Best of The Best: Caribbean 2016

By: Mandy Seymour, Managing Editor,  Best Rated Reviews

In today’s world of travel, vacations have often become synonymous with a whirlwind tour that leaves you feeling invigorated and exhausted at the same time like you actually need a vacation from your vacation when you return home.

But we believe the” best of the best” vacation is one in which you have scintillating experiences that achieves a perfect balance between invigoration and relaxation.

Achieving a best of the best Caribbean vacation for a reasonable price can be challenging. But it can be done.

When we envision the Caribbean, we imagine a beautiful idyllic beach setting that’s tranquil, tropical, hardly populated and remote.  However, if you are neither extremely rich or famous, then a remote island is hard to come by.  So what’s the best option for someone looking for luxury on a reasonable budget?

If you are looking to find paradise on earth close to home, we recommend cruising  the Caribbean.  The Caribbean is a lush, tropical paradise surrounded by brilliant turquoise and azure waters.  When you see them, they immediately transport you to a place of indomitable relaxation.

This year, we sought out a trip that gave the “best of the best on a budget”.  We used Vacations To Go (www.vacationstogo.com) to plan our cruise.  For as little as $400-$600/pp., you can find a relaxing cruise that visits several ports of call.  Once we decided where we wanted to go, we booked flights through American Airlines. (They had the lowest fare at that time.  However, neither company meet our “best of the best” standard due to repeatedly poor customer service.)

We chose a cruise that disembarked from San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Although many cruises disembark from the continental U.S., if you want to maximize your time on the islands, we recommend taking a flight that gets you closer to the places you desire to visit.

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO

The first night, we flew into San Juan, Puerto Rico.  We arranged a transfer to our hotel through Fine Line Tours (www.FineLineTours.com.)  Fine Line Tours specializes in airport and hotel transfers and related tours.  We were very pleased with their services.  Our driver was hospitable, friendly, and a safe driver.  He picked us up at the San Juan International Airport and took us to our lodging located 45 minutes away at the edge of El Yunque.

We spent the night at Hacienda Siesta Alegre (www.haciendasiestaalegre).  We enjoyed a great stay there and highly recommend it as the “best of the best” lodging in Puerto Rico.   It is a romantic, Spanish-style inn with open verandas and lovely tropical settings.  Nestled in the rainforest, it provides a welcome respite of solitude, tranquility and beauty.  Hacienda Siesta Alegre has a longstanding reputation as a wedding venue. Yet in recent years, they have added accommodations.  Rates are $155 per night and include breakfast.  Our accommodations were clean, welcoming and looked out onto a beautiful view of Puerto Rican tropical paradise.

THE CRUISE: CELEBRITY CRUISES

We booked a 7-night cruise with Celebrity cruise lines.  Celebrity is a sleekly modern cruise line with luxury amenities and attentive, accommodating hospitality.

If you are looking for classy and not stuffy, invigorating yet relaxing cruise, we recommend Celebrity cruises.  We chose to review Celebrity Summit based on its widely-recognized commitment to quality and guest satisfaction.  We found our experience to be consistent with the acclaimed praise for which Celebrity Cruises is known.

What’s their secret?  We believe it is their heart for what they do.  We asked the key staff, “What is the best part of your job?”  The answers they gave all conveyed a sincere love for cruising as a lifestyle, attentive commitment and conscientiousness to detail, and an underlying desire to share their happiness at sea with their guests.

During a “getting to know you” meeting with the staff, a cruise critic blogger asked them to tell us a  story about the “pasenenger from Hell.”  The staff handled it diplomtically, saying, “We have excellent passengers”.  Yet what I found myself is thinking is, “Why do people look for what’s wrong?  There is so much that is right and praiseworthy – especially here – and everywhere in the world, why spend a moment looking for what’s not?  If more people looked for the good, there would be so many more happy people in the world!  We felt the entire time that Celebrity truly values its customers and focuses on the “best of the best”.  The staff handled this moment with great class and we respect them for it.

{That’s why I like writing for Best Rated Reviews – because we are on a mission to find what is good, noble, praiseworthy and true in the world and make it known. Those are qualities that eminate from the travel, leisure and related products that we review.  Those qualities effervesce from that which is the “best of the best”.  The desire in our hearts to find what is good and praisworthy and to enjoy it and celebrate it attracts people, companies, and experiences that have the same values.  It’s the good ol prinicipal of “like attracts like”.)

First impressions are often lasting ones.  We have found Celebrity to be elegant, classy, relaxing, fresh and clean but not stuffy.   It is energized but not rambunctious.  Staffmembers were consistently attentive, courteous, and sincere in their devotion to guest happiness.  Yet again, we believe it’s because they truly enjoy what they do.  It’s not a mere job to them.  It’s a vocation and a lifestyle.

Yet they do not take their high standards and acheivemet for granted.  Celebrity Summit’s entertainment host said, “We feel we are the best ship in the fleet.  But we want to prove that to you.”

We stayed in a suite.  We found the red and gold color scheme to be romantic yet modernly luxurious and it had the best furniture from the Ivy and Wilde store.  The rooms were impeccably clean and well-maintained by housekeeping.

Room service is also available and included with your stay on the ship.  This is an extra luxury that is somehow even more enjoyable since it is complimentary.  However, tipping for this service is important, so we advise you keep this in mind.

We enjoyed Celebrity dining.  Highlights included Sunday brunch at sea and elegant, scrumptious dinners in the main restaurant.

PORTS OF CALL AND EXCURSIONS

We visited several ports of call on our 7-night cruise.  However, to keep within our budget, we pre-arranged our own excursions.  While cruise lines offer some great excursions, the magnitude of passengers participating sometimes reduce the experience to impersonal travel and leave very little quality time to truly discover and enjoy the place you’ve come so far to enjoy!

Sometimes participating in excursions through the cruise lines can double the cost of your trip – and be half the fun for the reasons mentioned above – when you are traveling on a budget.  So pre-planning will serve you well, save you money, and give you a better chance at experiencing the adventure you are seeking.

PORTS OF CALL

Ports of Call we visited included:

San Juan, Puerto Rico, Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua, St. Maarten, and St. Thomas

HIGHLIGHTS:

“Best of the Best” Highlights included:

Swimming with the Turtles and Shipwreck  in Barbados, Antigua Island Tour, and St. Thomas Island Tour

Barbados Best Excursion: Swimming with the Turtles

We booked a Swimming with the Turtles (3 hr.) catamaran cruise with Action Charters. (www.actioncharters.org). Action Charters took us out into the azure waters for a relaxing sail and snorkel with sea turtles.  We also snorkeled above a ship wreck.

On our last full day, we disembarked in St. Thomas.  We took a full-day island tour.  We visited one of the island’s most pristine beaches.  It was truly paradise on earth.  The waters were bathwater-warm, as clear as glass, and quite tranquil.  We didn’t want to leave!

Each day contained adventures which made for lasting memories.  Since we were seeking luxury on a budget, we booked our own excursions when we arrived to the island.  We traveled around St. Maarten on a mophead.  We ate delicious French pastries there on the French side.  We visited beautiful beaches on every island.

All in all, a trip to the Caribbean is a vacation of a lifetime.  We highly recommend it as “best of the best.”

TGR Exotics Wildlife Zoo

TGR Exotics Wildlife Zoo – Spring, Texas

If you are looking to experience a Safari in your own backyard and you live in Houston, Texas or surrounding vicinities, we have a recommendation for you. TGR Exotics Wildlife Zoo is a family-owned and operated collection of some of the friendliest exotic animals around. The zoo houses over 100 types of animals.

On the day we went, there were 3 private tours taking place. The up-close and personal interaction with the animals made for an unforgettable experience. We met Chaco the Camel, Buffy the Water Buffalo, an ant eater, fast-moving sloths, and an ancient armadillo as well as a bearcat.

The animals have special scratching posts that look like they tumbled out of the Wild West. We were surprised to learn that these “scratching posts” were actually recycled Christmas trees. Each year, people donate their Christmas trees to the zoo. Chaco the Camel sat on his, using it as a cushion. The goats ate the greenery and then used theirs as back scratchers. And most amusingly, Walter the Warthog jubilantly tossed his Christmas tree 9 feet up in the air and played with it for many days before making it into a personalized scratching post as well.

To our surprise and delight, large pigs came charging toward us – and once we started petting them, they fell over on the ground and went straight to sleep, laying there for several minutes. And when we went to see the sloths, one of them was crawling around his cage as fast as a relaxed monkey. We have never seen such a happy or fast sloth.

They really take care of their animals and care about them. It is very apparent the animals are well-loved. They have very amazing creatures who are very responsive to humans. Everything is clean and well-maintained since their establishments get taken care of by the best commercial cleaners at https://gdi.com/our-services/food-plant-sanitation-services/.

The zoo is spacious and each tour is highly personalized. The animals are well-loved and cared for, yet they are not pets. Rather, they are sold to zoos across the country.

Tours last 1 1/2-2 hours. Strollers are welcome. You must wear closed – toed shoes.

During summer and during the year, the camp has the zoo has a camps, programs for Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, and all kinds of other activities. However, you must register in advance because this is a privately and facility. 6:30 PM is the best tour time for summers.

We highly recommend TGR Exotics Wildlife Zoo as a “best of the best” family outing for summer and year-round fun. It is an animal adventure you don’t want to miss.

Website: www.TGRexotics.com

The wildlife park is located 10 miles east of Tomball, TX in Spring, TX.

Best Rated Galveston Weekend Getaway

Pleasure Pier Galvestion TX

Galveston Weekend Getaway

If you are looking for a great getaway near Houston, Galveston is your
answer. Best known for fun in the sun, Galveston beaches, fishing and
other water activities abound. Yet Galveston is gaining a much-sought-after reputation in tourism for some lesser-known attractions which make it a great weekend getaway, rain or shine.

La Kings Confectionary

What To Do

Many of Galveston’s most popular attractions are located on The Strand and The Seawall.  The Strand offers fine dining, shopping and tours. La King’s Confectionary is Galveston’s historic candy and ice cream shop.  Pier 21 tells the story of the 1900 Hurricane in the wake of Galveston’s glory days.  Harbor Tours offer an educational glimpse into Galveston’s historic harbor and marine life. Find out more here: www.galvestonhistory.org.

The Seawall is a great place to enjoy Galveston’s sun and sand. Galveston beaches are easily accessible along the seawall.  In addition to the beach, Pleasure Pier (www.pleasurepier.com) offers fun for the whole family.  Thrill seekers will be drawn to its array of exciting rides, including the Cyclone roller coaster.   If you are looking for souvenirs, Murdochs Bath House has a little bit of everything Galveston kitch. (www.galveston.com/murdochsbathhouse)

The most economical way to enjoy many of Galveston’s  attractions is by purchasing a Galveston Island Pass. The Galveston Island Pass offers discounts on pre-paid attractions.  Find out more here: www.galvestonislandpass.com.

The Lasker Inn Galveston, TX

Where To Stay: The Lasker Inn

To enjoy Galveston’s most elegant accommodations, we recommend the
Lasker inn (www.laskerinn.com). This six room mansion dates back to 1870. Surrounded by
classic elegance, you enjoy luxurious accommodations With historic
flare. Lasker inn survived the 1900 Hurricane. In the wake of the
storm’s devastation, it became a Home for Homeless Children until
1990. In recent years, Linda and Richard Denson purchased Lasker and
renovated it into Galveston’s most elegant bed and breakfast inn and Galveston’s most romantic venue for weddings.

Our stay there was delightful. We can certainly understand why Lasker
Inn is rated #1 on Trip Advisor. Inn Director Richard Conner truly
made our stay the “best of the best”. The staff takes great joy in giving
you the most memorable experience, including a delectable breakfast and relaxing respite from Galveston’s sun.

Galveston is also a great getaway for nature lovers. Birding
enthusiasts flock to Galveston during April for Featherfest,
Galveston’s annual birding festival. (www.galvestonfeatherfest.com)
Galveston is well-known for great birding. The Sea Turtle Hatchery
gives weekly tours and they regularly release turtles into the wild.
Find out more about the Galveston Nature Tourism Council  here:
www.galvestonnaturetourism.org.

Galveston makes a great weekend getaway, especially for Houstonians.
It is just 1 hour outside of Houston.  To find out more about all Galveston has to offer, visit www.galveston.com

Best Rated Reviews

Best Rated Reviews is the best source on the web for travel, leisure, and product recommendations.  We feature the “best of the best” in Houston, Texas and the world.  Our experienced staff research and review products, events, and places you will love. Our assessments are based on the Best Rated Standard.

Yours for the best!

The Staff at Best Rated Reviews

Best Women’s Wetsuit

Whether you are diving, snorkeling, or just swimming,  it always pays off to bring a wetsuit with you.

Traditionally, wetsuits have been bulky and uncomfortable.  In today’s marketplace, wetsuits are much sleeker than they used to be.  If you are looking to buy a wetsuit, choose one that is lightweight and comfortable.  It will pack well and ensure you are ready for any aqua adventures that await you!

We recommend the Women’s HydroSkin Farmer Jane by NRS.   The Women’s HydroSkin Farmer Jane is exactly what any woman needs who is looking for a lightweight and comfortable wetsuit.

This wetsuit is high-quality and yet low-impact when it comes to the environment!  It is made of Terraprene. Terraprene is made from limestone, which is one of the most abundant minerals available today.  It is a great alternative to Neoprene, which is petroleum-based.

The Women’s Hydroskin Farmer Jane also contains ThermalPlush inner lining for added comfort and quick drying. We also recommend to use the blackhead vacuum to protect your face.

We consider it to be the “Best Women’s Wetsuit” available today.  We highly recommend it.

Find the Women’s HydroSkin Farmer Jane wetsuit at www.nrsweb.com.

Rating: 5 stars!  Best!

Rick Steves Travel Accessories

In the dead of Winter, don’t you wish you were somewhere else?  Be a snowbird and head South….or East or West…The key is just to get a change of scenery. That’s one of the best parts of travel.

We have a few recommendations on travel accessories to take with you.

Rick Steves makes a line of useful, travel-tested accessories that will add to your travel experience.  We recently tested the following and highly recommend them:

Picnic Set -When traveling, it always helps to bring your own forks, knives, and plates.  Why?  Because it will save you money, especially in Europe, but anywhere, really.  One of the most inviting and memorable travel experiences can be found just going to the local market and picking up a little of this and a little of that so you can eat what locals eat.  It’s oftentimes cheaper than eating in a restaurant and faster, too.

We recommend Rick Steves’ picnic set for the occasion.  It’s a knife, fork and spoon set in a tube that will fit in your carry-on luggage.  It also contains a corkscrew.  If you’re not sure whether the airport you are traveling through will approve the corkscrew, you can leave it out.  But the set is TSA approved.  When we tested it, we found it’s a little bigger than we thought it would be, but it’s a good set for the main reason that it is made of sturdy plastic and comes in a sturdy tube.  So, it will last and it will bring you many happy picnics on your travels.

Find the picnic set here:

http://travelstore.ricksteves.com/catalog/index.cfm?fuseaction=product&theParentId=126&id=369

Travel Aid Kit-Rick Steves makes a travel aid kit that will be helpful to have just in case you need it.  It contains basic essentials, like bandaids, an antiseptic towelette, and insect bite relief.  It also contains a sewing kit, tweezers, and small scissors.  It’s worth having just in case you need it.  It will get you started if you should need it.

We recommend this kit for travel in Europe.  If you are going to Latin America or other tropical places, we suggest that you also add a few more bandaids and take along insect repellant as well.

Find the Travel Aid Kit here:

http://travelstore.ricksteves.com/catalog/index.cfm?fuseaction=product&theParentId=126&id=498

Travel Umbrella – Rick Steves Travel Umbrella is one of the best we’ve seen.  It has a slender design yet opens wide.  It’s compact and lightweight, so you’ll hardly notice you’ve brought it – until you need it — and then, you’ll be so glad you did.

Find the travel umbrella here:

http://travelstore.ricksteves.com/catalog/index.cfm?fuseaction=product&theParentId=126&id=260

Set of 3 Mini Moleskine Pocket Notebooks – Pocket notebooks come in handy so you can jot down notes while on tour and compile them later. As writers and journalists, we love them.  You can purchase them individually or as a set.  We suggest you buy the set.  You’ll use them!

Find the Set of 3 Mini Moleskine Pocket Notebooks here:

http://travelstore.ricksteves.com/catalog/index.cfm?fuseaction=product&theParentId=126&id=314

Find these great products and more at www.ricksteves.com

Rating: 4 Stars!  Very good!

Cuisinart Compact Portable Blending/Chopping System

Compact Portable Blending/Chopping System

Cuisinart Compact Portable Blending Chopping System

When it is time for your next gathering, break out the Compact Portable Blending/Chopping System by Cuisinart.  With a variety of attachments, a recipe guide, and your imagination, the possibilities are endless.  This is the ultimate party and dinner assistant!  Need to crush ice?  Make slushies for the kids?  We made delicious chocolate malts with this exquisite blender in our test kitchen.  We also made several other milkshakes and dessert beverages with hardly any effort.

We also tested the blender to make whipped cream for homemade pie recipes we were testing.  To our delight, it made fresh whipped cream in just 30 seconds with just the touch of a button and a quick rinse-up afterward, eliminating the need to use a large bowl, beaters, and 5-minutes of beating time!  You can also use this blender to make soups, appetizer dips, and mixes for baking.

This portable blender is a small yet powerful kitchen assistant.  It is a must for anyone who prepares dinner regularly, wants to maximize their time and efficiency, and enjoys entertaining friends.   The engineering, craftmanship, and attention to detail is first-rate.  This is exactly what we expect from Cuisinart. Best of all, the blender comes with four blending cups which allow you to prep and go!  It also comes with a chopping cup that you can also use to make whipped cream for four on desserts.

This product is a must-have.  We give it 5-stars!

You can find this great product here at www.Cuisinart.com.

The Pillow Bar Sets A New Standard In Luxury Pillows

Dr. Mary Side Sleeper

Many people are looking for a good night sleep. A comfortable bed, a cozy blanket, and luxurious sheets.  The right set of sheets can make a good night sleep very good. But if you are going to get a great night sleep, you need the pillow that is right for you.

We recently discovered a pillow company that makes custom fit pillows for your sleeping needs. It’s called The Pillow Bar.

A few years ago, Merrimac Dillon was looking for the perfect pillow. Many of the pillows she tried, the supposedly feather pillows, were filled with pokey feathers, not soft angelic down.

In her quest for the perfect pillow, she took to making several prototypes.  And thus, The Pillow Bar was born.  The Pillow Bar makes custom pillows filled with the highest-quality, most angelic down you can find.  We tried them and can certainly say, they make you sleep like an angel.

The Dr. Mary Side Sleeper Pillows are uniquely shaped to give you ergonomic sleeping comfort. it was designed by a Chiropractor specifically for dedicated side sleepers with neck and shoulder pain.  We have found that they make a great companion for sleeping and they also make great prop-up pillows.

Each pillow is custom-designed and measured to fit your body just right.  It comes with a beautifully embroidered pillowcase to make it intimately personal.  The Dr. Mary Side Sleeper Pillow is also available in a smaller-sized travel version, the Jetsetter.

You can find these amazing pillows and more at www.thepillowbar.com

Rating: four stars! Very good

Ideal Travel Clock For Heavy Sleepers and Hearing Impaired

When traveling on business, it is fairly common to have the front desk give you a wake-up call.  However, we never like to leave anything to chance, so we always carry a travel alarm clock.  Finding an alarm clock that is easy to read, easy to operate, and easy to carry in smaller luggage and yet loud enough has been a challenge.

Magellans Folding Alarm Clock 92 db

In looking for an ideal travel clock, we looked for three specific qualities: that it would be easy to pack, a loud alarm, and ease of use.  THECLOCK will fit in the palm of your hand, closes flat, is simple to use, and has an alarm that will wake up heavy sleepers and those hard of hearing.  This clock has all the features we need to get sound sleep and a resounding wakeup.  By far, the best feature of this clock is the volume at which the alarm rings.  You will not sleep through this alarm!

You can find this great product and more here at www.Magellans.com.

Writing In The Rain Has Never Been Easier

All-Weather Birder’s Journal

For birders and field journalists, writing in the rain has always been a challenge – until now.  National Geographic carries an all All-Weather Birder’s Journal.  It’s made of rain-resistant paper and comes in a convenient carrying case.

We tested it and found that when rain lands on the pages, it beads up.  You can easily brush it off.  But if you leave it there, the paper is thick enough to retain its original composition and will not turn into a wet paper rag.

The journal works best with a pencil, though a special pen is also available.

Rating: 3 stars!  Good!

Find this great product and more at www.nationalgeographic.com

All-Weather Birding Journal In The Rain