Cruising Close to Home
For incentive qualifiers who love cruising — and who doesn't? — here's a fresh option: Holland America's ms Maasdam's seven-day Canada and New England cruises during spring, summer, and fall.
My week on the Maasdam's Boston to Montréal cruise in late May was interesting, fun, and best of all, a relaxing and hassle-free travel experience. We enjoyed spectacular scenery, diverse cultures, and six different ports of call in New England, Nova Scotia, and Québec. My personal favorites were Bar Harbor, Maine (where I highly recommend the bicycle tour that offers easy riding on Acadia National Park's scenic carriage trails); the charming, off-the-beaten-path city of Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island, home of the 1867 meeting place for the Fathers of the Canadian Confederation; and the walled city of old Québec, where the architecture, language, and even the bakeries make visitors to feel that they've been transported to France.
It was also lovely to spend time on the ship. The elegant Maasdam is the 12th vessel in the five-star Holland America line to be renovated with the company's Signature of Excellence enhancements, a $225 million investment. The upgrades include a Culinary Arts Center featuring a state-of-the art show kitchen; a comfy Explorations Café with an expansive library and many computer stations; an expanded Club Hal youth program and upgraded facility for kids aged three to 17; and an enlarged fitness facility and Greenhouse Spa and Salon. As well, staterooms are spacious and up-to-snuff for top producers, with plush pillow-top beds, flat-screen televisions, DVD players, and robes. The cabin bathrooms are also upscale, with bathtubs, massage shower heads, and magnifying make-up mirrors.
With a passenger capacity of 1,258, the relatively modest size of older ships like the Maasdam (launched in 1993) also make it an attractive charter opportunity for large groups. Full-ship charters, says the ship's hotel manager Kees Streuding, are a growing trend. One of the most popular group activities is a custom cooking class, but “we can do just about anything you can do at hotel meetings, and also arrange special shore excursions,” he says. This goes for smaller groups who join the ship on a regularly scheduled sailing as well as for full-ship charters. And there's plenty of space for meetings among Maasdam's 14 public rooms, which include a small, dedicated conference room, a show lounge, and a theater.
Last winter, Holland America christened its newest vessel, the 1,918-passenger Noordam, which is the last of the company's four Vista Class ships. In summer 2008, its first Signature Class ship, built at an estimated cost of $450 million for 2,044 passengers, will set sail.
— Regina Baraban
It's easy to see why Gourmet magazine decided to devote an entire issue to Montréal in March 2006. Citing its vibrant food and arts scene, truly multicultural population, and affordability as a travel destination, editor Ruth Reichl called it “an absolutely extraordinary city.”
Montreál is a captivating mix of the charming old and the stylish ultramodern. It's a destination that offers something for every taste and more than enough attractions to keep even the largest groups busy.
For meeting planners, the city offers an impressive range of lodging stock, more than 25,000 rooms that includes large convention properties and intimate boutique hotels, many of the latter concentrated in the historic Old Montréal district. Some 15,000 hotel rooms are downtown; 4,000 of them are connected to the city convention center via underground walkways.
There are dozens of venues for groups of all sizes throughout the city. The largest meeting facilities include the 330,000-square-foot Montréal Convention Centre, with 200,000 square feet of exhibit space, a 19,712-square-foot ballroom, and 65 breakout rooms; Mount Royal Centre, with more than 50,000 square feet of space and a 730-seat auditorium; and Place Bonaventure, with 300,000 square feet of meeting and exhibition space and 9 meeting rooms.
Here are a few ideas for off-site group experiences:
- In a city with a reverence for fine dining and the largest number of restaurants per capita (more than 5,000, including two CAA five-diamond restaurants, Toque! and Casino Montréal's Nuances), dine-around evenings are a natural choice.
- The Notre-Dame Basilica in Old Montréal forms a dramatic stage for private concerts. It showcases the country's largest set of pipe organs. From there, take a short walk to neighboring historic properties for receptions or banquets.
- Bonsecours Market, a neo-classic structure erected in the mid-19th century and restored a decade ago, houses art galleries, boutiques, exhibition spaces, and an elegant reception hall.
- A Formula 1 racetrack is available for corporate team building events.
- About 17 miles of underground passageways connect many buildings in the center city, including the Montréal Convention Centre; the network can be used for scavenger hunts and rallies.
- Biosphere, a water systems museum housed in the immense geodesic dome designed by R. Buckminster Fuller for the city's Expo 67 world's fair, is a cool symbol of Montréal's modern side. offering spectacular views of the skyline.
Montréalers like to call their city the most functionally bilingual place in the world. What that means is that most of the area's 3.6 million residents are as comfortable speaking English as they are French, so even though most signage is in French, Americans have no trouble communicating or getting help when necessary.
Although it's only 45 miles from the closest U.S. border, and 90 minutes or less by air from New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Washington, in many ways Montréal seems a world away. Indeed, Gourmet calls it “North America's Most European City.”
— Megan Rowe
Of all the charming expressions I heard during a recent trip to Wales, the one I enjoyed the most was “castled-out.” As you drive from one tiny hamlet to the next, it's unbelievable how many of these bewitching ruins greet you from high on their hilltops. The locals worry that visitors might tire of castles after a while; I couldn't get enough of them.
Such is the charm of Wales. The fact that it is so unknown compared to its U.K. neighbors — and that its people are so unassuming — are what make it special. And the capital city of Cardiff is just a two-hour drive from London's Heathrow Airport.
For golfers, Wales has risen to the level of neighboring Scotland and Ireland by winning the bid to host the 2010 Ryder Cup at the five-star Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales. A lovely setting designed specifically for groups, Celtic Manor has 330 rooms and an award-winning spa. No trip to Wales is complete without a tour of Cardiff, which is fast evolving into one of Europe's centers of chic. Cardiff Bay is home to dozens of bustling restaurants and performing arts venues, as well as the ultra-hip, five-star, 132-room St. David's Hotel & Spa. Another must-see is Cardiff Castle, whose elaborate banqueting hall's history stretches back to the 15th century.
Minutes from the city center, highways turn into narrow lanes lined with hedgerows in the Welsh countryside. This is the Wales we all imagine: green hillsides dotted with sheep, ancient villages with charming cottages, incredibly friendly people — and more castles. As rural as the countryside can get, it's never far to elegant accommodations, such as the 35-room St. Bride's Hotel, set on a cliff above the fishing village of Saundersfoot in West Wales. With a new spa with an infinity pool overlooking the bay, seaside dining, and an outstanding collection of contemporary Welsh art, this hotel is not to be missed. Also in West Wales, the new 23-room Cawdor has brought the same level of stylishness as sister hotel Morgan's to the sleepy town of Llandeilo.
— Barbara Scofidio
New York Tradition
Stepping through traditional revolving doors into the gilt and marble neo-classical lobby of The Roosevelt Hotel in New York City, it's easy to imagine the days when white-gloved porters whisked VIP guests through a private underground passageway to Grand Central Station. Today, the porters still wear white gloves and the 1,015-room property, which spans a city block in midtown, has become a popular meeting hotel for groups that appreciate a historic sense of place.
Among the meeting space framed by elegant, historic architecture is the 5,696-square-foot grand ballroom, complemented by a 1,952-square-foot foyer and capped with a 27-foot-high gilded ceiling rising above arched windows and lacy iron balconies. It can accommodate up to 1,000 attendees for receptions — among the favorites, a Roaring '20s theme party. The stately Terrace Room, with a wall of rounded windows and four vintage crystal chandeliers, holds up to 500 for a reception or 300 for sit-down banquets. For small gatherings of up to 50, planners can arrange exclusive use of the oval-shaped Palm room, an elaborately embellished “tea room” encircled by a dozen marble-clad columns. In addition, there are 19 flexible meeting rooms, from 299 to 1,007 square feet in area, that can accommodate groups from 20 to 800.
The Roosevelt's spacious lobby, renovated and restored in recent years to reflect the feeling of the original 1924 design, buzzes with activity. Also evoking 1920s styling are the Roosevelt Grill restaurant and Madison Club Lounge — a traditional clubby retreat with stained-glass windows and a 31-foot-long mahogany bar.
Upgrades completed this fall to guest rooms and the health club ensure a great workout and a comfortable night's sleep. The 24-hour fitness center has been outfitted with new LifeFitness equipment with individual televisions. And it was lovely being cradled by the new Roosevelt Bed, with a choice of five pillows of varying degrees of firmness, at the end of a busy New York day.
— Regina Baraban
I was surprised to find one of the largest spas in the Northeast at this 110-room hotel/townhouse complex in the popular mountain town of Stowe, Vt. But then, Stoweflake Mountain Resort & Spa was surprising on many levels, not the least of which is how this 40-year-old, family-run enterprise has morphed from a ski motel to a sophisticated Four-Diamond resort — all while maintaining the warmth and friendliness of a family-run property.
Let's start with the 50,000-square-foot spa, which opened in 2003. Stoweflake owner Chuck Baraw visited the country's most famous spas to incorporate the best features into Stoweflake's facility. Here you will find 30 treatment rooms offering an amazing 120 bodywork options — from Thai massage to Ayurvedic treatments to the signature Stoweflake Maple Body Polish. The Aqua Solarium features a European-style mineral soaking pool, plus a hot tub with a hydrotherapeutic waterfall.
Another surprise: There is much more to this resort than its showcase spa. The Conference Center at Stoweflake is the largest International Association of Conference Centers — certified resort conference center in Vermont. There are two banquet kitchens and 19 meeting rooms with a total of 22,000 square feet, accommodating up to 400 people. The full-service meeting department offers customized Complete Meeting Packages, including meals, audiovisuals, and meeting room rentals.
There's more: the resort's seven-circuit outdoor meditation labyrinth, afternoon cookies and tea by the fireplace in the lobby, and the imaginative cuisine at its two eateries, Winfield's Bistro and Charlie B's Pub. For golfing groups, there is a nine-hole practice course, and the Stowe Country Club championship course is right next door. For skiers, Stoweflake is 10 minutes from the largest ski mountain on the East Coast
— Regina McGee
High-Style in Boston
It wasn't until I looked out of the floor-to-ceiling windows of my room at The Ritz-Carlton, Boston Common, that I realized why I always get lost navigating the streets of Beantown. The spectacular view revealed a circular layout — a cowtown gone wild as it radiated outwards from its original core.
Happily — my visit was during one of the coldest days in February — I had no desire to leave the contemporary yet cozy sanctuary of the hotel. Like its counterpart in downtown Manhattan, this new style of Ritz-Carlton reflects a modern design hand, softened by natural hues and enlivened by a $1 million abstract art collection. Opened in 2001, the hotel's 193 guest rooms have all the comforts of the Ritz-Carlton brand such as feather beds, Frette linens, and deep, marble-surround tubs. If you're looking to pamper top producers, treat them to a themed bath drawn by a bath Butler, ranging from Boston Tea Party (lavender and sea-salt tea bath accompanied by herbal tea) to Isn't it Romantic (scented bubbles, rose petals, champagne, and strawberries).
Meeting space in seven high-tech conference rooms include a boardroom with a built-in plasma screen. Planners can also reserve four adjacent movie theaters for up to 654 people: These 19-screen amphitheaters have been used for everything from videoconferencing to Hollywood-style movie screen parties.
A huge asset for the hotel — and for meeting attendees who want to stay fit — is its partnership with The Sports Club/LA, an expansive 100,000-square-foot sports and spa complex, with direct access from the hotel elevators. A dedicated Conference Concierge can help planners set up customized team-building activities at the club. Also available: group sessions focusing on spa treatments, fitness training, and nutrition.
— Regina Baraban