Saturday, January 10, 2015

2014 In Summary

The last couple of years, I've always finished with a post that summarized all the fun travels I was able to have in the last 12 months.  This recap not only helps jog my memory, it also reminds me how blessed I am to have the means and desire to visit such wonderful places.  Each time I go somewhere new, I realize just how big the world is and how different cultures are unique yet mesh so well in the big picture.

Starting back from last January when I went to Indianapolis, I already knew 2014 was going to be a cold-weather destination year.  The wind was blowing and most of that trip was spent indoors at the Museum of Art and different restaurants and bars.

As March rolled around and the temperatures just started to stay above freezing, the ski season started to wind down in Colorado.  As a beginner skier, this was an ideal time for me to visit Beaver Creek and give cross-country skiing a shot.  The mountain scenery was beautiful and I had a great time riding snow mobiles through the summer hiking paths. 

The third cold weather destination of the year took me to Alaska in May on a Norwegian cruise.  Leaving from Seattle, we enjoyed the free-style atmosphere and docked in Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, and Victoria, BC.  Some of the highlights of that trip were seeing the wildlife (a bear!) and eating freshly caught crab legs. 

Summer in Boston is beautiful, so I didn't take another trip until August to experience the new Harry Potter amusement park in Orlando.  A long weekend of butterbeer, sunshine, and rollercoasters was a great way to welcome in the Autumn season.

November was my last big trip of the year.  Thanksgiving is a great time to travel internationally and I found a really good deal with Affordable Asia in Thailand.  9 days split between Bangkok and Phuket introduced me to the Asian culture for the very first time!  I will never forget riding an elephant through the forest or getting to play with the tiger cubs.

As usual, December is a month dedicated to family.  I always head back to the town I grew up in and spend time with the people I don't get to see nearly enough.  

We are now into the second week of January and 2015 is already looking to be action packed! I've got tentative plans for trips all over the world (check out my calendar page for details). I can't wait!

Happy New Year everyone and Happy Travels!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Thanksgiving in Thailand

One of the beautiful temples in Bangkok
Last October, an alert came through my phone for a Groupon deal with Affordable Asia to China.  I’ve been looking to go to China for a while and the prices listed were very inexpensive.  I followed the company’s site and  ended up finding a 9 night 7 day trip to Thailand that peaked my interest even more for the week of Thanksgiving.  The price was outstanding and transportation, hotels, and a lot of activities were included – which meant I could sit back and enjoy the ride.  I’ve been on tours in the past to Egypt, Peru, and Iceland, and have always found them stress-free and flexible.  Since I don’t know Thai and wanted to see as much as possible of the country in a short week, a tour seemed like the best way to go.

 I remember sitting in my seat on the Amtrak train from Boston to NYC at the start of my long journey reading my itinerary for the next 9 days split between 4 days in Bangkok and 3 days in Phuket.  While all the activities looked incredibly exciting, the one thing that stood out most on the page was the 16 hour flight from JFK to Hong Kong.  I really hoped that flight was going to be worth it.  Even now that I reflect back on it, I’m not so sure. Luckily, 2 Benadryl and a glass of wine turned that long flight into a blissful slumber land leaving me forgetting about jet lag and arriving on Thai time (more or less).

Day 2 - Arrival in Bangkok
I want this little guy!

My flight arrived in Bangkok at 7pm on day 2 and I was met outside baggage claim by the tour guide.  All the guides had signs and flags and we were able to find our tour easily.  We sat in traffic for a while (this was a common theme in ALL of Thailand at any time of day or night) before arriving at our hotel, the Centara Grand at Central Plaza Ladprao . The hotel was tastefully decorated and the room was very comfortable and on par with a typical Marriot/Westin style hotel.  In addition, it was actually attached to a shopping mall through the parking lot, so we made a quick trip that night to pick up a case of water and some snacks before crashing for the night.  I always recommend getting a case of water at the beginning of a trip where it is not safe to drink water from the tap.  You never know if buying it on the street (even from a bottle) is safe. The one quirk of this hotel as well as our hotel in Phuket is that the bathroom was separated from the bedroom area by a glass wall looking into the shower.  While this does open up the room quite a bit, you can bet I was quickly looking for a button to lower the curtain and close off the view.  Weirdly, the button to close off the view was located outside of the bathroom area, meaning the person in control is the viewer not the person in the shower... hmm.

Day 3 - Temples and Shopping

Breakfast at the hotel was included each day.  The buffet spread was actually very nice and had a mix of American and Thai breakfast options.  Most days, I had some fried rice, a croissant, and some bacon to start my day.  That definitely beats my toast and coffee routine back home.  A couple mornings I felt more adventurous and included some stir fried beef and bok choy or a dumpling or two - truly a breakfast of champions!  At 9 AM that morning,  the group met our guide, Nop, in the lobby and piled into the big bus for a full day of sight-seeing. Nop's English was a little difficult to understand, but he did manage to get us everywhere on time and handled a couple of disgruntled tour members well enough throughout the trip.

The itinerary for the day began with a bus ride out to the Temple of the Golden Buddha.  As a first stop, this was a fun way to view a piece of Thai history and take lots of pictures.  It's not very big in comparison to the other temple we visited that day, but it was still beautiful and made of solid gold!  Our guide told us they know this because when they moved the statue a while back, it actually cracked in half… awesome. The next stop was supposed to be a stroll through the Flower Market at Paklong Talat, but really we only quickly walked down a street past some stalls to get to the next destination.  I'm not sure that this could be considered an attraction in our itinerary and should have been taken off.  The next real stop was at the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.  It was awesome!  There were actually multiple buildings and lots of different buddhas to see, but the Reclining Buddha was HUGE!  I'm very glad this was included in our tour as I have never see anything like it before.  It was bigger than the height of a house and impossible to get in a single picture, haha!

Lunch was included in the tour that day at a nearby hotel.  We ate at hotels and buffets a lot.  I’m guessing this is because they are generally safe and offer a variety with little prep time. There were a lot of options to choose from, but I quickly found that 90% of everything in the traditional Thai spread was insanely spicy!  Not just like wow, this is hot... no, it was like coughing and crying spicy.  I believe I ate a large portion of plain white rice and about 9 mini cakes for dessert.  The last stop of the day tour was at a "Gem factory".  I put that in quotes because this was the first of several stops where we were clearly there to shop and spend money so that our tour guide could get a kick back.  We arrived at the "factory" and were ushered into a room to watch a 1970's movie with horrible acting and music explaining the process of finding gems in Thailand.  10 minutes later, we walked out and were immediately paired up with our very own sales consultant and escorted onto the sales floor.  I had no interest in buying any of the gaudy pieces of jewelry on display, so I spent the next 40 minutes sitting in the shop staring at all the suckers being talked into a sale.
Classical Thai dancers

Eventually we got back to the hotel with barely enough time for a quick shower before getting back in a van with a smaller group.  That evening, we booked the optional Classical Thai dance shower and dinner.  This was the second time I was disappointed on the tour - not a good track record so far for Affordable Asia.  We arrived at the Riverfront shopping/entertainment area called Asiatique and were corralled into a restaurant/theater named Calypso Cabaret.  The advertisements for this particular establishment promoted a slightly different type of show than what I was expecting.  I will not go into detail here, but if you click on the link and look around, you'll get the idea.  We all sat at long cafeteria style tables pretty far back from the stage and were served our pre-fixe meals.  The food and service were bad, but the show was even worse.  It was all very amateur, and while I enjoyed the costumes, this was not at all what I was expecting for the price I paid for the optional tour.  I don't think they even advertise the classic Thai dance show on their website.   On the upside, Asiatique was a lot of fun.  The open air market seemed endless and there was a really good variety of shopping available.  I picked up some good trinkets here; I really should have bought more since I found the best deals (after haggling of course) in this location.

Day 4 - Relax and Restore

Floating market
I have a friend living in Bangkok, so I wanted to make sure to have a free day to meet up with her and relax a bit in between tour days.  While the optional day tour was tempting, I later found out from fellow tourists who went that the only thing worth seeing that day was the Grand Palace.  I probably should have made some alternative plans to see that on my own.  Instead, I did some research on the hotel in advance and saw  a special offer for a 3 hour spa package for what was the equivalent of $75 USD.  Since you can't get a deal like that in the US, I booked it.  That morning, I received a phone call in the room to confirm my appointment and headed down to the spa about 20 minutes early.  I was quickly greeted and asked to fill out an information form.   When that was done, I was escorted to the room.  The spa area in general was pretty small, but I did like that there were individual shower/changing areas attached to each massage room.  The masseuse turned on the steam function in the shower and I relaxed in there for 15 minutes before coming out and enjoying treatment #1 - a full body scrub.  The scrub smelled so much like a sugar cookie, I was very tempted to eat in when she got closer to my face.  Once that was all washed off, I had a relaxing body massage, followed by a facial massage and Indian head massage.  3 hours later, I was pleasantly relaxed and smelling of food.  A few of my fellow tourists shared their "Thai massage" stories from other massage parlors and they all left beaten up and in pain.  I guess I did not get the traditional Thai massage at the hotel, but I don't think I missed out on anything there.

Piling on the bamboo rafts
 That night, I took the public transportation system (subway and sky train) down to the large shopping complex, CentralWorld, for shopping and dinner with my friend. We walked around the mall to look at the shops as well as the stalls/stores in MBK nearby.  MBK was a waste of time since everything was very crowded and looked to be of a poor quality.  I don’t have a lot of patience for shopping in places like that.  We ate dinner in the mall and while the food was very good, the company was even better!  I hadn't seen my friend in several years, so that night was all about catching up!  Before heading home, we all jumped in a tuk tuk to the nearest subway station so that I could ride back to the hotel without making any transfers on my own.  The tuk tuk ride was a lot of fun and I'm glad I went with a local so she knew we were headed to the right destination, because I was totally lost!

Day 5 - Elephant Camp and Bamboo Rafts

Elephant ride through the river
The next day we chose to go on the optional tour with almost everyone else!  It was a packed bus and a long day of traveling.  I really wish tour groups would indicate travel time on their itineraries.  While I would not have changed my decision to go on this day tour, I would have liked to know the return trip back to the hotel was going to take 3 hours beforehand so I could pack additional snacks.
 We left after an early breakfast for the Damnern Saduak Floating Market.  Almost 2 hours of bus riding later, our group split up into smaller groups and jumped in some boats.  There were some boats guided by a man rowing, but ours had a small motor.  We floated through various canals and stands setup  on the edge of the water with souvenirs and trinkets.  The only problem was that if you pointed at anything or showed interest for more than 3 seconds, the shop owner would reach out with a long hook and pull your boat next to their stall.   You would then be subjected immediately to a high pressure sale.  We quickly learned not to make eye contact unless you were ready to buy.  The fruit sales were all down smaller canals that our boat could not fit into, so I think we missed out on some of the sights.  I wouldn't have purchased any fruit there anyways, so I wasn’t too disappointed.
 The next stop was yet another buffet lunch in Kanchanaburi on the River Kwai.  I ate my fill of white rice (no mini cakes this time) and some mildly spicy drunken noodles before browsing yet another souvenir market.  Another 45 minute drive took us to the highlights of the day, and possibly the entire tour - the elephant camp and bamboo rafting tour! There were a lot of people at the elephant camp when we arrived, so our guide decided we would do the rafting tour first.  ¾ of the group heard him say this and ran to change into their swimsuits.  The other ¼ was out of luck because by the time we were in tow to the rafting launch point, their suits were back on the main bus about a mile away.  We all put on our life jackets and walked out onto the bamboo rafts.  The river was quiet and perfectly serene… Some local guides steered us around small rapids and gave the signal for people to jump in.  I do not like swimming in water than I cannot see through, so I opted out from that part of the activity.

Me and a "baby" elephant
When we rode back to the Elephant Camp, there was no time to change back into normal clothes (sorry, swimmers!).  We all lined up to climb up the small platform and sit in a mini bench strapped to the back of an elephant.  I managed to purchase a small bag of bananas as elephants treats before I got on.  The first thing I realized about elephants from sitting on its back is that they have hair on their head.  I think they have it elsewhere too, but that made me laugh.  The second thing I noticed is that they sweat just like we do – and boy was it hot out!  The ride lasted about 30 minutes or so and was the perfect amount of time.  We waded through some water and through the woods.  At one point, my guide jumped off to go chew on some tobacco he got from a random woman (neighbor?  Wife?).  The elephant continued to walk on his own for a solid 5 minutes while he watched from the ground.  When he was done, he told me to slide down from the bench and ride the elephant from its shoulders!  What a fabulous idea!!   I immediately went right to the same spot he was sitting in and started to feed my elephant bananas until the guide yelled at me because the elephant stopped moving and just kept eating.   After the ride, the baby elephants put on a little 5 minute show for us really showing how intelligent they can be… they got to eat the rest of my bananas!  We got back to the city pretty late that evening and packed up our bags since we had to fly to Phuket the next day.

Day 6 - Phuket

Another beautiful temple in Phuket
The morning flight to Phuket was very well organized.  Our guide took us through the group check-in area and we had enough time to wander around for a few minutes before boarding the plane.  Upon arriving in Phuket, we were met with some unpleasant news.  Instead of going to the hotel to drop everything off and find some lunch, we were going to stop at a rest stop / grocery store to get something quickly to eat and spend the rest of the day on the bus “touring” around Phuket.  The tour piece included more driving (aka “City Tour”) and a forced shopping stop at a cashew “factory”. We did stop at a park with a lovely viewpoint of the Andaman Sea for photos as well as a beautiful monestary. 
Before checking into the hotel, our guide told us the optional evening activity would have to be pushed to the last night so that we could squeeze in all of our stops that day.  The hotel was beautiful!  The rooms were nicely decorated, there was an infinity pool overlooking the private beach, and we were back in time for happy hour at the pool bar.  We ended up eating that evening at the hotel restaurant before going to bed. 

Day 7 - Baby Tigers and the Beach

Traditional Thai fishing boat
The next day was a free day from the tour since I didn’t choose to go  on the optional day tour to James Bond island.  The people I spoke with who did go seemed to have a great time, but I didn't need two full days on boats back to back in the sun.  It ended up working out very well, because I got to do 2 very exciting things instead: Patong Beach and Tiger Kingdom!  The only downside to the hotel we stayed at was the proximity to the popular areas of Phuket, so we kind of got the raw end of the deal with cab fares.  In addition, a lot of cab drivers didn’t even want to drive all the way out to our hotel from the main attractions.  We managed to organize a driver through the hotel concierge to take us to Tiger Kingdom, wait, and then drive us from Tiger Kingdom to Patong beach. 

Tiger Kingdom was a small zoo-like area with Tigers of all ages.  There were multiple packages to choose from depending on what size tiger you wanted to interact with.  My companion had no desire to play with any tigers larger than a standard dog, so our package was limited to the smallest tigers only, haha.  You only have about 10 minutes to interact with each tiger, so I guess there is not a lot of value for the investment (I think translated to about $90/person with photo CD), but I would have happily paid twice the cost for my experience.  After washing my hands and changing into some slippers, I walked into a cage that held two 1.5 month old tiger cubs.  Initially they seemed sleepy, but after a minute or so, they started to play with each other and chase the toys in the cage.  The photographer was great and took a lot of pictures.   I also got to play with a much sleepier 2.5 month old cub, who was the size of a medium sized dog, except with much larger paws.  The photo CD was ready about 10 minutes after our time was up and there were computers where you can view your images and make sure everything works accordingly.  I really liked the way this small business was run –very efficient, yet enjoyable.

Swimming stop on our boat tour to Phi Phi Island
We found our driver waiting in the rest area and he took us to the next stop, Patong Beach.  Patong is the main beach attraction on Phuket.  There are a lot of nearby hotels, restaurants, and shops right on the main drag.  We walked through a small market where I picked up a beach mat and sat down on the beach to soak in the sun.  The water was like a warm bath.  The swimming paired with a few coconut drinks made for an awesome way to enjoy my free day.  Later in the afternoon it started to rain.  A lot of people were trying to catch cabs back to their hotels, but we decided to get some food and wait it out.  Rule #1 of eating in a foreign country is to go somewhere where there is a crowd of people already eating.  I enjoyed some incredible fried rice served up in a fresh pineapple and a cold Singha beer.   We eventually got a cab back to hotel and spent the evening in the pool drinking mai tai’s.

Day 8 - Snorkeling

Me and a tiger cub!
After such an exciting prior day, I was looking forward to a day on a boat.  The group was bused to the marina for a brief orientation.  We were all on the same boat with a small Russian group.  Unfortunately, the Russian guide was much louder and more vocal than our guide, who didn’t say anything the entire time.  I do think my experience could have been better with a guide that spoke more often and more clearly.

We stopped several times during the day for snorkeling and/or swimming.  Some stops were better than others, but I did like how there was a nice supply of water and fruit drinks for us to consumer on the boat to prevent dehydration.  One of the swimming stops was in a cove with a rock wall that some people were climbing and jumping off of into the ocean.  It was one of the more beautiful locations from the entire trip.  Even though there were 10+ boats in the cove, it was still incredible.   Some of the less exciting stops were a drive by of monkey island, and khai island.  We were supposed to have time to relax at the last stop, but it was the smallest of all the islands and there was no shade anywhere andif you wanted to rent a chair/umbrella, you had to pay even more and tip of course.  I don’t like when day tours are not all inclusive because then you had to worry about keeping cash on you, or on your towel, while you swim in the ocean.  I didn’t even get in the water on the last stop.  This ended up being a good decision since there was an influx in sea lice and almost everyone who went in got bit!  In retrospect, I don’t think I would book that excursion again.  I would much rather have booked a boat ride independently on one of the traditional Thai fishing boats.

Random souvenir from Fantasea...
Later that afternoon, we went back to the hotel to shower and change before going to Fantasea.  The website describes this place as a Disney style amusement park with so much fun for all ages!  In actuality, it was an interesting blend of amusement park, creepy carnival, and rave.  There were amusement park games, lots of shops, and a chance to ride an elephant.  There were also lots of food and treat stands and flashing neon lights everywhere, but the evening centered around 1) buffet dinner and 2) show.  The food was very mediocre, but the show was awesome.  Not quite cirque du soleil, not quite a musical, not quite a variety show… I’d say it was a mix of almost anything you can think of in about 60 minutes.  I only wish we had better seats, since I hate sitting in the nosebleeds for anything!   We had about 20 minutes or so after the show to collect our belongings and head back to the bus to the hotel.

Day 9 - Departure

The last morning was supposed to be dedicated to a leisurely breakfast and packing before going back to the airport for the long trip back home.  Unfortunately, I must have eaten something bad the night before at the buffet because I spent most of the morning in the bathroom.  I will spare the details on this post, but that trip home seemed 10 times longer than when I arrived.  When we finally landed back in New York my first thought was joy that if I had to go to the hospital, I'd be back in the US.  Fortunately, that wasn't necessary, but I was very glad to be home.

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

NCL 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.