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Best Caribbean resorts for families

by Candyce Stapen

The Caribbean has some of the best sands and the friendliest family resorts. At these six diverse properties, you and your children can encounter dolphins, ride horses in the surf, snorkel through schools of tropical fish, learn sailing and simply sit and chat.

The Bahamas: Atlantis Paradise Island

Atlantis in the Bahamas

Atlantis in the Bahamas is comprised of six resorts (three shown) and a water park.

This mega-resort has 3,414 rooms spread out in six locations on its sprawling property. Not just for families, Atlantis attracts gamblers to its casino and foodies to fine dining at Nobu and Mesa Grill. These items also play well for parent date nights and for multi-generational families with twentysomethings who want nightlife.

Atlantis’ show-stoppers are the marine life and habitats (among the largest open-air aquariums in the world), and the 141-acre waterpark. Both are free. More than 250 species and 50,000 critters live in the 14 lagoons and the 8 million gallons of salt-water tanks. View spiny lobsters, spotted eagle rays and schools of tropical fish in the Ruins Lagoon or dive (for an extra fee) the habitat with scuba-certified family members. Hammerhead, blacknose and reef tip sharks zig zag above you as you walk through an acrylic tunnel in Predator Lagoon. At The Dig indoors, ogle lionfish, 6-foot-long Moray eels, iridescent jellyfish, tiny seahorse and groupers weighing hundreds of pounds. Special experiences (get out the wallets) include petting stingrays, interacting with dolphins or sea lions and becoming a trainer for the day. Kids won’t get bored at the water park — home to 11 pools and 20 swimming areas. Young kids like the tube slides and water cannons at just-for-them Splashers and the mini-slides at Ripples. The Mayan Temple pool attracts families with its waterfalls and the Baths pool has a large deck. Don’t bother saving a lounge chair for your tweens and teens as they’re likely to be too busy plunging down the slides: Leap of Faith is a 60-foot nearly vertical drop, and the Serpent Slide is a twisting ride of dark moments and descent through a clear tunnel cut into the shark lagoon. At the Atlantis Kids Adventures Club, ages 3-12 engage in a variety of activities that include cooking classes, creating virtual postcards and directing and acting in their own movies. The caveats for this Bahama behemoth: cheap eats are hard to find and some of the wished-for experiences can be costly.

Dominican Republic: Club Med Punta Cana

Club Med Punta Cana

Club Med Punta Cana, winner of Trip Advisor’s 2013 “Top Family Hotels in the Caribbean” award, offers both ocean fun and a lagoon pool on the resort.

Club Med was there in the beginning, both as a pioneer of the all-inclusive concept and as an early devotee of the Dominican Republic. That accounts for the well-executed concept and for the Punta Cana resort’s ample setting on 75 beachfront acres along the eastern tip of the country. As the chain’s flagship in the Caribbean, the Punta Cana resort draws praise for its wide and long stretch of sandy beach, its reasonably good food, its comprehensive children’s program and its family suites. In August 2013, Punta Cana enhanced the Mini Club (ages 4 to 10) with three new themed rooms. At the Music Academy kids dance using Wii video games and play Dominican-inspired instruments. The Art Studio is the place for crafts and paintings and the Game Factory adds a digital and creative play space. Younger kids romp through the splash park’s fountains and slides. Ages 4 and older try the trapeze, play tennis, learn Zumba moves and — at week’s end — put on a show for parents. For an extra fee, nannies care for tots 4 months to 23 months at the Baby Club. With Club Med Passworld for teens, this hard-to-please group has its own hang-out. They can try island dancing, learn video editing and find out how to be a scratch DJ. Teens also keep busy sailing, windsurfing and playing tennis. All of Punta Cana’s 553 rooms can accommodate two adults and two kids under age 15. Some offer a separate bedroom off the main bedroom for the kids. For more space and service, consider one of the Tiara rooms — a two-bedroom, beachfront unit with 753 square feet. Guests have their own check-in area and a separate pool.

Jamaica: Half Moon

Half Moon Resort

Half Moon, owned by RockResorts, lines a two-mile-long beach. Families can enjoy water activities like kayaking, snorkeling, pedal boating and even interacting with dolphins.

In 2014, Half Moon, a 400-acre upscale property in Montego Bay, celebrates 60 years of operation — a testament to its combination of charm, service and setting. Managed by RockResorts since 2011, the resort exudes a British jewel-in-the-crown feel. The staff is welcoming, pools anchor the low-rise buildings, and the lush grounds bloom with bougainvillea and hibiscus; palm and seagrape trees shade the beach. Half Moon offers much to do without going off-property, an advantage for work-weary parents. You and your tweens and teens can swing through a round of golf on the 18-hole course and horseback ride along the beach — an outing highlighted by heading your mount into the surf for a swim. Young kids can go on pony rides (not in the water). For more animal interactions, get to know the resident dolphins at a beach encounter, best for little kids, or swim with the friendly critters at group or private sessions. Half Moon’s beach, although not wide, stretches for 2 miles. Kayaks and pedal boats are free; windsurfing and sailing on a Sunfish cost extra. At the grassy and gated Anancy Children’s Village, 3- to 6-year-olds go on crab hunts, have their faces painted, do gardening and get kissed by the dolphins. Seven- to 12-year-olds snorkel, make s’mores and learn reggae dancing. At the Hype Zone, teens sing karaoke and dance at the disco. Activities outside include mini-golf, water polo and tennis. After busy days, parents and college-age progeny can relax at the Fern Tree Spa, a 68,000-square-foot oasis with indoor and outdoor pools and treatments that employ coffee, herbs and other Jamaican elements. For families wanting more space and privacy, ask for the villas along the beach or the two-bedroom, oceanfront Hibiscus suites. Only some of the Royal Villas at the far end of the property have been recently renovated. Half Moon’s food is good and the service attentive at its several restaurants. Meal plans and packages are available. Families looking for a bit of luxury in a gracious setting with plenty of activities will enjoy Half Moon.

Mexico: Grand Velas Riviera Maya, Mexico

Grand Velas Resort

The Ambassador Class Pool is one of three separate infinity pools at the AAA Five Diamond Grand Velas Riviera Maya

The Grand Velas Riviera Maya Resort is for those who like all-inclusive resorts and, especially, for those who don’t. Situated on more than 80 acres in the Riviera Maya — not far from Playa del Carmen — Grand Velas is a rarity: an all-inclusive property that’s earned AAA’s highest rating of Five Diamonds. The accommodations, located in three areas called “ambiances,” rank as suites, not for their multiple rooms but because of their size. At 1,000 to 1,200 square feet, the rooms are larger than some city apartments. The adults-only Grand Class is beachfront. Of the two family options, the Zen units, set amid the tropical trees and mangrove thickets near the spa, require a shuttle ride to the beach and main buffet. The oceanfront Ambassador section is much more convenient. At the supervised children’s program, ages 4 to 12 make piñatas, fly kites, fashion jewelry and pair up for Wii tennis and bowling. Outdoors, teens play beach volleyball, swim and sunbathe. The new teen hangout features air hockey, foosball, billiards, Xbox and other games. During holidays and summer, the resort ramps up the teen program. Grand Velas works well not just for families with grade-schoolers, but for those with college-age and adult children and for grandparents accustomed to luxury resorts with upmarket amenities. At the 89,000-square-foot spa, among the Caribbean’s top-rated facilities, you and your family members age 16 and older relax first with a water journey. Soak aching shoulders under waterfall jets and soothe tight muscles with water sprays. Inhale calming herbal mixes in the steam room, slather on medicinal clay in another area, then shower and cool down in the ice room. Afterwards, indulge with a healing massage or treatment. Unlike at many all-inclusives, the food is not only abundant, it’s also good. Cocina de Autor, the resort’s signature restaurant won a AAA Five Diamond award. Serving Spanish fare, the chef’s inspiration for flavors and sauces comes from the items’ chemical composition. Other good choices are Frida, the Mexican restaurant, and Sen Lin, the Asian restaurant. Grand Velas isn’t perfect. While the umbrella-shaded beach stretches for 1,000 feet, the swimming area is relatively small. Most families congregate around the large Ambassador pool with its ocean view. Those wanting luxury and an all-inclusive price in Mexico’s Riviera Maya will like Grand Velas Riviera Maya.

St. Lucia: Coconut Bay Resort

Coconut Bay Beach Resort & Spa

Spanning across 85 acres, St. Lucia’s Coconut Bay Beach Resort & Spa reopened in 2005 after it took a serious hit post-9/11. Now it’s back and has a family-friendly side — Splash, which includes adventures such as paintball and water slides.

Not all noteworthy family resorts are costly. Moderately-priced Coconut Bay Resort, an all-inclusive strung along 85 acres of green lawns and palm tree-lined sands on St. Lucia’s south coast, features all the components for a child-friendly beach getaway. Those vacationing without kids stay in Harmony, the adults-only area fronted with a quiet pool. Families lodge and lounge on the resort’s Splash side, whose crowning jewel is the water park — a wetscape of twisting slides and a lazy river that’s great for floating via an inner tube. In Cocoland, home to the Coco Kidz Klub, youngsters cool off by dancing through spouting fountains and getting drenched by a bucket dump. For dry play, there’s a kid-sized zipline. The resort offers programs for wee ones to those 12 years old. Nannies watch infants to tots (up to 23 months old) in an air-conditioned nursery. Two- and 3-year-olds paint coconuts, bake cookies and watch puppet shows. Four- to 7-year-olds and 8- to 12-year-olds, careen down the water slides, go on nature hikes and play tennis. Teens have targeted activities during holidays and summer. The Coco Kidz Klub staff chronicles your kid’s activities in photographs so that your child can gift you with an album of these special moments at the vacation’s end. Renovations in 2011 and 2013 freshened the décor, upped the number of Splash premium rooms to 64, as well as rehabbed the pools. Kids can now swim up to their own pool bar to order fruit smoothies and other kid-friendly, non-alcoholic drinks. What don’t you get? Marble bathrooms, turn-down service, luxury furnishings and memorable meals. Although the food is reasonably good, recycled entrees do appear. Nevertheless, Coconut Bay Resort delivers a fun family vacation, especially for those on a budget.

Turks & Caicos: Beaches, Providenciales (Provo)

Beaches Resort

Beaches in Turks and Caicos offers enough family activities to have earned the Travel and Leisure’s award for #1 Hotel for Families in the Caribbean.

The three Beaches resorts lure families with all-inclusive prices, engaging children’s programs and meet-and-greets with favorite Sesame Street characters. At the 223-room Ocho Rios, Jamaica, resort kids can practice putts and swings at the chain’s only children’s golf program. However, the beach is relatively small. The 220-room Beaches Negril, also on Jamaica, features Pirates Island, an 18,000-square-foot water park, and stretches out on a long swath of Negril’s Seven Mile Beach. Although both Jamaica resorts deliver family fun, the 614-room Beaches Turks & Caicos is best for both its location on a swath of 12-mile-long Grace Bay Beach and for the choices. At the 45,000-square-foot Pirates Island Waterpark, tots can play in their own pool, preschoolers climb a pirate ship and jump through water jets, and older kids zoom down water slides, body surf and catch their breath by floating along a lazy river. If you can get your kids off the sand and out of the waterpark, they’ll have plenty of things to do at the supervised children’s program that offers care for infants to 2-year-olds, as well as activities for ages 3 years through teens. Preschoolers and grade-schoolers delight in digging for seashells with Zoe, turning trash into treasures with Oscar the Grouch, learning about feathered friends with Big Bird and baking cookies with Cookie Monster. Tuck-ins, tea time and other special one-on-ones with a favorite Muppet cost extra. Teens learn to spin discs at the Scratch DJ Academy and meet and mingle at Liquid, the under-21 nightclub. Turks also offers more lodging options: 30 categories as opposed to the Jamaica resorts’ 11-12. When the Key West Village debuted May 2013, it upped the luxury by offering butler-serviced suites and villas, just in case you want additional space, privacy and pampering amid the happy family madness of this mega-resort.

Click here to see a lot more resort pictures.


Coolest travel gifts for Christmas

This season’s best travel gifts creatively prevent or solve problems. After all, lost luggage, looming pickpockets, dead cellphones or sleeplessness in seat 15C can sabotage your trip. USA TODAY’s Candyce Stapen found the items here to conquer these and other common travel challenges. They were all launched or became available in the USA in 2013.


Should pets fly on jets?

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 8:04 a.m. November 26, 2013

Candyce Stapen offers tips for airline travel with your pets.

Millions of people travel over the holidays to visit relatives and friends. But if you must board a plane to see grandma or your best buddy, should your dog or cat come along?

Only if your four-pawed family member can fly with you in the cabin, according to the Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and many other pet-friendly organizations. That’s because transporting animals in the cargo hold is difficult on the animal and sometimes deadly.

Although statistics are hard to come by, Cesar Milan, “dog whisperer” and canine advocate, reports that the Department of Transportation recorded 122 dog deaths on flights between May 2005 to May 2010; that count does not include other animal fatalities or injured or lost animals. From 2007 through 2012, more than 300 animals died, disappeared or were hurt on flights, according to the . NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit. While those numbers may be a small percentage of the total animals transported, the statistics won’t be any comfort to you if your pet dies or disappears.

To fly in the cabin, your dog or cat must be small enough to fit in a carrier placed under the seat in front of you. Think 25-30 pounds of furry love. Larger animals must fly as “accompanied” (checked) luggage or as cargo without you. Your best bet with a non-cabin compatible critter: keep them at home with a trusted pet sitter, board them at a kennel or, if you can, put Fido and Fluffy in the car and drive them to your destination.

Here are tips on how to fly your dog or cat in the cabin and, if you must, how to transport your dog in the cargo hold.

Pets in the cabin

Make a reservation. Because airlines restrict the number of pets in a cabin to between three to seven, reserve a space for your animal as soon as possible.

Know the pet carrier rules. American Airlines defines an in-cabin carrier as no bigger than 19 inches by 13 inches wide by 9 inches high and no heavier than 20-pounds. Only one kennel is allowed per ticketed passenger and that counts as one of the two carry-ons permitted.

Pay the fee. Costs vary from $75 on Southwest to $200 on Delta’s international flights. Since many airlines charge per kennel—not per animal—you save money if two pint-sized pups or kittens can fit in the same carrier.

Checked pets

If there’s no alternative, then follow these suggestions when checking your pet as “accompanied luggage” or as cargo.

Make sure the airline accepts your breed. Snub-nosed (brachycephalic) pets cannot fly in the cargo hold because they often experience difficulty breathing. These include Boston terriers, boxers, bulldogs, pugs and Tibetan spaniels as well as Burmese, Himalayan and Persian cats. Check with your airline.

Obtain a health certificate. Visit your vet within ten days of departure to obtain a signed certificate of health. This is required.

Book the right flight. To eliminate glitches that might occur when the animal changes planes, reserve a non-stop flight. Second best is a direct flight with limited time on the tarmac. Animals can’t fly in the cargo if the outside temperatures hit 10 degrees Fahrenheit or below or 85-degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Fly midday in winter and mornings in summer to avoid dangerous temperature extremes.

Buy the correct crate. Airline approved crates are hard-sided–not mesh—contain sufficient openings for air and feature a rim around the middle (to prevent other checked items from blocking vents). A dog must be able to stand up, turn around and sit down inside the crate. Outside the crate, paste “Live Animal” stickers along with your name, address and phone.

Understand crate restrictions. Some airlines limit the crate to 40 inches long, large enough to contain a 75-pound Labrador, but not big enough for a 140-pound Newfoundland or other giant breed.

Crate train your pet. Minimize your animal’s anxiety by letting him use his crate for several weeks ahead of the flight. Place the crate in your living room and line it with his favorite blanket and toys.

Follow the food and water recommendations. Most airlines request you do not feed the animal for four hours prior to the flight to avoid air sickness. For long flights, some airlines request that you tape a bag of food along with instructions to crate’s top.

Provide separate food and water dishes. Freeze the water to make it last. A water bottle attached to the crate’s exterior provides more water than a dish and is spill-proof. Acclimate your pet to this bottle weeks ahead.

Don’t sedate your animal. Consult your vet, but most do not recommend sedating your dog or cat.


Stress-free family holiday travel

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 1:04 p.m. November 25, 2013

No stress family holiday travel

The toddler is unaware that Christmas presents for her and her sister are being loaded into the back of the car. During the holidays millions of families drive and fly to be with friends and family.

Along with seeing friends and family, the holidays mean crowded airports and packed roads. The American Automobile Association predicts that 43.4 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from their homes to celebrate this Thanksgiving. Millions more will be flying and driving over the Christmas break. Lessen the aggravation by maintaining your sense of humor, allowing extra time for everything, and by following these stress-busting strategies.

SMART HOLIDAY TRAVEL: More consumer tips to help you navigate the season

Strategic planning

Travel on less busy days. Avoid the crush by not driving or flying on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving or on Dec. 24, traditionally the heaviest travel days. Consider departing early by plane or car on Thanksgiving or Christmas Day if you can make it to your destination for the heart of the family celebrations. The actual holidays also tend to be the cheapest days to fly.

Consider a smaller airport. Regional airports, as opposed to major hubs, come with the conveniences of easier parking and smaller crowds as well as shorter check-in and security lines. These advantages can outweigh any added drive time required to get from the gate to your downtown destination. Instead of flying into Boston’s Logan International Airport, ranked on Orbitz’s list of the busiest airports for Thanksgiving travel this season, consider landing at Manchester Boston Regional in N.H., 50 miles north of Boston.

Lighten your load. Mail your gifts ahead of time. This adds room in your car and can save you money on luggage fees when flying.

Bring the correct documents. When crossing an international border — heading to a Mexican beach, Canadian ski resort or other international destination — with a minor child, it’s wise to bring a copy of the child’s birth certificate plus a notarized letter of consent from the stay-at-home parent authorizing the travel. In cases of divorce, you may be asked to show the custody decree as well. If the other parent has died, a copy of the death certificate may be requested. Since rules — established to thwart child abduction by non-custodial parents — differ by country, always check with your destination’s embassy or consulate.

Pack insurance cards and permission forms. If your son’s buddy comes along on your dude ranch trip and he breaks a wrist falling off a horse, you will need a copy of his family’s insurance card plus a notarized statement from his parents authorizing you to obtain medical help in case of emergency. Without these documents, the hospital just might make him comfortable until his parents can be contacted.

Battle germs. Tote sanitized wipes to disinfect steering wheels, airline trays and plane armrests.

Make “what if” plans. When meeting friends or relatives at a destination or airport, don’t rely only on cellphones. Go low-tech too; just in case your phone dies or service isn’t available, develop a Plan B on how to meet up and what to do in case of missed connections.

Keep essentials handy. More hours en route means you need extra batteries and battery packs for computers, tablets, smartphones and video games. With babies on board, pack extra diapers, changes of clothing, food and bottles. Be sure that this “essentials” bag is easily accessible in the car’s front seat (not the trunk) or as an airline carry-on (not as checked luggage).

At the destination

Do a safety check. With toddlers in tow, whether at grandma’s or at a resort, child-proof the rooms. At your relatives’ house, move the crystal bowls and the china figurines from the cocktail table to high shelves out of your toddler’s reach. Block the stairs with a baby gate (pack one if needed). Several hotel chains offer complimentary child-proofing kits that contain outlet covers, corner guards for tables and toilet bowl locks. Consider bringing these items to your relatives’ house as well.

Know the house rules. Find out what the house rules are at Aunt Sally’s ahead of time and explain these to your kids. Your aunt may not allow food to be eaten in the living room or dogs in her dining room, even if your family does.

Bring or buy special needs foods. If your 5-year-old will only eat a certain brand of mac and cheese and your 12-year-old is a vegan, don’t expect your cousin to prepare special fare for your kids. Offer to bring or purchase the items your kids need.


How to buy tickets for the Sochi Olympics

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 2:49 p.m. November 10, 2013

Russia hosts the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The Russian womens speed team is seen at the U.S. Ski Team training center at Copper Mountain, CO, on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013. Russia hosts the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Good tickets are still available for the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Feb. 7 – 23, 2014. Through CoSport, the only authorized Olympic Games reseller for the U.S. and Canada, you can purchase tickets as well as hotel and hospitality packages.

But tickets aren’t enough to get you into the games. For the first time, each spectator will need to present a spectator’s pass to enter the Olympic Park and to attend events.


Tickets are divided into  “A,” “B,” and “C” levels. Offering prime seating, “A” tickets are the priciest. For the Feb. 8, women’s hockey preliminary between Canada and Switzerland, C seats cost $21, B seats, $41 and A seats, $83. As the competition advances, ticket fees rise.  Top tier seats for the Feb. 19 men’s quarter final ice hockey game cost $580.

Tip: Some popular tickets, unavailable individually, can be purchased as part of a package. For example, individual tickets to the Feb. 20 women’s ice hockey bronze medal game are sold out, but you can get a category A seat to this event as well as to the men’s ice hockey quarter finals by purchasing the T2-Ice Hockey 19 hospitality package for $2,282.

Hospitality packages gain you access to CoSport’s Hospitality Center within Olympic Park, a place to snack on food and drinks — no extra charge — and relax between events.

Spectator Passes

After purchasing a ticket, a CoSport spokesperson suggests you  register online for a spectator pass. You can opt to have your non-activated pass delivered to you by mail or you can pick up your pass at one of five spectator registration centers. There are three centers in Sochi, one in Krasnodar and one in Moscow. If you don’t sign-up for a pass ahead of time, you can obtain a pass before the games at one of the spectator registration centers.

Having the pass in hand isn’t enough.  You must get your pass activated, a process that can be done only in person at one of the spectator registration centers. Bring your passport and ticket order number with you.

With any CoSport ticket and hotel package, CoSport will deliver your non-validated pass to your hotel room, but you must still line-up to activate your pass.


Remember, U.S. citizens must obtain visas to enter Russia.

Which U.S. airports serve healthy food?

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 11:38 a.m. November 8, 2013

Which US airports serve healthy food

2013 Airport Food Review

More healthy food lands at  U.S. airports. That’s especially good news for the 100 million, often hungry, travelers expected to traipse through the passenger terminals during the coming holiday season.

According to a survey performed by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, 76% of restaurants in 18 of the nation’s busiest airports offer “at least one cholesterol-free, plant-based entrée” such as green salads, veggie wraps or black bean burgers. In 2001 only 57% of the total eateries at all the airports reviewed served such healthy fare.

The best hub to grab nutritious grub: Denver International Airport. The facility tops the 2013 good-for-you food chart  as 86% of its eateries serve a nutritious option. In the bad food days of 2001, the Mile-High City’s airport received a near-failing grade of 61%.

Vegetable soup and a Mediterranean veggie sandwich from Potbelly

At Washington, D.C.’s Reagan National Airport travelers in search of a healthy meal can opt for vegetable soup and a Mediterranean veggie sandwich from Potbelly.

“We’re finding more and more people continue to opt for healthful plant-based options, “says Susan Levin, Physician Committee director of nutrition education. “Everyone wants to maximize their health, beat the flu and be in a better mood — and they realize their diet can help make all of this happen.”

There’s good news for the nation’s capital. Its Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport gobbled the biggest gain, increasing 14 points from 2012 to this year’s 83%, enough to tie for third place with Los Angeles International Airport .

The odds of getting a healthy meal are against you at Las Vegas McCarren International Airport, whose 68% score —  a drop of 23 points since last year — puts McCarren in next to last place. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport comes in last with just 51% of its restaurants offering a healthy option.

What’s Florida’s best family beach?

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 12:52 p.m. November 7,2013

Families enjoy swimming, canoeing and kayaking at Florida’s Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, Key Biscayne.


Florida’s beaches are famous. They lure the cold weather weary and put the sparkle in the Sunshine State. But the sands that edge the Atlantic from Amelia Island in the northeast south to Miami and beyond differ from those that stretch along the Gulf Coast from Fort Walton Beach in the northwest’s panhandle to Marco Island on the southwest.

USA TODAY celebrates Florida’s beaches with an east coast-west coast smackdown. Like all classic choices — tea or coffee, dogs or cats — each pick has its ardent proponents.

Dr. Beach,” a.k.a. Stephen Leatherman, professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University, Miami, assisted us in selecting contenders in five categories.

This week’s rivalry: family beaches. Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on the east coast faces off against Fort De Soto County Park on the west coast. To cheer for your favorite beach by turning it into a champ, vote below.

Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park

Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park comes to the ring with a full mile of sandy white beach, killer views plus a knockout punch of family activities.

“The surf is gentle because there’s a big sandbar off-shore,” says Leatherman.  “Families can canoe, kayak, fish, bike and also tour the lighthouse.” Tackle the stairs and you and your kids win panoramic views of Miami from the Cape Florida Lighthouse. Dating to 1825 and rebuilt in 1845, the lighthouse is the oldest structure in Florida. The park is located in Key Biscayne near Miami.

Fort De Soto Park

Pinellas County's Fort De Soto Park, Florida

Tall pine trees shade the shore at Pinellas County’s Fort De Soto Park.

Situated in Pinellas County, Fort De Soto weighs in with a walloping 1,136 acres on five interconnected islands that include nearly three miles of sandy beaches. “North Beach is the best beach for families,” says Leatherman. “It’s on the Gulf and has good swimming. The water is clear and calm. Families can also kayak through the mangroves, fish and boat.”

Kids like climbing the fort, built in 1898-1900 for the Spanish-American War. Tall pines shade the shore and covered picnic areas come with grills.  Four-pawed family members can romp in the dog park. Located in Tierra Verde at the mouth of Tampa Bay, Fort De Soto Park is south of St. Petersburg.

So which beach is best for families? Cast your vote at this link. Voting ends Nov. 14 when we roll out a new Florida beach smackdown.

‘Taboo travel’: Tours to Iran and North Korea

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 5:05 p.m. October 31, 2013

Curious about those destinations which are always depicted as troubled in the news but which few Westerners other than diplomats and politicians visit? Consider a train trip into Iran or a journey through North Korea.  These new options for 2014 are offered by MIR Corporation, a tour operator that began its out-of-the-ordinary focus more than 25 years ago with tours to the just opening up Soviet Union. Some label such trips to politically sensitive and or formerly off limits areas as

Two women picnic at UNESCO-listed Imam Square in Isfahan, Iran.


Curious about those destinations which are always depicted as troubled in the news but which few Westerners other than diplomats and politicians visit? Consider a train trip into Iran or a journey through North Korea.

These new options for 2014 are offered by MIR Corporation, a tour operator that began its out-of-the-ordinary focus more than 25 years ago with tours to the just opening up Soviet Union. Some label such trips to politically sensitive and or formerly off limits areas as “taboo travel” or “dark tourism,” although Annie Lucas, MIR’s vice president, eschews those terms.

“Our trips are all about enlightenment, “says Lucas. “We cater to the more well-traveled, to people who want to see a place for themselves and make up their own minds,” says Lucas. “Most of these people aren’t just ‘country collectors.’ They want to use travel as a vehicle to understand and to experience cultures.”

MIR has hosted tours to Iran for 15 years, largely for Europeans and New Zealanders. So what’s new? “The film Argo helped pique Americans’ interest,” says Lucas, “and this is the first time a European private train has ever been allowed into Iran.” Rail journeys afford convenience—you only unpack once to see many locales. “You cover greater territory by land because the train travels at night, “says Lucas.

READ MORE: Tourists see a different reality than ‘Argo’ image

Departing or ending in Budapest, the 15-day tour rolls through Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey before spending four days in Iran, visiting UNESCO sites such Imam Square, Isfahan, and the ruins of Persepolis.


The 11-day trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a.k.a. North Korea, is MIR’s first venture into that country. Departing and ending in Beijing, the tour visits Pyongyang where you watch the spectacle of 100,000 performers moving in sync at the Arirang Mass Games, as well as visit a national park and the demilitarized zone.

“People who had relatives who fought in the Korean War and heard stories about Korea,” says Lucas, “tell me they are excited to see the place they never thought they’d be able to go to in their lifetimes.”

Details: Jewels of Persia, 15-days, Oct. 14-28, 2014; Oct. 27-Nov. 10, 2014; March 31-April 14, 2015; April 13-27, 2015. From $12,995 per person. Opening the door on the DPRK (North Korea), July 24-August 3, 2014. From $5195 per person for 6-16 travelers, plus internal air.

What’s the most tranquil beach in Florida?

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 1:01 p.m. October 31,2013

Don Pedro Island State Park

Don Pedro Island State Park off Florida’s Gulf Coast offers a respite for birds and beach lovers.


Florida’s beaches are famous. They lure the cold weather weary and put the sparkle in the Sunshine State. But the sands that edge the Atlantic from Amelia Island in the northeast south to Miami and beyond differ from those that stretch along the Gulf Coast from Fort Walton Beach in the northwest’s panhandle to Marco Island on the southwest.

USA TODAY celebrates Florida’s beaches with an east coast- west coast smackdown. Like all classic choices — tea or coffee, dogs or cats — each pick has its ardent proponents.

“Dr. Beach,” aka Stephen Leatherman, professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University, Miami, assisted us in selecting contenders in five categories.

This week’s rivalry: tranquil beaches. Anastasia State Park on the east coast faces off against Don Pedro State Park on the west coast. To cheer for your favorite beach by turning it into a champ, vote below.

Anastasia State Park's 1600 acres near St. Augustine, Fl

Anastasia State Park’s 1600 acres near St. Augustine, Fl., give beach lovers plenty of space to enjoy the sand and surf.

East coast: Anastasia State Park

With 1,600 acres, more than four miles of beach, plus a tidal salt marsh, Anastasia State Park is a heavyweight contender. “It’s a laid-back beach, a quiet, low-key place to visit,” says Leatherman, one that’s an easy five-mile drive from St. Augustine. The distinctive reddish color of the sand “comes from the Anastasia formation, a mix of coquina shells, limestone and coral,” says Leatherman.

Non-motorized watersports keep the peace. Bicyclists can pedal on the coarse, hardpacked sand and the “wide beach gives visitors plenty of room to spread out” says Martha Robinson, spokesperson for the Florida Department of State Parks. Kayakers paddle on Salt Run, a tidal marsh, and fishermen cast for flounder or snook in the surf.

Anastasia’s campgrounds are popular. The formation of the beach with its offshore ledge, notes Robinson, “is why you hear the waves breaking more loudly than at some other beaches. People find it very relaxing to listen to the tide at this beach.”

West coast: Don Pedro Island State Park

At 230 acres Don Pedro Island State Park, part of a chain of barrier islands off the Gulf Coast, has the charms of an off-the-beaten-path challenger. Situated between Knight Island and Little Gasparilla Island, Don Pedro can be reached only by the year-round ferry, Pirates Water Taxi, or by private boat. That lessens the number of visitors, making sunning and walking more solitary and serene than on easily reached shores.

Leatherman gives points to Don Pedro and its one mile of sand for beachcombing. “Don Pedro is one of the best places in Florida to find shark’s teeth. These black petrified teeth belonged to sharks millions of years ago.”

The park offers a respite for day-trippers; no overnight camping is allowed. You can fish as well as canoe and kayak in Lemon Bay and the island offers good wildlife watching. “You can spot southern bald eagles, royal terns, American oystercatchers and other birds,” says Robinson. “Between November to April you can see endangered manatees from the shore. In summer loggerhead turtles lay their eggs on the beach.” For more quiet, take a gentle hike on trails laced with ferns that cut through the park’s interior.

So which beach lures you for its tranquility? Cast your vote at this link. Voting ends Nov. 7 at noon when we roll out a new Florida beach smackdown.


Arthur Frommer: ‘We believe in guidebooks’

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 1:26 p.m. October 29, 2013

Arthur Frommer and his daughter Pauline Frommer relaunch Frommer guidebooks with 30 titles.

Arthur Frommer and his daughter Pauline Frommer relaunch Frommer guidebooks with 30 titles.

Arthur Frommer, the guru of travel guides, together with his daughter and travel expert Pauline Frommer are relaunching Frommer guidebooks. With 30 titles in two formats, the books reach stores Nov. 1.

Why did the Frommers reacquire the rights to publish their books?

“We believe in the future of guidebooks, “says Arthur Frommer. “We do not accept the conventional wisdom that print guides are dead. A significant percentage of the public wants to carry a book with them.”

Forget about the 500-page behemoth books of the past Frommer series. The new guides are quick, easy to carry reads. The EasyGuides at 252 pages and the Day by Day volumes at 184 pages fit into pockets and purses.

Frommer’s 20 EasyGuides, priced at $10.95 each, cover top destinations such as New York City, Washington, D.C., Miami and Key West, London and Paris. The 10 Day by Day Guides, $13.95 each, are organized around neighborhood itineraries and shopping, arts, the outdoors and other interests. Titles include Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Prague and Rome.

We had the opportunity to talk with the Frommers about their guides and travel tips.

What makes your guides standout in a crowded marketplace that includes websites, apps and print products?

Pauline: We don’t think the “medium” — print vs. electronic — is what’s important. We understand that some readers will prefer paper, while others will want the information on their devices, and we’ll have our guides in both forms. What’s important is how these books are prepared, which is: by actual travel journalists, most of whom live in the destination. What we’re offering, therefore, is true expertise rather than disguised marketing, which is a huge problem for much of the content on user-generated websites and finely curated information.

Arthur: We are cost conscious to an extent you do not find elsewhere. We stress value. That’s what has made the Frommer series the leading series for 50 years. One out of every four guidebooks sold in the USA were Frommer’s guides.

What are five tips for getting the most out of travel in the 21st century?

Arthur: Visit off-season to avoid the crowds. That is the absolute key to having a better experience.

Pack light. Do not weigh yourself down with the burden of heavy luggage.

Use local transportation facilities to experience the city as a local does.

Pauline: Nobody has unlimited money. Figure out what’s important to you. If you really want to do scuba diving, then consider a less expensive lodging so that you have the money to do more scuba diving.

Take advantage of the power of the Internet to connect with locals. There are all kinds of meet-ups and clubs where you can have conversations with locals. Call all of your friends ahead of time to see if they know anyone in Prague or Taipei or wherever you are going. Offer to take friends of friends out to dinner.

Arthur: That dinner will be the most memorable evening of your trip.

What are some travel trends?

Arthur: The single strongest trend in recent years that people are substituting apartment rentals and vacation home rentals for hotel rooms. Travelers are contacting local rental agencies, and sites like FlipKey and Airbnb.

Pauline: Staying in a home instead of a hotel gives you a more authentic experience and it’s often cheaper than a hotel stay.

What are the most surprising new destinations on the horizon and why?

Arthur: Central America is becoming popular. Costa Rica and Panama and even Nicaragua is starting to receive visitors. Some of that has to do with airfare. With airfare is remarkably low even from distant regions like Maine.

What are some places on your personal bucket lists?

Arthur: There are very few places we haven’t been. I have never been to Tibet and I regret that. A tragedy in travel in recent years is the elimination of many countries in the Middle East as safe destinations. Everyone should see Egypt.

Pauline: I have been traveling since I was 4 months old with my parents and then on my own, but the world is vast. I have not yet been to New Zealand.


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