A First-Timer’s Feedback

My friend Clare recently asked me to help arrange a family trip to Italy — for her and her husband, and their high-school-age son, visiting her older son who is spending a semester in Florence. It was their first trip to Europe, and they had an ambitious wish-list, but we hammered out a pretty fantastic itinerary that included something for everyone.

From the feedback below, it sounds like it was a hit. And I very much appreciate her sharing all these details/tips that will be of interest to other first-timers!

Hi Ann-

I am finally sitting down to write something up for you. This is a lot of information, but hopefully it can help someone who is thinking about Italy for the first time.


When we arrived in Rome, the driver you set us up with was ready and waiting and delightful! He dropped us off at Capo d’ Africa around 11 am. The individual at the front desk who checked us in was very friendly and said our room would be ready in about 15 -20 minutes. They also recommended a local restaurant and, though they encouraged us to make evening dinner reservations, we knew we would not make it to start dinner at 7:30!

We had a wonderful lunch that fueled us for the day. We took some time and walked down the Colosseum and some other areas – we basically explored and walked a lot until we were done. It did rain on us but that was okay – we were just happy to be outdoors. After walking around we settled in at the hotel a little more, went out to get some drinks and gelato and then hunkered down for a good night’s sleep!

Sunday we were off for the day and did a lot of walking before the mid-day Colosseum Tour. The surprise of having Brett join us in Rome for Dillon’s birthday was outstanding – he was shocked and SO SO happy to see him.  The Colosseum Tour was really great. Our guide was excellent – great information at a nice pace. Half of our group was an extended family with young kids so they left half way through – which actually made it a small group tour. We finished our day at a restaurant Dillon had picked before we went (from Trip Advisor). Food and drinks were good and it was a nice atmosphere. 

Monday Morning we were out early to the Express Sistine Chapel Tour. Your ears probably were ringing b/c you picked the PERFECT tour for us. Loved the small group – there were 5 of us. Rosa – our tour guide – was great. Her pace was so fast – but it really worked for us! Since Dillon and I don’t love museums – this was a fabulous way to see the Sistine Chapel, Vatican and St. Peters Square. I think LivItaly Tours does it right!  After that were were back to the hotel to check out and head to the train station. We had plenty of time and opted to walk – which took us about 25 minutes. 

NOTES: The hotel was great – room was oversized and we did not feel crowded with a cot. We did have to ask at the front desk how to keep the lights on. Clearly we were rookies! No A/C – had to open windows – which was a little strange with no screens! The included breakfast was good and service excellent. We also loved the location.

LaSpezia/Cinque Terre:

The train ride to La Spezia was beautiful – so much to take in. When we arrived we took a cab to the hotel and our room was ready. We were surprised by the size – Dillon’s cot was in a living room area – so we definitely did not feel crowded. It also had a beautiful view and we saw a few ships come in and out. Again, needed to open windows to cool down the temp! The hotel recommended a local favorite for dinner where we arrived at 7 pm and were their first customers! We walked along the water and just enjoyed the sites and made plans for the following day.

We decided to take the train from La Spezia to the farthest town in Cinque Terre (Monterosso) and make our way back. We had read a blog that recommended the hike from Vernazza to Corniglia – and decided that we would take that one. The blog indicated there were places along the way to stop for food and drinks. Unfortunately, we found out after climbing the stairs to the hiking trail, that it was closed. In fact, the only trail that was open was Monterosso to Vernazza. That was a bit of a bummer, especially since we purchased the hiking/trail pass. Instead we went back into town in Vernazza and enjoyed pizza and beer by the water. We made our way to each town by train. Corniglia we explore along the water, did not walk the 350 stairs to the town. Manarola was our favorite shopping town and we spent a bit of time exploring the shops. We returned to the hotel after a great day, played some cards and went for a walk to find something to eat. Much to our surprise, most places were closed for the night (8:30 or so), and by the time we got to a grocery store – it was closed as well. So we headed back to the hotel and had some snacks that we had in our bags and got a good night’s sleep! 

One thing we hadn’t planned for was having Euros for this location – we needed 15 for each trip to and from the train station. 

NOTES: Next time I think we might opt for the boat transportation from town to town instead of the train. We thought it might be too chilly, but the weather was delightful. Loved being in La Spezia, but if we went back we would probably opt to stay in one of the towns for something different. 


We arrived on time and Brett met us and walked us to the hotel. The room was not to be ready for a while, so we checked our bags and hit the town, It was so fun to be in Florence and I am glad you said to let Brett show us the town since that is where he has spent his semester. We saw many sights and Brett helped formulate our plans for Thursday morning while he was in class. 

Brett made reservations for a nice dinner for the four of us and his girlfriend. Probably in our top 3 meals of the week. Thursday we got up and explored a little earlier at Brett’s suggestion, to see the Duomo without the square being packed. We walked around and went up and enjoyed the views from Piazzele Michelangelo. We met Brett for lunch – he took us to his favorite sandwich shop where the owner knows him and then we saw where he lives. We had picked a pizza and gelato making class b/c Brett only had the afternoon and had already done a pasta class with school. This was a disappointment. The food was good and the boys and I enjoyed our time together, but we felt very rushed. Of the 3 hour experience, we probably only prepared and cooked for just over an hour. It was warp speed. Mark shopped and explored while we were in class. 

We did end up making reservations for our train to Bologna for the next day. Brett was looking online and everything was booking up b/c it was Good Friday. In hindsight, we probably should have booked in advance.

NOTES: Hotel De La Ville – This probably was our least favorite hotel. The room was very cramped with the pull-out couch. And the temperature was hot, with no window to open. I think we also just felt like we were in a cave b/c there was no outside light. The breakfast was good and the service friendly.


Hotel location was perfect for our stay. After checking in we took a walk to the main square area and found a cafe. We sat outside, enjoyed some drinks and snacks and played cards. There was live music on the square, and the church across the way had a choral group perform for Good Friday. Brett had selected a place for dinner, and we headed there on our walk back. It was a small local place. The food did not have “plate appeal” – but Mark said it was his favorite of everything he ate during the trip. 

Again, your ears should have been ringing all day Saturday – that Food and Ferrari Tour you booked for us was SO FUN! It ended up being a 10 hour day – but it was relaxed and so enjoyable. Our guide was excellent – very funny and very knowledgeable. We had 18 people and it was a great size. We opted not to drive a Ferrari – 150 Euros for 10 minutes seemed crazy. Although if all 4 of us could have gone in one car we would have done it! The family restaurant where we had the meal at the end was great – delicious food at a relaxed pace. The location was beautiful farmland. This was definitely a highlight of the trip!

NOTES: Unahotels Bologna Centro – this hotel was fine – and they turned on the AC for us! woohoo! The guy at the front desk must have been used to angry Americans b/c he was flustered and apologizing through our check-in. We just kept smiling and telling him there was nothing to apologize for. Rooms were clean and basic. I would compare to a Fairfield Inn. The size of the rooms was generous and the breakfast was good.


The high speed train to Venice was fantastic! Very comfortable and kids were happy for WiFi! Again, we arrived early and the hotel checked our bags – it was going to be a few hours until our rooms were ready. We left the hotel armed with a map and walked around the city. We checked the menu at the place we had made dinner reservations at and the kids said to cancel it. Ha ha. We made our way to where we knew we needed to be Monday morning and hit a lot of dead ends – but enjoyed ourselves walking around. We grabbed a bite to eat in the main San Marco square (tourist trap!), enjoyed some live music and relaxed. We headed back to the hotel and checked in, and got settled. After that we walked around some more and picked a place for dinner. This probably was our least favorite meal of the trip, but the service was good. 

Monday morning we were off to the Murano, Burano and Torcello Tour which we really loved. We decided to buy water bus tickets for the day – and that is how we got to the meeting spot. We liked being the first tour group of the day – it meant smaller crowds in Murano. The Glass Blowing was fun and we did some great shopping. After we were done we took the water bus around and saw Venice from different perspectives, and got out a few times and walked. It was a fun way to explore! We grabbed some food and made our way back to the hotel so Brett could pack up and catch his train.

Hotel Santa Chiara – Great hotel (our favorite showers of the trip!). Clean and friendly. It was a nice location. They also were willing to turn on our AC. 🙂 The only person who was not friendly was the person at the desk at 4:15 AM when we checked out. No wonder he is on the overnight shift! ha ha.

We were leaving before the buses started service – so they assured us that taxis are always out front. We waited in the rain for a few minutes and then I asked the hotel to call one for us since it was raining pretty hard. We made it to the airport in plenty of time to get some breakfast and relax. 

The flights home were fine – though we were late into London and had only about 25 minutes from when we deplaned to get to our connection – and it was a hike. It took us about 35-40 minutes to get through security and get to our gate. But we made it! 

Here are some things that came up that we didn’t expect:

  • Public restrooms are few and far between in most places. When you have a chance to use one – use it. And make sure you have small denomination Euros on hand to pay for them! (I’ll pay a buck for a bathroom anytime if it is as clean as the ones we used were!)
  • We planned for 250 Euros – and did have to take more out. I would probably have planned for 350 next time. 
  • The A/C – or lack there of. We found that most hotels do not turn it on until it is 78 degrees outside. We were thankful that our last 2 hotels saw a desperate woman in her 50s! Ha ha.
  • Hotel rooms were larger than we expected.
  • Language was not a barrier. In fact, everyone we had to speak to spoke English. That was a relief.

How can we thank you??

  • The organization of all of the documents for us was amazing. It is just how I would have done it if I planned myself. THANK YOU.
  • You picked perfect tours/experiences for us – the only one we didn’t like was the one I reserved! Ha ha! 
  • Lots of good advice in the information you sent us that made us feel prepared.
  • Also – what we loved overall was that each of the places we went felt different than the last place. So we really had 5 different experiences. And while we are not accustomed to that much moving around – it all felt very well planned out. Only an expert could have planned this for us!
  • It was the perfect trip for a first time to Italy. We know we’d go back to Cinque Terre. And then explore other southern locations next time. 

And now we need to start thinking about our next adventure!

An Epic “Escape”

Christina and Chris were celebrating their second wedding anniversary, and contemplating the reality of starting a family at some point in the future, and wanted to go cram in as much of Europe as possible before “settling down”.  Because Chris is a teacher, their summers are flexible, so Christina blocked a few weeks out of work and they sat down with me to plan an epic adventure. In the span of three weeks, they did a pretty good job of exploring Belgium, Italy and Greece. While you might not want to replicate their breakneck pace, you could take their tips and suggestions (below) and make any one of these three countries into a very nice vacation on its own:

Our European Escape

Although our trip was just over a three-week span according to the calendar, it feels like my husband and I were away for months!  Now looking back at the photos and reminiscing about the adventures from the beginning of our trip, the moments already feel like a lifetime ago.  I am so grateful for this feeling and for your expert planning for our travels abroad!!


Mons, Belgium was the first destination on our whirlwind tour.  My dad has been living there for just over a year now, and we joined my step-mom, brother, and Loofa (my dad and step-mom’s bichon frise) for five fun-filled days.  We sampled beers in every town and city, reveled in the chocolate, and devoured the waffles.  We began our time together in the city center of Mons, and then branched out to Tournai, Waterloo, Brussels, Ostend, Bruges, and Ghent in the following days.  Each place reflected its roots – French speaking Wallonia or the Dutch speaking Flemish countryside.  A Flemish city always seemed to be organized and clean!

two people and a puppy in front of the canal in Ghent BelgiumSome highlights include Notre-Dame de Tournai, the cathedral in the center of the city, and Tournai’s large open city square with rows of fountains, the museum and Lion’s Mound overlooking the countryside at Waterloo, the Grand Place in Brussels, the expansive beach at Ostend, the architecture and beauty of Bruges, and Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child.  This sculpture is remarkable for a number of reasons, one of which is that it was the only sculpture to leave Italy during Michelangelo’s lifetime.  (I can’t believe how fortunate we are to have seen both Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child in Bruges and the Pietà in Rome on the same European trip!).  We took a hilarious and wonderful horse-drawn carriage tour of Bruges while in the city, as well!

CD - BrugesI was least familiar with the places to see in this country, relying mostly on my dad for our itinerary.  I did, however, consult your Destination Guide email that introduced us to Belgium via the web.  This was a great resource!  Because of this email, my family specifically decided to take our last full day together to travel to Ghent, Belgium.  The city was described as a “less-touristy” Bruges, and we were excited to explore it as a family.  It did not disappoint!  The city offered a castle, boat tours along the city’s canals, and a beautiful skyline of medieval architecture.  There is a wealth of history in Ghent, and we only just tasted a sample!

a happy group in front of the unique architecture of Tournai

Belgium is beautiful.  I may have underestimated it because of its size, but it has so much to offer!  I am very grateful for the time we were able to spend together exploring this lovely country with my family.


After a farewell breakfast with my family, Chris and I were off to our first stop in Italy – Venice!  Ann, your instructions and maps for transportation from the airport to our hotel were clear and incredibly helpful – thank you!  We spent the evening wandering the streets, eating dinner, and people watching in Piazza San Marco.  The next day we traveled by water taxi around the canals and took one to the island of Murano.  In addition to watching some very skilled glass blowing demonstrations, we ate our best gelato here!  We grabbed a late afternoon snack of wine, cheese, and charcuterie at this local well-rated hole-in-the-wall type place that was amazing (Hostaria Vecio Biavarol)!  After this we wondered the streets some more, ate a delicious dinner, and took our long-anticipated gondola ride.  A perfect introduction to Italy and the days to come!

Our second stop was Cinque Terre.  We stayed in La Spezia, which was a great choice – especially with our luggage (thank you Ann!).  We took the train to Manarola for dinner on the first night (the local trains are very easy to navigate here!).  We ate a delicious meal and then explored the town, hiking to see the views at sunset.  We took the ferry the following morning to get from town to town. We didn’t hike as much as we would have liked, but we hit the beaches at Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, and Riomaggiore instead!  We spent our final evening hours walking the streets of La Spezia, which is a very lively town in the evening!

a man with arms wide and the cliff side town in Cinque Terre Italy behind him

We took a train to Florence the next day.  Our hotel was very close to the train station and perfectly located for exploring the city.  Again, you gave us a wonderful recommendation to try the Central Market in Florence.  This was our first stop – and it was huge!  We grabbed a quick, delicious lunch from the upstairs floor that was filled with a number of great Italian restaurants.  We met our Accademia tour guide in the afternoon, Brenda from ArtViva.  Having now seen the David twice, I can attest to the value in touring the Accademia with a guide.  Brenda gave many more insights about the sculpture than I knew on my own, and hearing her talk about the details with the David in front of us was incredible.  After the tour, we ended up buying tickets to an opera for that night, held in a small church.  We were skeptical of our purchase when we first saw the venue (it was so small!), but the talent was impressive!

The next day we actually decided to book a day tour in Tuscany with Walkabout Florence – we couldn’t resist!  Even though we were disappointed to cut our time in Florence, we ended up being very happy with the tour purchase.  The tour took us to Siena (Florence’s “rival” city from years past), an organic farm and vineyard in the Chianti region for a Tuscan lunch and wine tasting, San Gimignano, and a final stop in Pisa!  The whole experience was wonderful, from learning about the horse races in Siena to the delicious meal at the vineyard to the spiraling, sea-legs-like climb of the Leaning Tower.

The following morning we took a high-speed train from Florence to Naples where Fabrizio picked us up for a stress-free transfer to Sorrento.  Along the way, we had scheduled a tour of Pompeii.  Our tour guide Barbara introduced us to the ancient city.    It is terrible to think of the fate of these people, but I am very thankful we were able to see this historical site in person.  Fabrizio was kind enough to wait for us at a coffee shop (and keep our luggage safe!) while we toured with Barbara.  He finished our transfer with the drop off at our hotel in Sorrento.  Chris and I were excited about this hotel because of its rooftop pool!

the cliff side town of Positano lit up at night Since we only had a little over a day to see the Amalfi coast, we split our time between a bus ride to  Positano on our first evening and a boat tour around the island of Capri the next day.  Positano was gorgeous!  We hiked up and down the town, dug our toes into the black sand, and grabbed a Spritz from a cliffside restaurant before taking the bus back to our hotel.  Capri was also stunning – offering grottos of orange, green, and blue that you can tour with a group or by renting your own private boat.  We decided to go with the group tour for the cost savings, and toured the entire island of Capri, including a stop in the famous Blue Grotto.  After our island tour, we took the ferry back to Sorrento with enough time to hit our hotel’s rooftop pool and explore the town famous for its limoncello.

The next day we took a morning transfer and train to arrive in Rome by noon.  After checking into our beautiful hotel, we explored our surroundings – including a stop at the Spanish steps!  Our first night in Rome was our two-year anniversary, so we ate dinner at a restaurant picked out by my husband.  He did a great job researching!  We had wonderful service and a mouthwatering meal at Matermatuta (we highly recommend this spot!).

We woke up bright and early the following morning for our CityWonders’ Vatican skip-the-line tour.  Having visited the Vatican before (but without a guide!), I was looking forward to the insights we would learn as part of the tour group.  We were not disappointed!  Not only were we able to “skip-the-line” and listen to our knowledgeable tour guide, we were able to enter the museum before it even opened!  The early start time of the tour was totally worth it – and it included a skip-the-line tour of St. Peter’s Basilica, too.  Chris and I even climbed the dome afterward!  After this we actually went back to our hotel to nap – which helped us enjoy the evening of sightseeing around the city.

Our final day in Rome we did a tour of the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum with CityWonders. This tour was very informative and also let’s you skip-the-line! After the tour we tried to hop on a tour bus of the city, but I wouldn’t recommend this bus to others.  The line for the hop-on, hop-off bus tours was long and the ride itself was not as informative or enjoyable as we would have liked.  After we “hopped off,” we wandered the streets of Rome to sightsee and grabbed a later lunch before heading back to our hotel for our transfer to the airport.  We were off to catch our evening flight to Greece!


Our private driver was waiting for us (even with our delayed flight!) and drove us to our city center Athens accommodations.  Everything went smoothly, allowing us to get a good night’s rest before our 8:30am walking tour of Athens the next morning.

The tour group was the two of us and four Australian friends.  We were happy to have them along since our tour guide was not the chattiest!  It was relaxing to walk to the major sites in Athens, including the Parliament building with its symbolically dressed guards, the first modern day Olympic stadium, the Temple of Zeus, and the Acropolis.  Once at the Acropolis, we were on our own to explore.  We spent time on the mount itself – a massive example of Grecian achievement – and followed the tour with a visit to the New Acropolis Museum.  This museum was incredibly well done!  If you visit Athens, this museum is a must-see!  For the remainder of the day, Chris and I grabbed a late lunch and then toured the city streets that night.

a couple in front of the blue and white houses of Santorini GreeceEarly the next day we flew to Santorini!  Thank you so much for booking us a gorgeous, newly renovated resort in Fira!  The location was a small hike to the main streets of Fira town, but completely worth it for the peacefulness of the accommodations.  We loved it!  We enjoyed the pool and amenities at the resort first, and then walked into the town of Fira to explore and have dinner.  After a day of on-and-off rain (so rare for the island!) the sky surprised us with a gorgeous sunset while we ate dinner on the cliffside of Fira.  A relaxing, beautiful first day in Santorini!

a man on a donkey climbing up the steeps steps in SantoriniOn our second day, we woke early to catch a cable car down to the pier.  I would highly recommend taking a cable car in the early morning!  We had no line and barely had to wait before our car zipped us down the cliffside to the pier.  We strolled along until we found what we were looking for – donkeys!  We heard about taking donkeys up the cliffs of Fira, and we couldn’t resist!   The weathered Greek men practically tossed us onto our donkeys (or rather, mules, we realized), and off they trotted!  No instructions or warnings of how to ride them, we barreled up the donkey path – almost running into pedestrians and other donkey/mule riders along the way.  The experience was hilarious and definitely one of our favorites from the trip!

After we dismounted at the top of the cliff, Chris and I took a public bus to Akrotiri to see the famous Red Beach.  It was beautiful to see the contrasting red rocks with the deep blue water.  That evening, we took a public bus again, but this time to the other side of the island – to Oia.  Not only did the town offer gorgeous views, it hosts the majority of the iconic Greek Isle “postcard” landmarks.  Only eating our dinner paused my picture taking!  It truly is one of the most beautiful places on earth.

a stunning sunset of the bay with a restaurant balcony to the side in Oia Greece

The following morning we packed up for our final transfer before heading home!  We took the SeaJet ferry from Santorini to Mykonos.  Everything went smoothly with our transportation, and we were in awe when we arrived at the Myconian Imperial Hotel!  The service treated us like royalty, toured us around the amazing facilities, and left us to enjoy complimentary refreshments in our beautiful hotel room.

All of our meals at the resort were delicious – from the free buffet-style breakfast, to the lunches at the poolside restaurant, to the main dinner restaurant with the gorgeous views, to the amazing sushi restaurant that took reservations until midnight.  Definitely worth every penny!  We made use of the free shuttle to the main town one evening, caught the sunset with the famous Myconian windmills, and ate a traditional Greek meal at the quaintest restaurant, To Maereio.  We highly recommend this small, hidden eatery!  It was interesting finding the place though because the streets of Mykonos were designed to confuse pirates – and it definitely is easy to get lost!

On our final day, we had reserved a horseback riding excursion through the hotel.  Our guide, Angelika, was wonderful and so patient with us as we learned the ropes (literally!) of horseback riding.  We had a wonderful experience – the only downer was that the pictures made it seem like we would be riding along the beach the whole time (and even in the ocean!).  We actually rode on a trail to and from the beach, with a small amount of time on the beach itself.  Granted, I guess the horses really like to roll around in the sand when it’s hot!! So Chris got some action when he had to quickly jump off his horse to not be a part of the backscratching party, hahaha! Thankfully he was fine – and it now makes for one of our most hilarious stories from the trip!

Before heading home, we basked in as much Grecian sun and Aegean ocean water as we could!  We spent a total of three days at our resort on Mykonos, and it was the perfect way to relax, refresh, and reflect on our trip before returning home.  We’re so happy we booked this trip with you, Ann!  We would’ve never booked such a beautiful place for ourselves at the end of our trip, but it was the perfect way to top off our amazing adventures in Europe.

All in all, this trip was EXACTLY what we were hoping for and looking forward to – it was the trip of a lifetime!  Thank you so much for making it possible!

From the Eiffel Tower to the Blue Grotto, and everything in between!

When an adventurous young bride and groom (one of whom is an art teacher) set their honeymoon sights on an ambitious (and independent) exploration of France and Italy, you just KNOW they’ll come back with stories to tell. Naturally, with a little help from an experienced travel professional, the stories are mostly of the “this was a trip of a lifetime” variety:

Hi Ann,

It feels great to be back!  I would be happy to tell you everything!  First, I want to thank you for all of your time and effort in planning this amazing honeymoon!  During the busy time of planning our wedding, it was great to know that this was one less thing to worry about and that we were in good hands!

Our wedding was absolutely beautiful and better than I could have ever imagined!  Our honeymoon was just as memorable!  We saw so many great cities, monuments, and museums, and experienced so much together!  We felt that we truly got to take the trip of a lifetime!  This trip was one that we will never forget!

Le Royal, Paris:  Awesome hotel!  Excellent location, great service, good breakfast.  The room was tiny, but super clean and we had a cool view of the street below.  One of the concierges even recommended to Shane and I that we take the dinner cruise on the Seine one evening, and although expensive, it was one of the most memorable things we did on the trip!  We watched the sun set and the city light up while dining on a delicious five-course meal.  Perhaps that’s something that you can recommend to future travelers!

Westminster Hotel, Nice:  What a location!  We had a room overlooking the Promenade de Anglais and the French Riviera.  By far the best view!  The service at the Restaurant and Bar out front was also great.  The room itself was okay – the safe, the toilet, the A/C, and a trash bin in our room were all broken.  The A/C would have been nice since it was 97 degrees!  Shane and I chalked it up to the fact that we were on a budget and kept in mind that we were overlooking the water.  We would recommend it, but warn that it is a bit old.

We also rented a car one day and got to drive up to the coast to Villefranche-sur-Mer, where we originally had wanted to stay, and I am so happy we were in Nice! It was beautiful, but much smaller and did not have easy access to the beach.  We also saw Monte Carlo on our drive, and the winding cliff road along the water that we took was unbelievable!

NH Jolly, La Spezia:  Great location, but that’s it.  The hotel had a nice lobby, but the rest of the hotel was old and smelled bad, unfortunately.  The carpets in the room were really dirty, also.  BUT we hardly spent any time there due to our late arrival, and spent the entire next day at the Cinque Terre.  I would not recommend that hotel to anyone else.

The Cinque Terre was by far my favorite part of the trip!  We started in Riomaggiore, and hiked between four of the five cities (one route was closed due to a landslide).  The hike itself was quite difficult, but the scenery made it all worth it!  Hiking up and down the cliffside through vineyards, with breathtaking views of the water and the towns below.  The last town, Monterosso, might be another city to consider if booking for anyone else visiting the Cinque Terre.  Each town had authentic Italian charm, with lovely homes lining narrow alleyways, and great shops and restaurants.

Silla Hotel, Florence:  Another favorite!  Great location surrounded by awesome restaurants.  The breakfast was good and offered the best cappuccinos we had on the whole trip!  It didn’t have the view of the Arno River like we were expecting because there are trees that have grown in, but that was no big deal.  Very old decor, but up to date bathroom and amenities.  We really enjoyed it!

We had the opportunity to visit the Accademia della Arte and the Uffizi Museum.  They were incredible, packed with so many works of art!  Reservations were definitely required if you did not want to stand in line all day, so were able to have our concierges do that for us.

Serena Hotel, Rome:  Good hotel, convenient location, clean.  We were able to walk all the main sites of the city from our hotel (The Colloseum, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, several main Piazzas).  My only warning would be that, while the hotel was surrounded by great restaurants, one of which we went to all three nights we were there, it was also right next door to an “Adult” Store that often had some characters hanging out front.  It did not bother Shane and I, but I would keep that in mind when booking for future travelers who might be a bit more conservative.

Michelangelo Hotel, Sorrento:  Biggest disappointment!  This was supposed to be our splurge and we were looking forward to this hotel the entire trip!  To just hang out on the balcony, enjoying wine and a beautiful view…  And we were in a room on the second level overlooking train tracks and the back of apartment buildings!  We complained to the concierges and they insisted there was nothing to do.  After overhearing another man complain shortly after about the same thing, we knew we were stuck there.  The room itself was okay, so to anyone who just wants a nice room this would be fine.  But we were so disappointed to not have a view, even if just overlooking the busy street.  Needless to say, we didn’t use the balcony, and we feel that we really missed out by staying at this hotel.

We spend our first day traveling to Pompeii which was very exciting!  The second day we took the packed ferry to Capri to visit the Blue Grotto, only to find out that it was closed because of choppy weather!  We ended up taking a cab to Anacapri and taking a chair lift to the top of Mount Solero.  It was awesome!  Best views from the top!

Bus Tours:  All of the tours in each of the cities were awesome!  We were so pleased to have the opportunity to see the city the way we did!  It also often acted as our public transportation and saved us that expense!  This was especially the case in Paris because it ran so frequently.  Rome was a slower route, and had many stops that lasted more than 15 minutes, so it didn’t work quite the same way there.  Overall, we loved it!

Vatican Tour:  One of the highlights of our trip!  Our tour guide was informative and funny, the museum was beautiful, and the Sistine Chapel was unreal!  I’m proud to say, as an art teacher, that I have now visited one of the most famous works of art ever made (as well as the Mona Lisa, the David, and many others throughout our trip).  We also toured St. Peter’s Basilica, which was breathtaking!  You were absolutely right to say that it would not have been a trip to Rome without a tour!

Trains: Unfortunately, the trains were an absolute nightmare.  In many cases, it was completely unavoidable, but I would absolutely recommend that in the future you book as many of the trains as possible.

When we were leaving Paris to Nice, no one at the ticket counters spoke English.  We had to wait while they found someone available to tell us that all the trains were booked up.  They finally found us two spots on a train that wouldn’t come for four and a half hours.  We were charged additional fees, and forced to stay in the terminal because we had two giant pieces of luggage and had no idea what was around us.  We were told that summer is a busy time with many people traveling, so it is absolutely necessary to have reservations.

When we got to Nice, we booked the rest of our trains so we wouldn’t end up waiting for too long in terminals.  The trains we booked from Nice to La Spezia would require a transfer in Ventimiglia and again in Genova.  The train to Ventimiglia was fine, but the train to Genova suddenly stopped for about 45 minutes.  No one in our cabin spoke English once again, so it took us a long time to figure out that there had been “an accident”.  We had no idea what kind of accident or how severe, and no one, not even the conductors, could tell us when we would be moving again.  We eventually went ahead a couple of stops before they made everyone get off.  We waited for two hours before the brought a local train half the size to pick everyone up and take us to Genova.  We were packed in like sardines for another hour and a half, while they continued to stop and let people on.   By the time we made it to Genova, we were three hours late for our original train, and didn’t make it to La Spezia til 1am.   We ended up finding out that a gas line had leaked and they shut down all trains, buses, and highways in the area surrounding Genova until they knew it was safe.  It was a terrible experience, mostly just because of the language barrier and watching everyone in a panic but not having any way to find out what was going on.  But I guess that’s all part of the adventure!

The next few trains travelled as planned, until the ultimate shocker on our last day!  We got up early to catch the 8:30 Circumvesuviana train out of Sorrento to Naples so we could make our connecting train to Rome to catch our flight at 2:50.  Apparently, July 22 was the day the only train out of Sorrento decided to GO ON STRIKE!  We had no way out of the city.  The buses would take too long to catch the connecting train, and so we ended up taking a 180Euro cab ride to Naples!!!!  We were so upset!  We hadn’t thought of the ferry before we left, but figured it would have been packed with everyone else trying to make it out of the city, anyway.  Shane would like to know if the travel insurance can cover such an unexpected expense due to the circumstances.  He did not get a receipt from the cab, obviously, but has record from his ATM withdrawal that morning.

In addition to those few set backs, the trains were also very hot because of the summer heat.  More often than not, no one even checked our tickets so we only used our Eurail Passes twice.  Also, having the two giant bags we had made it very difficult.  Because of the fact that many of the stations did not have escalators or lifts, poor Shane had to lug both our 50lb bags up and down the stairs!  I will certainly recommend to anyone I know traveling to Europe for a lengthy period of time that they should pack the smallest bag they can, and plan on doing laundry.  We didn’t want to have to do laundry, so we packed just enough clothes for the time we were gone, and it was still too much!  The lack of lifts would also be significant information for anyone with a physical disability.

I hope our experiences with the trains will help you warn future travelers of the many, many things that can go wrong!  We realize that there was nothing we could do to change all of these things, and we certainly would not have opted for any other means of travel, but we also couldn’t have anticipated that it would be this difficult!  Speaking with other travelers on our trip, it seems that many people shared the same experiences.  Two Australian girls who had been traveling for over a month on their college break through many countries said that Italy was the absolute worst train experience they had.

Hopefully all of this information is helpful to you!  We had such a great time!  The highlights were memories that we will share for the rest of our lives, and the few challenges just helped us to work together!  If we could, we would do it all over again!  Shane and I will take some time to go through our photos and send a few your way soon.  Again, we thank you so much for planning this amazing trip!

Many thanks,

Alexandra & Shane

You provided excellent guidance for us. I appreciated that you really had us think about what was most important to us when we were selecting the right cruise – and not to totally focus on what other people had to say. THANK YOU for helping to make this a memorable trip for our family! It really was a trip of a lifetime!

Clare and Mark (family cruise to Alaska)

The level of service we experienced was out of this world (and we did NOT make it easy on Ann). We weren’t quite sure where we wanted to go, when we would be able to go, or what “vibe” we were going for. After asking us some key questions (what we liked, didn’t like, why, etc.) Ann helped us narrow down our trip details and planned the honeymoon of our dreams. She helped book some of our excursions, answered some emergency questions while abroad and was always available/willing to help. I think it’s safe to say we won’t be using anyone else for future travel planning – Ann is a rockstar!

Carli (Italy and Spain)