek, modern structure that houses a comprehensive and riveting chronicle of South Africa’s journey to democracy.  It also invokes optimism for South Africa, a country as a democracy that is only 13-years-old.  It’s a new day.  Contact South Africa Tourism to facilitate your convention, vacation and incentive travel needs.

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© SEAN DRAKES

Previously published.

[ 404.654.0859  |  seandrakesphoto@gmail.com ]

Short Stay: Nature Thrills in Belize

Green tourism can offer nonstop adventure,

Sean Drakes discovers the wild side and

soothing aquatic splendors of Belize

The vast, mysterious night sky silenced every thought in my head as I marveled at the dazzling blanket of low-hanging stars that lit our course across the New River.  It is the longest river in Belize and the 90-minute river ride is the most exhilarating route to Lamanai Outpost Lodge, an eco-friendly sanctuary with 17 rustic cabanas nestled in a vibrant habitat teeming with wild black howler monkeys, crocodiles, and more than 250 species of vivacious birds.  The thatch-roofed structures receive crisp surround-sound of the restless wildlife.  The lodge is named after the region, which translates to “submerged crocodile.”

There are eight in our group of bird watchers, novice hikers, and seasoned thrill seekers who have ventured to a destination where roughly 50,000 Mayans lived between 1500 B.C. and the early 1700s.  Situated north of Belize City, it’s the jewel of the Orange Walk District, which offers nerve-tingling wilderness adventure and archaeological expeditions.

In the 20th century, major excavations of the area unearthed temples of an ancient Mayan civilization that survived the Roman Empire.  Hieroglyphic decoders believe the site carvings record sensational stories of war and peace.  The trails to the Mayan ceremonial site at Lamanai are swarming with ruthless mosquitoes that laugh at repellent, but the breathtaking view from the summit of the High Temple is worth the treacherous climb.

There are other excursions: At daybreak bird watchers in our group set out to scout for gray catbirds, great kiskadees, and mangrove swallows.  After dusk they revisited the riverbank to stalk nocturnal birds, while the rest of our group went crocodile hunting.  Well, we accompanied the guide who caught (and released) the toothy reptiles.

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Leaving Lamanai we traveled by river, highway, and rugged dirt roads to our lunchtime pit stop at Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, a haven for migrating birds.  Crooked Tree is noted for its abundance of cashew trees which fuel a fledgling cottage industry that produces cashew jam, cashew wine and a weeklong cashew festival.  Guest house proprietor Verna Samuel served us a sampling of her cashew creations after a hearty lunch at Bird’s Eye View Lodge.  The forested Cayo District, 90 minutes southwest of Belize City, was our next overnight destination.  This region offers cool creeks and the dramatic Thousand Foot Falls that plunge 1,400 feet.

By day four we arrive at the bungalows and communal house at Pook’s Hill, a 300-acre reserve and rainforest near the Maya Mountains, which during our visit  serves as an ER for a weak young owl who lingered awhile then patiently grasped its last breath.  Here, our group geared up for a canoe tour through Barton Creek Caves.

Rainwater created underground rivers and carved cave systems that were inhabited by deities and Mayan ancestors.  In Mayan culture, caves (actuns) were a portal to the gods of the underworld and are where sacred rituals and sacrifices occurred.  Skeletons, footprints, pottery, and cathedral ceilings are discovered in Belize’s 250 cave systems.

Belize City is not the capital but it richly represents the pulse of the country—it’s also a hub for island-hoppers.  Belize is set between Mexico and Guatemala and is two hours by plane from Miami.  English is the official language though Spanish is widely spoken by its 325,000 residents.  At the Belize Legacy Beach Resort the cedar and mahogany condos are appointed with the modern comforts big city dwellers relish, and destination treats such as deep-sea excursions, aromatic spas, and fine dining by head chef Rafael Valdez.

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Activities such as snorkeling in Shark Ray Alley in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve allows brave hearts to pet and feed stingrays and Nurse sharks.  Nightfall lures sleepless souls to the loud and festive Wet Willy’s in San Pedro Town, where two strong drinks of rum and the boat ride back to the resort serve as a relaxant.  I enjoy a sound sleep ready to wake to a new adventure with nature.  Visit www.travelbelize.org for help charting your course through the wild and mild side of Belize.

© SEAN DRAKES

[404.654.0859  |  seandrakesphoto@gmail.com]

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