Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley

Welcome to Diagon Alley -
Check out Gringotts!
You may or may not know this about me, but I am a huge fan of Harry Potter. I have read the books multiple times, own all the movies, and have several "limited edition" items scattered throughout my house (tastefully of course). I tend not to talk a lot about this because while I'm not going to show up to work in a cloak, I do get very excited - and some people get concerned.  For example, a few years back when Universal Studios: Islands of Adventure opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I booked my flight within a few months and was carried away in the magical atmosphere they created for fans and park guests.  I think I consumed 10 glasses of butterbeer that trip and came back with chocolate frogs for everyone (you're welcome).  However; I am still a sensible adult, so  I was not going to show up on day 1 of the opening of the new HP addition.  I thought 1 month was more than enough time to let the massive crowds of 12 year olds have their share before I came back down to Orlando for the opening of Diagon Alley in Universal Studios.

Shortly after arriving at the MCO airport, we went directly to the park.  We got in quickly and went straight to the Diagon Alley section.  From the outside, it is setup like a street in London with the Night Bus sitting proudly on the street.  Between some row homes and the King's Cross station is a small alley way that opens into J.K. Rowling's imagination.  

There were some definite improvements to how extensive and abundant the shops were in comparison to the other park.  There were also more pubs, kiosks, and kitschy ways to spend your money - including exchanging your money in Gringotts for something that could only be spent in HP world.  After waiting for hours to ride the Hogwarts castle ride a few years back, I changed my outlook on life and started using the single rider line as much as possible. The line for the Gringotts ride was out of control even for single riders.  After lots of waiting, I finally found myself seated and ready to go.  
Cool new drink options
The ride is setup similar to the Hogwarts ride in the other park with 3D screens and seats that jump around as you venture through the bank.  About half way through the ride, the audio became out of sync with what was happening around me and I was very sad.  After speaking with the workers, they told me this was a fairly normal occurrence since they were still working out some glitches in the ride.  The good news is that we got to go again without having to wait in line: the second time around was much better.  I’m very glad we got to ride twice since the line (even single riders) was way too long the rest of the trip and I never got back on. 
The only other new ride that was part of the second park opening was the Hogwarts Express train that runs between the two parks.  You must have a park hopper pass to get on the train – this is a very clever marketing tactic in my opinion to make sure everyone visits both parks even if they have been there before.  Even though the line looked long, a lot of people can fit on the train in one go (I’m guessing about 100 people).  It is a quick ~10 minute  ride to the next park where you can relax in a quaint passenger car and enjoy a “virtual” tour through the outward looking window.  There are some fun surprises as well with flickering lights, dementors, etc.  This really shouldn’t be missed as it is a fun way to go between parks.  Watching the Hogwarts Express pull up to the station is an incredible sight.
All aboard the Hogwarts Express
In addition to the 4 glasses of butterbeer I consumed throughout my 2 days at the park, I also ate at the Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade Village.  My Cornish pasties are on par with what I had last time around being good but not excellent.  I actually had a similar style dish in Dublin a few years ago and it was insanely good.  I should not compare authentic food to amusement park food, but I can’t help it. 
On a side note – This is not related to HP or Universal Studios, but I stayed at an incredible hotel!  The Hilton Bonnett Creek is right in the Disney theme park area and there are free shuttles that take you to the parks and to Downtown Disney.  The hotel pool is more of a giant lazy river with cabanas and fun activities throughout the day.  I highly recommend this hotel!  The breakfast buffet was pricey, but incredible. 
I am very glad I made it back down there this year, but my next trip to Orlando will most likely be to Disney or SeaWorld. 
Hogsmeade Village with Hogwarts in the Background

Friday, October 17, 2014

2014 Big Trip: Thailand

Good news everyone!  I've booked my final big trip of 2014.  I will be headed to Thailand for 9 days!  The time will be split between Bangkok and Phuket along with many hours of travel time.  

I know the Orlando post is long overdue... It is coming soon, I promise.  Stay tuned for more exciting trip details for the last few months of 2014!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Cruise to Alaska: The Last Frontier

Seattle from the Ferris Wheel
 Earlier this year, a few of my family members decided we all wanted to go to Alaska.  Along the way, more people joined and we ended up with a nice little group onboard the Norwegian Pearl out of Seattle during Memorial Day week.  I researched several different cruise lines and itineraries for this trip and concluded that I wanted to leave out of the US and include a day cruising Glacier Bay.  The prices were right (and actually dropped closer to the day so I was refunded some money as well), so we signed ourselves up for a 7 day excursion docking in Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, and Victoria, BC.  The hardest part about this trip was deciding on what to pack.  On principal alone, I refused to pack a winter coat and piled on layers of long sleeve t-shirts, sweaters, and jackets instead.  It worked out for the best since we had sunny 60 degree weather for the majority of the trip.  I did need my hat and gloves in Juneau because it was windy.
I have taken several cruises in the past, but none with NCL.  There was a minor booking fiasco with my room, but in the end I ended up with an obstructed ocean view cabin on the 8th floor.  Since that is exactly what I was expecting when I made my reservation, I was fine with it.  I had a lovely view of a lifeboat, but I still had plenty of light and could see the ocean peaking around the sides/bottom.  In comparison to Carnival, the cabin size was about the same though I liked the bathroom a lot better.  The toilet and shower were separated by additional sliding doors, so you could squeeze two people in there if there was an emergency. 
View of Seattle from the Ferry to Bainbridge Island
On the whole, the ship was decorated a LOT classier than Carnival’s ships.  There were no neon colors to be found in the main atrium and I did not feel like I was in a techno club when relaxing in the main Spinnaker lounge.  The only bizarre part of the interior design was the bordello style “Bliss” lounge where there was an abundance of red velvet and bed-style seating.  The entertainment was alright, but geared toward an older crowd as one would expect for an Alaskan cruise. The main show was at 7pm and again at 9pm.  One night we had Charles Peachock, from America’s Got Talent, perform an awesome glow in the dark juggling routine.
After a day at sea, our first stop was in Juneau.  We arrived at port a little later than expected due to a medical emergency onboard.  A passenger actually had to get air lifted to a hospital nearby!  I originally had an excursion booked through NCL to Mendenhall Glacier and the Salmon Hatchery, but after additional research, I decided to cancel it and do it on my own.  Because we were there in May, the hatchery wouldn't have much activity at all.  Instead, we jumped about a glacier express bus right at the pier and went straight to the glacier park area.  After a little negotiation, the $15 round trip ride was a good deal. 
Mendenhall Glacier
The 20 minute ride included a narrated "tour" of the area by a very funny bus driver with not so funny jokes.  The bus stops running at 7pm, so that left us with about an hour at the glacier.  The view from the bus stop is beautiful and you can clearly see the glacier from afar.  There is also a short walk to the waterfall through the woods.  A sign posted by the entrance said the walk takes approximately 45 minutes... that did not leave us much time for pictures, so we decided to very briskly walk (aka jog) there and made it there and back in about 30 minutes.  The walk is definitely worth it since you get a lot closer to the glacier and can get some great pictures.  On the bus ride back, we saw a really big bald eagle sitting on a traffic light. 
We had a few hours to kill before all aboard, so we did some shopping in the small downtown area.  I was bummed the Christmas store was closed, but there were Christmas shops in every other port - so I made up for it!  One of the must-see places in Juneau is the Red Dog Saloon.  It did seem pretty busy, and there was live country music, but the dinner menu was lacking.  We ended up drinking some local beer (which was also served on the ship the entire time) and heading elsewhere for food.  Being in Alaska, we wanted some fresh crab legs. 
Beautiful Alaska Scenery
After asking around a bit, everyone kept directing us to Tracy's Crab Shack.  I ordered the combo platter consisting of a leg of king crab, four award-winning crab cakes, and some crab bisque.  Overall, the singular crab leg was big, but not big enough for the price.  The crab cakes were tiny, and had a lot of filler; however, the crab bisque was delicious.  I hate to make the comparison I'm about to make, but you can find better at Legal Seafoods here in Boston.
One of my favorite things about cruising is getting to see multiple places without having to lug your luggage around behind you the whole time.  You unpack once and actually live out of drawers and a closet for a week, just like home.  Early the next morning, we docked in Skagway and the early morning excursions started by 7 am.  On prior cruises, I have booked morning excursions and found myself rushing to try and eat breakfast before running off the book.  That makes for a very long day.  This time around, I got smarter and booked our train ride for lunch time.  Because we would be out for several hours that day, I did want to get off a little earlier and check out the town first.  As it turned out, Skagway was an incredibly tiny town with only 1 small strip of shops.  I was able to explore each shop and still make it back to the ship within 1.5 hours.  I am very glad I booked an excursion in this town or else I would have nothing to do all day.  We ended up going back aboard for a quick lunch before meeting at the pier to be transported to the train depot in town. 
Train ride through the Yukon Territory
There are multiple train tours in Skagway.  The one I decided to do included a train tour to Frasier and a bus tour back with a stop at a suspension bridge in the Yukon.  Because the train goes into Canada, we did need to have our passports with us on this trip.  We could have easily walked to the train depot as it was only a short walk away.  Once we all boarded the quaint old styled steam train, we were all into the woods.  The narration was a wonderful accompaniment and there was a small platform you could go out onto to take pictures.   I can't even begin to image how horrible the conditions were for the people building the railroad tracks.   It got pretty chilly as we continued to ascend. I have read a lot of reviews about how people couldn't get good pictures because certain passengers were hogging the platform the whole time.  This was not a problem for us, barely anyone was outside and we were able to get some great photos.   The ride lasted about an hour and was a great way to see some Alaskan landscapes.  I highly recommend doing this trip.  
Me on the suspension bridge
The bus driver picked us up from the train station and we took a short 15 minute driver over to the suspension bridge.  I'm not entirely sure that you have to pay to visit this bridge if you come on your own.  I didn't see anyone collecting money.  Our guide told us that the bridge has absolutely no historical significance and was just a nice way to take in the view.  It's a nice little stop, but I wouldn't go out of your way to come here.  On the bus ride back from the suspension bridge, we got really lucky and saw a big black bear on the side of the road!  According to our guy, he was scavenging for food after coming out of hibernation.  I was very glad we were inside the bus and not walking nearby - he was large and grumpy looking.
Before our last two stops in Victoria and Ketchikan, we had a day at sea sailing Glacier Bay National Park.  Along the way, several park rangers boarded the ship and setup a small booth in the Spinnacker lounge to give information and sell a small number of trinkets.  We officially entered the bay around 8 am, but didn't see much until closer to noon.  The captain made an announcement that morning before the park rangers would be narrating as we moved through the passage.  To be honest,
Black bear!
I didn't pay much attention to what they were saying until we were passing by a glacier or they announced an upcoming photo op.  I think Iceland ruined me a bit because I wasn't all that impressed by the glaciers.   I was able to walk on the glacier in Iceland and I think you just don't get the same experience as when you see it from afar on a ship.  I am willing to test this theory in Antarctica though, and I hope I am proved wrong.  The nicest part of this day was the beautiful sunny weather we had.  We were able to be outside the whole time and the crew opened the viewing deck at the front of the ship for an unobstructed view.  To keep with the theme of the day, NCL offers some specialty coffee drinks onboard while cruising along the glaciers.  I ordered a $10 Godiva liquor and  crème de menthe concoction.  It was very good, but I'm 99% sure the price comes from having it in a souvenir glass that I will never use again.  Next time, I would definitely order the drink since it was yummy, but see if I can get it without the mug. 
Glacier Bay
Speaking of drinks, I want to take a minute to talk about the food and beverage options on board.  On average, the alcoholic drinks were priced similarly to other cruise lines.  In comparison to Boston prices, this is on par if not cheaper.  My favorite part of the day were the morning specialty drinks (mimosa, bloody mary, screwdrivers, etc) for $4.25.  We ended up bringing a few bottles of wine on board with us because buying the bottle in Seattle and paying the corkage fee ($15 a bottle) was still cheaper than most of their cheap wine onboard.  I like that Carnival lets you bring on a certain number of bottles for free; with NCL you pay no matter how many bottles you bring.  As far as food goes, we spent most of our lunches at the buffet.  It was hit or miss, but I am a picky eater and mostly ate salad and burgers.  One day they had a Bavarian themed meal, which had yummy salads.  The majority of our dinners were in the free dining rooms.  The salmon meals were delicious, but my chicken had a weird texture.  The appetizers were all very good and I'd say overall the quality is comparable to Carnival.  One evening we decided to try the hibachi grill on board.  The one thing that really struck me as interesting with the specialty restaurants is how small they were.  Most could hold 50 people at max.  Our meal was yummy and exactly what I was hoping to get when I ordered the filet and lobster tail combo.  I don't know how I feel about paying the $25 surcharge, but given the size of the restaurants, I do understand.  Breakfast was probably the best quality when it came to buffet food, but it's hard to mess that up. 
Some cruise ship irony
Our last stop in Alaska was in Ketchikan.  I wish I would have read up more on this town because there are so many more shops here than in the other ports, and everything is cheaper! If you skip through this whole post and only read this part:  save all of your souvenir shopping for Ketchikan!  It is worth the wait.  If there are specific things you want to buy, pick up one of the local shopping pamphlets and skim through for coupons.  I found some items that were priced as high as $9.99 elsewhere for $1.99 with a coupon.  The light jackets everyone bought back in Juneau for $45-$50 were $19.99.  There were some great steals.  We grabbed a coffee in a quaint little coffee shop/popcorn store and spent all morning searching through all of the shops while eating the sea salt caramel corn.  It was delicious! 
At 11 AM, we went to see The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show.  I did some research beforehand and the prices for this show were the same both through NCL and independently.  I ended up booking through NCL because I got a better time.  The show was really good for all ages. 
A glacier calving
Two teams of two lumberjacks competed against each other in various chopping, climbing, and log rolling competitions.  It was a high energy event that held my attention the entire time.  After the show, the lumberjacks posed for photos with the guests.  That is one of my best souvenirs.  We considered going for some food, but were pressed for time since we wanted to do a little more shopping.  Some of my travel companions did make it to Annabel's for lunch and said the crab was way better than last time.  Annabel's was also highly recommended by the hostess at the lumberjack show. 
Our last port was at Victoria, BC.  We did not arrive until around 6pm and only had a few minutes until all aboard at 11 that evening.  We ate an early dinner at the buffet and made our way off shortly after the masses.  The dock is a 40 minute walk from the downtown area.  Because of some health issues in our group, that was not an option.  After considering the others (bus, horse drawn trolley, bikes, cab), we decided to pay the $11 for a round trip ticket on the bus.  As we drove downtown, we passed some really pretty gardens and architecture.  Too bad we only had a few ours and the majority of the sights were far away. 
A moment from the Lumberjack show
We were eventually dropped off in town and spent a few hours finding shops that were open since most closed before we got there.  I did manage to pickup some of the maple whiskey I discovered back in Quebec City.  After more walking, we stopped by a bar and had a drink before heading back.  We weren't there nearly long enough, nor early enough, to enjoy the city.
All in all, I had a great time.  I'm glad I took this trip with the people I came with because I think your travel companions can really make or break your vacation.  I'm not sure that I will take another cruise to Alaska, or really actively seek out returning there in the near future, but I can definitely see the appeal to outdoorsy folks who want to see some beautiful landscapes. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Ski Weekend in the Rockies for the Non-Skier

You may wonder what could possess someone who does not ski to take a trip to a place that is famous for skiing and winter sports. Well, depression hits the north east by the end of February, and when it sets in, it doesn’t mess around.  Having something to look forward to really helps get through the bitter cold and slush, even if that something is an escape to the Rockies and even more snow!  I met someone over the weekend that really put it into perspective for me… vacation snow is fun, snow at home is not.   Plus, I don't like being out of the loop when everyone talks about how fabulous the snow is in Colorado.  My plane departed Boston Friday evening with a direct flight to Denver.  Approximately 4.5 hours later, I picked up my rental car and made my way out to the Sheraton Denver West.  The hotel was a 45 minute drive from the airport, and wasn’t the best decision for a late night arrival because I was exhausted by the time I checked in.
Beautiful views
By 9 AM the next morning (this was obviously a strategic move to avoid traffic, not because I wanted to sleep in), I stocked up on the SPG free breakfast and started to drive on I-70W.  A good amount of snow had fallen the day before and with typical weekend traffic, my drive was delayed by about an hour.  If I had left earlier, it would have been even longer.  Fortunately, the views along the way were gorgeous and I stopped multiple times to snap some pictures. Eventually, I crossed the Vail pass and pulled into the Westin Beaver Creek Riverfront.  I did some research beforehand for activities in the area, but didn’t make any reservations until after I arrived just in case I was delayed due to traffic or any other reason.  I also wasn't sure how I was going to adapt to the altitude, especially since sometimes my grand plans are a little too over the top.  Fortunately, I was feeling just fine.  I quickly called Nova Tours to secure my spot on the 2 hour snowmobiling tour of Tigiwon Trail.  This company had great reviews online and they had van to come pick me up from the hotel so I didn’t have to drive out to their camp. 
Sharp turns through the woods
Before the pickup, I stopped into a local pub walking distance from the hotel, Bob’s Place, for lunch and a beverage and to decompress.  The food was delicious and the company was nice. The van arrived right on time and shuttled about 10 people out to the trailer where we all got geared up and had our payments processed.  After a brief walk through of how to operate the machine, we were off!  I had never operated a snowmobile before, but didn’t have any trouble figuring it out.  I did go a little slower than the norm, but the guide stopped frequently so we could all catch up.  There was a good mix of straightaways and turns through the trail.  We stopped for photos and the guide was more than happy to take pictures on our behalf.  We also had a stop about half way through to warm up with hot cocoa. Overall, I think the tour itself took just over 2 hours not including gearing up and transportation, because we did not get back to the hotel until after 5.   I highly recommend this activity, especially if you’re not quite adjusted to the altitude yet and don’t want to exert yourself the first day.
Beaver Creek Village
That night, I visited another local favorite within walking distance, Vin 48 in Avon, for dinner and drinks.  Vin 48 is a wine/tapas bar with a packed reservation list on weekend nights.  Fortunately, a seat at the bar opened up shortly after I arrived.  I was not overly impressed with the selection of wine by the glass, but I was able to find something reasonable.  The prices are almost shockingly high, even with me being from Boston.  Between a few small plates and a couple glasses of wine, I was creeping up near $100.  My pescetarian diet (only for lent) limited what I could order, and there were a few dishes I just didn’t like.  The smoked salmon fell short, but the scallops were delicious. After dinner, I made my way back to the hotel lobby to listen to the live music and relax before bed.
Views from McCoy Park
Because of the time difference, I had no trouble waking up bright and early before the 10 AM cross-country ski lesson in Beaver Creek.  I picked up a coffee from The Lift marketplace in the Westin hotel and then jumped on the Riverfront Express gondola up to The Landing.  From there, I grabbed a shuttle to the Beaver Creek Village. I walked around the shops a bit to peruse and grab a bottle of water before making me way to the Nordic Center for the lesson.  As luck would have it, no one else signed up for a lesson that day, so I had private instruction.  The instructor was wonderful!  She even walked me through how to get on the lift and what proper etiquette is.  The next 2 hours consisted of progressively moving from standing with no skis to going down a hill and around a bend on my two skis.  We had some time at the end to move out of the instruction area and into McCoy park.  The tracks really help with keeping your feet in line.  Sadly, the park was not tracked, so my skis ended up going every which way.  I have no control in moving my feet in the same direction apparently and almost slid down a hill into a tree.  At that point I just laid in the snow until she came over and unsnapped my boots.  I was totally exhausted by the end of the lesson.  All my grand plans for going ice skating in the village went out the window…  In replacement, I took a 3 hour nap.  J
Is this a joke?
After my nap, I went to check out the 3 infinity hot tubs back at the hotel.  They were great, but there were a lot of kids there… not exactly relaxing. A quick shower later, I was back out in for dinner at Ticino.  Ticino is a tiny little Italian restaurant; jam packed with both families and adults.  I sat at the bar and ordered a bottle of Malbec to share. I started my meal with a delicious rustica salad and had the quarto formaggi pizza for my entrée.  The pizza is big enough to share if you get your own salad.  The food was wonderful, but the company at the bar was far better.  Everyone was very chatty and engaging.   Not wanting to call it a night, I went back to the hotel to order a make-it-yourself smores kit and some sparkling wine.  Sitting out by the fire roasting smores was a wonderful way to end my mountain trip. 
The next morning was mostly uneventful – just checking out of the hotel and driving back to the Denver airport.  I am glad I went for the experience, but I’m not sure I will go out of my way to return.  I’m not an avid skier and while the views were beautiful, we have some pretty awesome mountains nearby too.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Indianapolis in the Snow

This post is very much delayed, and I wanted to get it up before my next trip, but that did not happen.  A few months ago, my brother and sister-in-law moved to Indianapolis.  I was starting to itch for a trip, so I decided to fly out for a quick weekend getaway.  Being from Boston, I decided that it could not possibly be any colder out there than it has been here.  For the most part, I was right, but I still had to bundle up all weekend and try to scurry from one place to the next in the shortest amount of time possible to avoid the frigid cold.
After a layover in Philadelphia, I landed in Indianapolis in time for a late dinner on Friday evening.  My brother drove us from the airport out to his place in Carmel to drop off my bags and play with his two shiba puppies, Zelda and Sheik, for an hour before we ate.   That night we had dinner reservations at The Northside Social.  I’m not entirely sure if reservations were needed; by the time we got there around 9, there were a lot of empty tables.  The service was good and our waiter was patient and friendly.  We all ordered cocktails to start and shared the calamari app.  I love places that serve drinks in funky glasses, so this place was right up my alley.  My brother ordered the Moscow Mule, and it came in a tin cup.  For dinner, I ordered the gourmet mac and cheese.  It was delicious, but too big of a portion for me to finish in one sitting.
Our plans for Saturday were somewhat thought out beforehand, but not entirely.  One of my to-do’s for the area was visit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Unfortunately, there are no grounds tours scheduled during January and we were only able to drive by and snap a quick picture before moving on.  This alone is enough of a reason for me to come back when there is nicer weather.  It looked like a huge venue from the outside.  Around noon, we made our way over to the Museum of Art.  Though I could have stayed much longer, my stomach reminded me that we had not eaten lunch yet.  Going to the museum of any kind on an empty stomach is a bad decision.  Amazingly, admittance is free, so I did not feel so bad after only stay a couple hours.  You can easily spend multiple days exploring the exhibit halls and looking at the art.  This is a huge museum and a great way to spend a few hours!
We headed downtown to a wine and tapas bar called Tastings for lunch and a drink (I was on vacation after all).  Upon entering Tastings, I noticed two things.  #1 was the wine “vending machines” located throughout the restaurant, and #2 was the incredible art hung up on the walls.  Since there weren’t many people there, we chose to sit at one of the high tables over the lounge chairs.  Within moments, our server came over and explained the menu and the vending machines.   After perusing the price of a tasting per bottle (easily averaging $8), I decided to just order a glass of the sparking Shiraz.  It was delicious and the perfect accompaniment to the many apps and flatbreads we devoured.  The food was great, but a meal here is not cheap.  Our lunch was expensive!  Fortunately, a bottle of sparkling wine and dessert were free because my roaming eyes would not leave one of the prints up on the wall, and I ended up buying it.  The artist, Leanne Laine, has an amazing talent for wine inspired works.  They are incredible!  My print is proudly displayed in my living room right now.
After lunch, we worked off the calories by strolling around the mall and hitting a book sale at one of the shops going out of business.  The cold weather kept us from doing too much and we headed back home to relax before a late dinner at Harry and Izzy’s.  I heard from multiple people that I needed to eat the shrimp cocktail at St. Elmos while I was in town.  Harry and Izzy’s is a sister restaurant of St. Elmos and they also had the famous appetizer on their menu.  We ordered a round of martinis to accompany our meals and I bit into the most ground horseradish I’ve ever had in my life.  I am not usually a fan of shrimp, but the sauce was so overwhelming, I did not actually taste the shrimp itself.  If you like horseradish, you will definitely enjoy this dish.  All of our food came out in a reasonable amount of time and was good.  This is a high quality restaurant and the food (and bill) reflect it.  Post- dinner drinks were had nearby before calling it a night.
Because the cold weather continued all weekend, Sunday morning was spent drinking coffee and playing with the puppies.  After unsuccessfully searching for a brunch place, we headed out to Kilroys for lunch and a Bloody Mary.  The drinks were good and cheap, but the food was just average pub food.  This would be a good place to watch a game and eat some nachos.  My flight was scheduled to leave at 4:50, but I wanted to get out earlier because another storm was moving in. 
I’ve decided that since the weather forced us indoors for most of the weekend, I will have to make a return trip in the summer and give Indy a second chance.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

2013 in Summary

Last year I wrote a post summarized all the adventures I went on during the year.  That was so much fun for me, that I decided to do it again!  I may not have gone on as many trips this year, but I did make some awesome memories and wonderful new friends.  Starting with...

An ice cold January in Quebec City where I spent the night in a hotel made entirely of ice and snow.  While the experience was incredible, it most likely won't be repeated this winter.  I did have a great time dog sledding through the forest and was introduced to one of my new favorite liquors, maple whiskey!

After thawing out, I headed south in February to San Antonio for the Rodeo.  While I confirmed that I do not want to be a rodeo clown when I grow up, I had a great time watching the professionals.  I also explored the Alamo and visited a longhorn ranch where I got to pet a newborn calf!

I repacked my parka and snow boots in March for a visit across the ocean to Iceland. Over 4 days I had many amazing experiences, including eating whale, walking on a glacier, exploring frozen waterfalls, soaking in a geothermal lagoon, and watching the northern lights dance across the sky.  It felt like I went from the moon to the jungle, and then to the arctic circle with all the different types of landscapes on that island. 

The next two months, I prepared for my big trip at the end of May to Peru!  The Amazon jungle presented a new set of challenges without electricity for most of the day, but held an amazing number of plants and animals I hadn't seen in the wild before. The altitude sickness that is usually associated with Cusco effected me minimally, and I was able to enjoy the quaint mountain town before exploring the ruins on my way to Machu Picchu.  To end the trip, I came back to sea level and spent a day in Lima.

Escaping the summer heat in July (or so I thought), I boarded the Carnival Glory for a cruise up to Canada.  The Reversing Falls in St. John were a nice stop to kill some time, but I enjoyed Halifax the most.   I am wearing my Roots sweatshirt as I type!

I stayed local for most of the fall until November came around.  My best intentions for planning this trip were cast aside with life's craziness and spontaneity took over!  Fortunately, it worked out most excellently and I had a great time both in Nashville and Memphis. 

December rounded out the year with a trip back to Pennsylvania to visit with friends and family.  Next year is going to be full of more adventures and excitement.  I can't wait to start planning! 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Tennessee Roadtrip!

Sun Studio, Memphis
Earlier this year, my friend and I were talking about how much fun she had the last time she went to Nashville and how much she wanted to go again. Since I had never been to Tennessee, I jumped on the opportunity and we started to plan a trip together.  During our brainstorming sessions, we decided to see both Nashville and Memphis so that she could see a new place and I could see both in one go. The plan was set... a trip from Thursday - Monday starting in Nashville and driving cross state to Memphis for the second half. 


Me @ Honky Tonk Row
Our flight left Boston bright and early and had us landing in Nashville in time for lunch.  Since we couldn't check in yet, we grabbed a few brochures from the Sheraton hotel and sat down to eat at Demos', a place she remembered had a long line on a previous trip.  While eating my huge chili cheese potato, we planned out the next few days.  This is a bit usual for me as I usually plan everything very far in advance, but my mind has been elsewhere for the last few months and so we were incredibly spontaneous this trip!  It all worked out in the end, so I have no complaints.  From the restaurant, we made our way to the Country Music Hall of Fame.  For the next few hours, I learned all about the history of country music and toured exhibits featuring lots of famous names.  In my opinion, this is a must-do when you are in Nashville.  Even if you don't love country music, there is enough to look at to keep anyone's attention.

After a few side trips into the various shops lining the street on honky tonk row, we made our way back to the hotel to check-in, make reservations for the next day with the concierge desk, and freshen up before a night out.  When I think Nashville, the first thing that comes to mind is country music and lots of dancing!  With a little convincing, I managed to get my friend on board with the idea of line dancing at the Wild Horse Saloon.  Even though the huge venue was sparsely populated for Thursday night, we had a great time attending the dance lessons and practicing our new steps.  We even managed to try some of their famous fried pickles (average) and some hushpuppies (delicious!).  A few hours later, the bar closed up early and we made our way (with a group of new friends of course!) down the street to the next honky tonk. Some of our favorites of the night include The Second Fiddle and Whiskey Bent.   The music was live and loud and the crowd was fun!  Almost every honky tonk we walked by had live country music blasting all night long; and there were no covers!  It was amazing!
The Hermitage House, Home of Andrew Jackson
Early the next morning, we met our Grayline tour bus in front of the lobby for a Historic Nashville Tour.  Our first choice was to go behind the scenes at the Opry, but because the Rockettes were setting up for their Christmas Spectacular, the Opry was moved to the Ryman and the tour wasn't offered that day. The historic tour included two stops, The Hermitage House and Belle Meade Plantation, as well as a stop for lunch at a locally owned buffet.  The Hermitage is the home of former president, Andrew Jackson.  He and his family lived in that house for multiple generations before they couldn't afford to keep it any longer and it was turned into a museum by the state.  The tour was guided with hand offs to different guides responsible for different parts of the home.  After the tour, we were free to roam the grounds and walk through where the slave cabins once were, including Alfred's cabin.  Possibly my favorite part of the tour was the field of Belted Galloway cows.  They were so cute and furry, though Kathleen would not let me jump the fence to pet them. 

Nashville music fun!
Before Belle Meade, we stopped at the supposedly delicious local buffet, the Hermitage House Smorgasbord.  For only $10, you can eat as much as you want from a selection of tasteless, and unappealing food.  Everything I took literally had no flavor at all.  Somehow they even managed to remove all flavor from the ranch dressing at the salad bar.  For being in the south, I was severely disappointed.  I can't recommend this stop for anyone looking for flavor.  If you have a dull palate, or maybe some severe dietary restrictions, go right ahead and indulge.

Fortunately, my spirits picked back up at Belle Meade Plantation.  Belle Meade is a beautiful mansion/winery that was decorated for Christmas throughout the ages.  Each room showed Christmas decorations from a different decade.  The tour guide was wonderful and very engaging, and the tour was just long enough to see a lot, but not get bored.  After the tour, we went out to the winery for a wine tasting.  If you know me, you know I love wine..  I purchased a sparkling Riesling that is sitting in my kitchen waiting for the right occasion!  They also had a beautiful gift shop with all sorts of southern paraphernalia.  I could have spent a while here shopping, but we were on a schedule.  The ride back to the hotel was short and in no time we were back in our room getting ready for another night out and a quick dinner at Puckett's where I had the most delicious pulled pork quesadilla.

What is a trip to Nashville without going to the Grand Ole Opry?  As I mentioned before, there was a lot of spontaneity to this trip, so we secured our tickets the night before the event.  We were very lucky to attend the Opry at the Ryman theater, instead of Opryland.  The theater was beautifully intimate and there was a big lineup of both older and young and up and coming country music acts.  Listening to a radio show being broadcasted live was an experience you don't typically get in this age.  It was a fun way to spend the night, and I came away with a new poster and a new band to like, Old Crow Medicine Show!  After the show, we returned to honky tonk row and listened to some more of the live music I was starting to love in Nashville.

"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash!"
Because of some hiccups with the room, we were offered a free breakfast on Saturday morning from the hotel's buffet.  This breakfast ended up being one of the better meals of our trip.  I am a sucker for biscuits and sausage gravy, and both we in abundance.  Along with a side of buttery grits, I was in heaven!  After eating, we packed our bags and made some last stops before leaving the city and starting on our TN road trip.  Aside from shopping, and picking up yummy pralines for the rest of the trip, we also stopped at the Johnny Cash museum.  If you love Johnny, or just are interested in his story, the museum is a fun little stop and a nice way to kill an hour or two.  If you're not very interested in him specifically, you can pass on this "museum".  The gift shop is fun to checkout though. 

Inside Opryland!

By early afternoon, we had picked up our rental car from the airport and after a pit stop at Opry Mills just so I could see the huge development, we were on our way to Memphis.  The 3+ hour ride was easy and quick.  When we were planning this trip, we both agreed to stop over in Arkansas so that we could cross that state off of our bucket list.  Fortunately, West Memphis, Arkansas is about 10 minutes away from Memphis, TN.  The first thing we came to on the road was a truck stop.  I don't know about you, but truck stops scream authenticity to me!  We stopped for a short while and perused the small shop.  Arkansas = check!


Memphis BBQ!
By late that afternoon, we rolled into Memphis.  Our path of rolling must not have been the best because we were quickly driving through some scary parts of town.  That was not the best first impression of this Blues City.  We eventually made our way onto the strip and found our Westin hotel near the FedEx Forum.  The location was very close to the bars and restaurants, but only a block in the wrong direction, and I wouldn't be walking outside at night.  I quickly noticed that Memphis was much smaller than Nashville and that maybe we should have allocated our time a bit differently spending another day in Nashville instead.  That night, I convinced my friend to go get barbeque for dinner at Rendezvous.  A short walk from the hotel, we were able to find it quickly and get immediately seated.  Rendezvous is well known for dry rub bbq.  I ordered a small order of ribs and proceeded to stuff my face with the delicious food.  The ribs were actually in a tie with the slaw for what was most delicious on my plate.  After dinner, we walked down the main road looking for a bar and some music.  Quickly realizing that our pickings were slim, we handed over our cover charge at on open air venue, Silky O'Sullivans, and listened to a cover band play many genres of music, with the exception of country.  This was very bizarre to me, but it was a theme of Memphis, no country music.  No boots, no hats, no nothing...  Because Memphis is a big college town, the bars cater to a younger crowd; not at all the same as Nashville.

Inside Graceland
The package we booked at the Westin included breakfast each morning.  Breakfast was plated and served in the hotel restaurant.  Sadly, the Westin is trying to be healthy, and did not offer any traditional southern fare.  It wasn't bad, it just wasn't what I expected.  After breakfast, we dropped off our rental car and headed out to Graceland to have an Elvis experience!  Upon arrival, we purchased our middle-tier tickets (so that we could see the airplanes too) and hopped on a shuttle.  The van basically took us across the street.  I found this odd as we could have walked there faster. The Graceland mansion itself was beautifully set up on a small hill.  The tour was self guided and we were all given a pair of headphones to listen in to an audio tour.  While the audio was helpful, it makes it hard to experience the tour with a friend.  We were often on different parts of the audio and listening made it hard to talk to each other.  We spent about an hour in the home and on the grounds.  I found the burial plots in the meditation garden very calming and a nice touch for visitors who come to Graceland to honor Elvis.  After the tour of the house, we got back on the shuttle and crossed the street back to the crazy tourist plaza.  The plaza contained shops, restaurants, and additional "museums", or more appropriately, exhibits, highlighting different things.  There was an automobile museum, a museum focusing on Las Vegas costumes, etc. etc.  One of the more interesting exhibits was for Elvis's airplanes.  Not just anyone owns multiple airplanes for their personal use.   That was impressive! 

Burial Plot of Elvis Presley
From Graceland, we caught a bus to Sun Studio.  Sun studio is well known for recording some lesser known artists, such as Jerry Lee Louis and Johnny Cash.  Elvis also was there for a short while.  Though the studio was small, the tour was wonderful!  Artists still record at Sun Studio today, so it was nice to be able to touch things and not worry about being extra careful.  There is also a cute little café that serves soda in glass bottles and little snacks if you're getting hungry.  Don't pass on this tour, even though it doesn't seem all that exciting.  It was one of the highlights of my trip.  After about an hour, we got back on the shuttle and made our way to the Rock N' Soul museum.  We did not actually go into that museum, but it was right next to our hotel, so we had a free ride home.  We had a few hours after the busy tour day to decompress in the room and chill out.  After a short while, I went down to the hotel bar to have a drink and mingle with the locals.  I quickly found out it was
Lorraine Motel
Memphis's restaurant week, and wherever we went that night, we'd have limited dining options. 

The last two days, we heard here and there, that we should check out BB Kings.  We decided to listen and walked down to main street to the other end (about 1.5 blocks away - a long street, I know).  We were seated in a half booth that was arranged in stadium style seating around a big stage.  I ordered a cocktail and waited for the music to begin.  Approximately 45 minute later, the musicians got their act together enough to start playing and we were treated to live music while eating dinner.  The food was average, but the atmosphere was fun.  I'm glad we decided to come here and check it out.  After dinner, we decided to make our way elsewhere to find some pecan pie and more music.  As we walked down the street asking each bouncer if they served pie, we found a winner!  We were serenaded by a group of old men resembling the cast of duck dynasty while eating our dessert.  It doesn't get much better than that!

Our last day in Memphis, we ate another healthy breakfast in the hotel restaurant and walked down the street to the Civil Rights Museum.  We contemplated going there the night before, but quickly realized we made the right decision to wait until daylight.  The short walk was questionable through some run down parts of town.  The museum was nice, though small, and focused mostly on the investigation of the death of MLK Jr.  With admission to the museum, we were also able to walk over to the Loraine Motel and stand on the balcony where he was shot.  This museum is a nice side stop in Memphis and even though it is off the beaten path, it is a nice place to see.

Gus's Fried Chicken!
Before leaving for the airport, I had to get in one last taste of southern cooking at Gus's Fried Chicken.  If you know me, I am not one who really enjoys gnawing meat off of bones, but I do believe in experiencing local flavors.  I ordered the fried chicken fingers plate with baked beans and potato salad.  I don't know how, but Gus managed to keep the chicken incredibly juicy and crispy at the same time.  Everything was delicious and I fully appreciated the souvenir soda glass to take home.  One last run with pie left us happy and full on our flight back to Boston.  Gus's is a must do if you like fried chicken and are in the area.  It's a must do even if you don't really like fried chicken, it's that good! 

All in all, I would love to go back to Nashville for round two, but would skip out on Memphis.  Once is more than enough for me.