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Year in Review: Top 5 destinations of 2014

- December 15th, 2014
Reuters/WENN.com Images

Reuters/WENN.com Images

Each year, I put together a list of the top five destinations of the past year. Major sporting events, world festivals and even a visit from a royal or two can all put a destination in the spotlight.

At the start of 2014, Lonely Planet declared Brazil the destination to watch, an obvious pick in light of the 2014 FIFA World Cup tournament, followed by the less obvious choices of Antarctica, Scotland, Sweden and Malawi. TripAdvisor chose Havana, Cuba as the must-visit location of 2014, especially among Americans as rules for visiting the Caribbean country relax. And Hotels.com went sporting heavy, listing World Cup host Brazil, Tour de France starting point Yorkshire and Winter Olympics host Sochi as  hot destinations for 2014.

PAST LISTS:

- Top five destinations of 2012
- Top five destinations of 2013
- Top 10 destinations of 2008

How did these destinations fare now that the year is coming to a close? As always, it’s easier to look back than ahead. Here are the five places I think were the most talked about in the year that was.

New Zealand: New Zealand makes a return to my list of top destinations of the past year, thanks to the release of the final ‘The Hobbit’ movie and an Easter visit from Prince William and Duchess Kate, along with Prince George on his first official royal engagement. The number of international visitors to New Zealand has increased by about 10% year-over-year thanks to ‘The Hobbit.’ Director Peter Jackson filmed the entire trilogy, as well as ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ in New Zealand and fans of the films can visit real locations across the country that feature in the film, including the original Hobbiton set in Matamata.

The springtime visit of Prince William, Duchess Kate and baby Prince George also drew a huge amount of attention to New Zealand this year. The royal couple were greeted by Maori warriors in a traditional welcome ceremony, rode a jet boat on the famed Shotover River and even met Jackson for a tour of his aviation museum. Prince George took part in his first official royal engagement during a play date at Government House in Wellington.

Rio de Janerio, Brazil: Rio had a huge year in 2014, acting as one of the host cities for Brazil’s 2014 World Cup, which saw an estimated 1 million people travel to the South American country. The city also hosted its annual Carnival celebrations in February, an uber popular event that saw an estimated CDN $952 million injected into the city’s economy from nearly 1 million tourists. Rio hardly has time to catch its breath after a busy 2014, though, as preparations for the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics are well underway.

Toronto: Ontario’s capital had a busy 2014. Toronto hosted the 2014 WorldPride festival in July, a celebration of LGBT rights that organizers expected would draw even more visitors to the city than the 1.2 million people the 2011 Pride Week celebrations did. This was also the first full year Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada was open in the city, celebrity brothers Donnie and Mark Wahlberg opened their first Wahlburgers location outside the U.S. in Toronto in the fall, and, for better or for worse, ex-mayor Rob Ford kept the entire world talking about Toronto as his 2013 crack scandal continued into his last year in office. Plus, six of Facebook’s 12 most checked-in locations in Canada in 2014 were in Toronto. Look for Toronto to stay in the spotlight in 2015 as the city prepares to host the Pan Am and ParaPan American Games next summer.

New York City:  I have yet to feature the Big Apple in my year-end roundup, but 2014 seems like a good year to do so. In addition to the never ending parade of events in New York — from literal parades, like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, to the lighting of the Rockefeller Christmas tree to New York Fashion Week — New York opened the National September 11 Museum in May. This poignant testament to the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001 and the city’s resounding strength in rebounding from the attacks follows the opening of the September 11 Memorial in 2011 and even attracted a visit from the young royals, Prince William and Kate — without Prince George, this time. William and Kate’s glamorous first visit to New York City came in December and attracted international attention. In addition to the September 11 Memorial, William and Kate visited other iconic sites like the Empire State Building, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and even met New York’s own royal couple, Beyonce and Jay-Z, during an NBA game at the Barclays Center.

Sochi, Russia: What would a list of the top five destinations of 2014 be without Sochi? The Russian city hosted this year’s other big sporting event in the Winter Olympics. More than 1.1 million event tickets were sold for the 2014 Olympics, which got off to a slightly rocky start, what with that fifth Olympic ring not opening during the opening ceremonies and incomplete or improperly finished lodgings. The Games ended on a stronger note, though, and Canada finished third in the medal standings. However, as seen in this photo essay from Gizmodo, Sochi had turned into a ghost town just six months after the Games as tourists left town and businesses struggled to stay open. The long-term impact on the Russian town remains to be seen, but in February 2014, all eyes were on Sochi.

Top 5 tips for buying travel insurance

- November 25th, 2014
(Fotolia)

(Fotolia)

Buying the right kind of travel insurance for your trip can be the trickiest part of planning a holiday. Do you need insurance if travelling outside of Canada? In case of an emergency, what are you covered for? Is your work insurance enough to cover any expenses?

The subject of travel insurance has been back in the news this week in a big way, all because of one Saskatchewan family’s million dollar U.S. hospital bill. Jennifer Huculak-Kimmel travelled to Hawaii while 24 weeks pregnant. She thought she had the proper travel insurance before leaving Canada, but, when she delivered her baby premature and spent weeks in a U.S. hospital, Huculak-Kimmel was shocked to learn her insurance company, Blue Cross, wouldn’t be helping her out with the $950,000 bill. While the reasons behind Blue Cross denying the claim have not been revealed, the company did say “there are more facts related to this story that prevent us from reversing our decision” in a statement.

It’s no wonder a 2013 BMO Insurance study found that just half of Canadians purchase travel insurance before going on vacation. Whether we’re shying away from insurance out of confusion over the coverage we think we already have or just don’t think insurance is all that important, the world of travel insurance can be very tricky to navigate.

So what should you look for and know before buying travel insurance? We turned to experts from Travelzoo Canada and the Travel Health Insurance Association of Canada for the top five tips.

1. Know your medical history: The Travel Health Insurance Association of Canada recommends Canadians know their medical history and consult with a health care provider before they fill out any insurance forms. They said the top reasons for denied claims are medical non-disclosure and misrepresentation about pre-existing conditions that are not stable.

“Responding accurately to medical forms is the best way to have a carefree holiday and ensure that unexpected medical expenses will be covered by insurance,” said THIA President Alex Bittner in a statement. “If there is a medical questionnaire, it needs to be taken seriously.”

It’s important to note you can still get insurance with a medical condition. Travelzoo Canada‘s travel insurance expert Michael Duchesne joined Sun Media for a chat about travel insurance last summer. He said travellers with pre-existing medical conditions can still get travel insurance and should look for policies that cater toward their conditions.

“I would encourage you to search for specialist travel insurers,” Duchesne said. “Select insurance companies cover people if their medical conditions are under control and stable for certain period. As a caveat, be advised that a minor change in someone’s prescription or medication can mean that the medical condition is not considered ‘stable.’”

2. Medical travel insurance and trip cancellation insurance are not the same thing: “Trip cancellation and travel health insurance are two distinct services,” said Duchesne. “Trip cancellation covers pre-paid and non-refundable expenses if your plans are interrupted or cancelled. The five main types of insurance are generally sold in a combo of sorts. If you only want one, then ask for it and ask whether there are incentives to upgrade to all or just some. A comprehensive package covers trip cancellation and interruption, evacuation, medical and baggage, even flight insurance.”

To read the full chat with Travelzoo Canada’s Michael Duchesne, click here.

3. Know what you are already covered for and if it’s enough: Many people have travel insurance through their work insurance plans or credit cards. Before you travel relying on this insurance alone, though, know what it covers and purchase additional coverage if necessary.

“Many people will already have some coverage through employers or credit cards and it’s important to understand existing coverage and ensure you have the necessary supplemental coverage,” said Bittner.

4. Even if you’re travelling within Canada, you may need travel insurance: You may think your provincial health insurance will cover any medical costs across Canada, but that isn’t the case.

“If you plan to travel outside of your home province, it is strongly recommended that you obtain additional private medical insurance and fully understand what your policy covers,” said Duchesne. “This comes into play with things like trip cancellation or interruption insurance, which covers pre-paid non-refundable expenses should your travel plans be interrupted or cancelled.”

5. Ask a lot of questions: How do you know if your medical condition is compliant with your insurance coverage? What level of coverage is right for your trip? Direct your questions to the insurance provider directly, said Duchesne.

“Keep in mind that travel agents recommend that you get travel insurance because they get a percentage when you buy it, and because they could be held liable for losses if insurance options aren’t explained correctly,” said Duchesne. “While they can give you information and provide direction, they are not insurance agents. It’s very important to direct specific questions to the insurance provider.”

Cozy up with comfort foods from Myrtle Beach

- November 24th, 2014
Myrtle Beach Boardwalk. Read about my trip to Myrtle Beach: Myrtle Beach musts for travellers on a buget. (Nicole Feenstra/QMI Agency)

Myrtle Beach Boardwalk. Read about my trip to Myrtle Beach: Myrtle Beach musts for travellers on a budget. (Nicole Feenstra/QMI Agency)

South Carolina may not experience the same frigid temperatures and long, dark nights we Canadians do in winter, but Myrtle Beach still has some unique, regional comfort foods perfect for the time of year when all you want to do is cozy up inside with a warm dish. Here, Visit Myrtle Beach shares two local recipes with us. Stay warm and cuddle up inside with one of these flavourful plates.

Courtesy Visit Myrtle Beach

Courtesy Visit Myrtle Beach

CHICKEN BOG – Courtesy Loris County Chamber of Commerce

 Ingredients
-
6 cups water
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 (3-pound) whole chicken
- 1 cup long-grain white rice
- 1/2 pound smoked sausage of your choice, sliced
- 2 tablespoons Italian-style seasonings
- 2 cubes chicken bouillon

Place water, salt and onion in a large pot. Add chicken and bring all to a boil; cook until chicken is tender, for about 1 hour. Remove chicken from pot and let cool. Remove skin and bones and chop remaining meat into bite-size pieces. Skim off fat from cooking liquid and measure 3 1/2 cups of this chicken broth into a 6-quart saucepan. Add rice, chicken pieces, sausage, herb seasoning and bouillon to this saucepan. Cook all together for 30 minutes; let come to a boil, and then reduce heat to low, keeping pan covered the whole time. If mixture is too watery or juicy, cook over medium-low heat, uncovered, until it reaches the desired consistency. Stir often while cooking.

Courtesy Visit Myrtle Beach

Courtesy Visit Myrtle Beach

SHE CRAB SOUP – Sea Captain’s House’s Former Secret Recipe

Ingredients
-
2 large onions diced
- 1 cup clarified butter
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 and 1/3 quarts half and half
- 1 quart heavy cream
- 1 and 1/2 tsp. ground mace
- 1 cup good sherry
- 1 pound fresh white crabmeat (must be good quality)
- Salt and pepper to taste

In large stockpot, cook onions in butter until soft. Add flour, reduce heat to low, stirring constantly for 15 minutes. Add milk products and continue stirring. Add remaining ingredients and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring frequently.

Vacation breasts: Is an enhanced bust the next must-pack travel item?

- November 19th, 2014
(Fotolia)

(Fotolia)

Is it possible we’ll see the day when packing your vacation breasts is on par with travel insurance?

ABC News reports a New York doctor named Norman Rowe is developing a temporary breast enhancement procedure that gives women a boost of up to one-and-a-half cup sizes for two to three weeks. It’s being called ‘vacation breasts’ and is marketed toward women who want to increase their bust size before they sport a bikini on holiday.

PHOTOS: Nakation? Glamping? Definitions of travel buzzwords

The doctor previously developed a saline injection called InstaBreast which takes 20 minutes to inject, lasts 24 hours and costs $2,500 per procedure.

“Twenty-four hours is great, but it’s still just 24 hours,” Rowe told ABC News, explaining why he is developing the new formula. He said the product can also help women decide whether or not they want to purchase more permanent implants or could be used for calf implants on men.

ABC’s medical contributor Dr. Jennifer Ashton warned women of the risks. “With this procedure, there is the risk of hitting a blood vessel with the injection, as well as a risk of infection,” she said.

Additionally, the U.K.’s Daily Mail spoke with Dr. Ash Mosahebi, director of surgery of the London Plastic Surgery Centre, who also warned “what you rely on here is that the saline is absorbed, but one side could go quicker than the other. You could be left with one side a B cup and one side a D cup, and who knows how long for.”

It will still be about two years before Rowe’s newest formula is approved by the FDA.

What do you think? Have you ever wished you could change anything about yourself before a vacation?

Canadians to escape winter driving, shoveling snow with beach vacations: Survey

- November 17th, 2014
(Fotolia)

(Fotolia)

Canadians who plan to escape the cold weather this winter are being pushed to sunny Caribbean beaches because of a dislike of the dark (39%), winter driving (30%) and shoveling snow (25%), according to a new survey from Expedia.ca.

ESCAPE WINTER: OUR TOP ALL-INCLUSIVE RESORT PICKS AT EVERY PRICE POINT

The data, released via the Expedia.ca 2014 Escape Winter Report, shows most Canadians plan to travel with their partner (45%) or family (33%) this holiday season, though residents of Quebec are three times as likely to travel on their own versus other Canadians.

Before hitting the beach, 55% of Canadians said they bought new clothes and 42% said they get a haircut. Nineteen per cent of women said they dieted before their sunny south vacation, while 12% of men said the same.

The majority of survey respondents (54%) said they book their trip online.