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spa roomVisit Lake Atitlan in Guatemala (and you should, come to think of it), and you may find yourself in the tiny village of San Marcos. With only a few hundred residents, cheap food and labyrinthine pathways contoured by stone walls, fences and trees, it’s one of the more unexpected New Age communities you’re likely to encounter — and with an international population at that.

It’s here I realized a few years ago that one of the best ways to get the rub on a place is to, well, get a rubdown in the place. You can choose from any number of massage therapists, but I picked one on the outskirts, where the heavily traveled path wasn’t so well worn. I wrote my name next to a time on a piece of paper tacked to a post, then showed up at my self-determined appointment, wondering what I’d gotten myself into. Not to worry: With thunder rumbling in the distance, the masseuse showed up precisely on time at the front door, led me to a lovely little room overlooking a garden and chatted about life in Guatemala in broken English as she provided the best $20 massage money can buy.

I’d go back in a heartbeat, if I could find the place again.

Since then, I’ve eagerly jumped at any chance to spa out, though nothing has topped my Atitlan experience. There’ve been massages at Utah’s Sundance resort, as well as in Vegas, London and North Carolina’s Outer Banks. I had a claustrophobic aromatherapy session in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia (think fragrant steam pumped into a phonebooth). I took the waters on a soaking tour of Saratoga Springs’ mineral baths in Upstate New York.

And now, a pedicure — in the middle of the ocean. During a recent spin on Royal Caribbean’s new Allure of the Seas, a loquacious charmer named Kim gave my weary toes some much-needed attention while she shared stories about her family back in Jamaica and recounted tales of working on a cruise ship. Bottom line: She misses her homeland, loves her floating workplace. While my toenails are still shiny from Kim’s efforts, the effects of the hot-rock leg massage and the cooling gels that followed it have, sadly, long disappeared.

(In case you’re wondering — and you are — I am not the only man to ever receive a pedicure at sea. Kim told me that about 20 percent of her clients are men. And when I asked her what sorts of pedial horrors she sees on a typical day, she just sort of shuddered and said, “I don’t want to think about it.”)

What’s next on my spa bucket list? I don’t know. I do know that you live and learn when you sit and soak, so I’m up for anything. Well, except for this:

To be honest, I’d rather talk to a human and learn something than have doctor fish nibbling dead skin off my big toe. But if you want to know more about this treatment, check out Seven Extreme Spa Treatments from Around the World.

– written by John Deiner

mariner of the seas royal caribbean sports deck cruise shipOne North Carolina couple is going to impressive lengths to try and sell their home: they’re offering buyers a free Mediterranean cruise.

Maj. William and Mrs. Sabrina Marlowe’s four-bedroom house in Jacksonville, NC, has been on the market for four months, reports ENC Today, and it’s gotten no offers — yet. But these motivated sellers, who have to move quickly to accommodate a military transfer, hope a vacation will help sweeten the deal. In addition to contributing $2,000 toward closing costs, the Marlowes will treat buyers to a seven-night Mediterranean cruise, including airfare.

I contacted Amanda Parmer, the Marlowes’ real estate agent, to get the scoop on what exactly this cruise would entail. She told me that buyers can choose from three 2011 Western Mediterranean sailings aboard Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas, with port calls in Rome, Genoa, Monte Carlo, Corsica, Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca.

“We chose the cruise over other incentives as it seemed more attractive to buyers in the price range of our home,” the Marlowes told Jacksonville’s Daily News. “We thought we could get the most exciting vacation with a cruise, all inclusive, for our dollar. This is something most everyone would love to go on, but not pay for, especially after just purchasing a home.”

The Marlowes make a good point. I bought a home myself not too long ago, and after all the stress of house hunting, mortgage signing and writing out some very hefty checks, I certainly would have appreciated an all-expenses-paid trip!

You can check out the listing for the house here.

Not in the market for a new home? You can still treat yourself to a discounted trip with our cruise deals.

–written by Sarah Schlichter

carnival splendor An engine-room fire that broke out onboard Carnival Splendor yesterday left the ship — and more than 3,000 passengers — stranded in the ocean, reports our sister site CruiseCritic.com. No passengers or crew were injured, but the ship’s engine is out of commission.

Carnival Splendor is currently adrift off the coast of Baja California, waiting for commercial tug boats to guide it back to shore. For those onboard, who had initially signed up for a seven-day Mexican Riviera cruise, this has undoubtedly been the vacation from hell. The fire broke out on day one of the cruise, and it appears that passengers went without flushable toilets and running water for a period of time. To make matters worse, the ship’s air-conditioning is no longer working.

Carnival Splendor’s passengers, of course, are due some compensation. Carnival will be shelling out full refunds, reimbursement for transportation costs and an additional free future cruise. Still, something tells me Splendor’s passengers are not presently excited about going on another cruise as they drift in the Pacific Ocean on a ship without air conditioning.

For more information on this story, including timely updates, check out Carnival Splendor Q&A: What You Need to Know About the Cruise Ship Fire on CruiseCritic.com.

–written by Caroline Costello

sos sand beach helpEarlier this week, the world’s longest round-the-world cruise — a 335-night epic on Cruise West’s Spirit of Oceanus — was unceremoniously cut short in St. John’s, Newfoundland, about six months before its scheduled end in February 2011. Cruise Critic reports that Cruise West (best known for its small-ship Alaska voyages) has canceled the rest of the world cruise, will sell the ship and will “work towards a restructuring of the company and its operations” in response to recent financial woes.

World cruises are typically sold in segments, so it’s likely that many passengers were already planning to disembark in St. John’s. But any cruisers who were planning to stay aboard the ship for the next segment, as well as the hundreds of other passengers who were booked on future segments of the cruise, are now left scrambling for options (and refunds).

If the “stranded traveler” story sounds familiar, it should; just a few weeks ago, Mexicana Airlines suspended its operations, leaving passengers high and dry in Mexico and many destinations beyond. And Kiss Flights, a British airline, disrupted the plans of some 70,000 passengers when it folded last month.

Getting stranded far from home is a worst-case scenario for travelers. So how can you protect yourself against the bankruptcy of an airline, tour operator, hotel or cruise line? A few suggestions:

-Always pay for your travel purchases with a credit card so that it’s easier to dispute charges and get refunds if necessary.

-Buy travel insurance — and do so through an independent source, not through your travel provider. This way you’re protected if that provider goes belly up. Be sure your policy includes protection in the case of travel supplier default.

-If you reserve your trip through a travel agency or booking site, program its number into your cell phone so you can call for help at the first sign of trouble.

-Look for alternatives. Other travel suppliers often step into the void when a company ceases operations. For example, both AeroMexico and American Airlines added additional flights and offered personal assistance to aid accommodate passengers who’d been stranded by Mexicana.

What suggestions would you add? Have you ever been stranded by a travel company?

–written by Sarah Schlichter

hurricane caribbean Hurricane Earl is currently barreling toward the East Coast — just in time to derail the Labor Day weekend plans of travelers heading to the region. For those of you wondering whether the storm will affect your upcoming vacation, we’ve answered five key questions about Earl.

1. What is Hurricane Earl?
Hurricane Earl is a powerful storm that caused damage on several islands as it tore through the Eastern Caribbean earlier this week. It’s now moving toward the East Coast of the U.S. Evacuations have been ordered for North Carolina’s Ocracoke Island, and more evacuations along the East Coast could follow within the next few days. The coasts of North Carolina and Virginia are on high alert.

2. Will Hurricane Earl affect my Labor Day travel plans?
The National Hurricane Center reports that the outer bands of Earl could reach the North Carolina coast by Friday morning before the storm heads to the New England coast as early as Saturday morning. Although Earl is expected to stay offshore, it still might cause a ruckus for vacationers along the Atlantic. According to the New York Times, “Forecasters said that even if it fails to hit the Atlantic coast directly, the storm could still cause trouble up and down the Eastern Seaboard, generating large waves and hazardous riptides that prompt beach closures and force vacationers to stay away from the ocean during the final week of summer vacation.” Expect lots of rain, strong winds, rough waves and dangerous riptides on East Coast beaches this weekend.

3. Will Hurricane Earl affect my upcoming cruise?
Our sister site, Cruise Critic, has reported numerous cruise itinerary changes for ships sailing in the Caribbean and along the East Coast. Cruise lines that have announced altered itineraries include Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean and NCL. Get the full list of affected cruises in Cruise Critic’s Hurricane Zone.

4. Will Hurricane Earl cause flight delays?
Although it’s still too early to predict exactly how bad the weather will get on the Eastern Seaboard in the next few days, it is possible that Earl may cause some flight delays in the region, including at airports around New York City and in New England.

5. What should I do to prepare?
If you are traveling to coastal areas between North Carolina and Maine, it’s important to keep an eye on the weather. Many local tourism Web sites, like visitnc.com, post weather advisories for travelers coming to the area when there’s something significant like a hurricane happening — so you’ll want to periodically check the site for your destination to see if an advisory is posted. You can also monitor the progress of Earl and check storm warnings on the National Hurricane Center Web site.

Flying this weekend? Get tips for dealing with delayed flights in Airport Delays: Six Ways to Cope. Airline Web sites and call centers are not always the best sources of information for travelers looking to see if their flights are delayed (the airlines are slow to release this information). Instead, try FlightStats.com, which has an excellent Flight Tracker tool.

If you’ve already purchased travel insurance, read the fine print to see whether you will be covered if your flight is delayed or you have other issues getting to your destination. However, if you haven’t purchased travel insurance already, don’t bother doing so at the last minute. You won’t be covered now that the storm has formed. Read more about travel insurance here.

If you decide to change your plans to avoid traveling this weekend, check with your airline to see whether you may do so without penalty. For instance, both AirTran and Continental are currently waiving change fees for travelers flying to, from or through airports that may be affected by Earl.

Are you concerned that Earl will affect your Labor Day travel plans? Tell us about it!