Tuesday, September 18, 2012

2012 Recap: Miami and Key West

Gator in the water at Gator Park
This is the last recap post I need to do for 2012.  It seems like a really long time ago now, but over President's Day weekend in February, I flew down to southern Florida to explore Miami and the Florida Keys, specifically Key West. Part of the time was spent visiting friends, but the other part was dedicated to tourist activities and a break from the cold weather in Boston.  Looking back on my journal entry from this date, I can see this is about the time I stopped writing on a regular basis.  For that reason, this post will be short.

It is always cheaper for me to fly into Fort Lauderdale from Boston.  Weirdly enough, it has also always been cheaper to rent a car from the Miami airport, so it ends up being a wash in the end.  I'm not a conspiracy theorist or anything, but I think this must be carefully planned out by someone.  My time on the mainland was divided between South Beach and The Everglades.  Thinking back on South Beach, I remember being surprised at the caliber of people walking around.  Ever since Will Smith started rapping about "ladies half-dressed, fully equipped", I had a vision in my head of what it would like like, but no, most of the people were pretty normal.  Maybe it was because I was there during the day, but it was a nice spot to walk along the beach and have a few drinks under the sun. 
On an airboat

One of the highlights of this trip was the excursions to Gator Park.  Thanks to the HBO show, True Blood, I was dieing to ride on an airboat through the Everglades.  After careful research online, I decided on Gator Park.  The entire experience was lots of fun!  It's really easy to find and even though it's on the same road as every other "gator" type of attraction in the area, it stood out.  I purchased my tickets online in advance and saved $3 on admission.  I know that if you are visiting on a weekend, you can print out a coupon from their website for a BOGO adult admission.  Even paying full price, it's worth it.  I entered through the little store and was escorted to the airboats for our tour of the everglades.  I saw lots of different birds, turtles, and gators!  I even saw some baby gators in the wild.  The water was high enough, so the boat was able to fly around through the glades pretty fast.  Our tour guide was knowledgeable and entertaining.  After the boat ride, all the passengers were escorted into a pavilion for a "show".  It only lasted about 10 minutes, but it was fun to see some of the other animals local to the Everglades.Oh, best part ever, was paying the $3 to hold the baby gator.  He was actually pretty heavy and it made me laugh to watch some of the younger kids hold him up.

Me holding a baby gator at Gator Park
Due to time constaints, I wasn't able to spend anymore time in the MIA/FLL area during this trip.  The next day I drove down through the Florida Keys.  It was a beautiful drive (especially across the 7 mile bridge!) and I'm glad I chose to go that route instead of flying directly into Key West.   The website for the Westin Key West Resort & Marina has a guide to places to stop in the keys along the way.  Most of the stops didn't look to appealing, but I could see how you'd want a list of attractions if you're in a car with screaming kids who can't make it seated for the entire trip.  I didn't see any key deer, and believe me, I was looking!

The Westin is in a great location, right in the heart of all the action.  The concierge was friendly and helped me make some reservations.  I am very glad I didn't splurge for an ocean view room because there were cruise ships blocking the view during our entire stay.  There is a very tiny view and you are not really close to any beaches.  You do have the option to purchase a beach pass for $20/per person per day at the private island beach (a 5 minute ferry ride across the marina).  Those were all sold out by 10 AM the day I tried to buy one.  I managed to snag a breakfast reservation at latitudes, the restaurant on the private beach, but I was incredibly disappointed.  Check out my Yelp review if you want to know why.  Fortunately, my dinner experience next door at Shore American Seafood Grill in the Hyatt more than made up for the bad breakfast.

View from the Westin's Private Island
Overall, Key West has a bit of a hippy/artsy vibe.  I really liked walking down the street and taking in a bit of everything.  There is a lot of history in this city!  Next time I come I'd love to do a walking tour.  I spent a day soaking up the sun on Smather's beach, but didn't get to check out any of the other beaches nearby.  Oh, and the Key Lime pie is to die for!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

International Travel Health

One of the things I always worry about when traveling abroad is my health.  What happens if I brake a toe, catch malaria, or worse?  How will I get help, and if it is worse, how will I get back home?  These are important questions to ask yourself, especially if you are traveling solo or to a country where you do not speak the native language.

To put some of my worries to rest, I make sure to take the precautions I've listed out below.  By no means do I allow these fears to prevent me from traveling; however a safe traveler is an educated traveler!

Go See Your Doctor
Whenever possible (and applicable), I schedule an appointment with my doctor several months prior to a trip.  During this visit I discuss where I am going and if there are any recommended vaccinations for the area.  The CDC has a great website for travel information that lists out any health warnings for each country/region.  They also have a chart that lists out routine vaccines for everyone based on their age.  For example, I have an upcoming trip to Ireland over Thanksgiving this year.  The Health Information for Travelers to Ireland page states that the only vaccine preventable diseases found there can be covered by routine and hepatitis B vaccines.  Since I'm up to date on both, I'm all set.

Sometimes, the vaccines you need (such as yellow fever) are not readily available in the doctor's office.  For these,  you may have to visit a travel clinic.  Check with your insurance first to make sure a visit to the clinic is covered.  You may need a referral from your PCP.

Register with STEP 
The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a US government website that allows you to enter information about your upcoming trip abroad so that the Department of State can better assist you in an emergency. I know that not everyone is keen on the government knowing their every move, but this is a smart thing to do if you are going to a potentially unsafe environment.  You can receive updates from this website about any travel warnings or alerts before and during your trip.  In addition, you should print out copies of the nearest US Embassy location(s) during your trip just to have on hand.

Insurance (Health and Travel)
In some places, health insurance won't be a problem, but in others, you will be required to show proof of insurance prior to being treated.  With that said, you should always know if you health insurance is valid abroad.  Call the insurance provider directly and ask. Also, ask for a 1-800 or international number that you can reach them at from outside the country.  This number may already be on the back of your health insurance card.  If you are eligible, consider getting an ISIC card.  In addition to discounts, this type of insurance provides basic health and travel insurance coverage, and since this is an international company, you won't have as many problems reaching out to them from wherever you are.  If you are like me and typically skip over the section about travel insurance when purchasing your plane ticket, please reconsider!  Travel insurance can come in handy when your luggage is delayed or lost, or when a trip is cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances.  You don't have to purchase insurance through the airline website.  There are lots of places (to be found on the internet) that will ensure a trip. 

Connections Back Home
Ideally, you should have a contact back home with every piece of information possible about your trip.  That should include copies of credit cards, itineraries, and emergency information.  I like to keep little information packets in my checked luggage, carry on bag, and with a friend or family member back home just in case.

Safe travels!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Guest Blogger Writing from Sicily

Me & Bianca at a wedding earlier this year

 Good news!  This coming October, my cousin, Bianca, will be studying abroad for five weeks from Sicily.  She has agreed to be a guest blogger on my blog and write all about her experiences.  I can't wait to read her posts and see pictures!

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

2012 Recap: Phoenix, Sedona, and Grand Canyon

View from Red Rock State Park
One of my stops on my tour of American monuments and attractions (this is an ongoing tour that happens in increments in case you didn't know) was the Grand Canyon.  Living in Boston, I try to escape to warmer climates in the winter and what could be warmer than the desert, right?  Wrong... unbeknownst to me, the Grand Canyon gets snow in the winter too!  Especially when you get visit over MLK Jr Day weekend the middle of January.

My long weekend started out as planned flying into Phoenix and sunny warm weather.  Since it was already late, I stayed overnight near the airport at the Aloft hotel.  I've stayed at several Aloft hotels and I really like this chain a lot.  It is very minimalistic chic.  My only gripe is that they need better pillows.  Sometimes you have to sacrifice style for comfort, right?  The next morning, I started my day with a Southwestern style breakfast at Bill Johnson's Big Apple Restaurant.  I know it sounds corny, but that's because it was!  I loved the kitschy southwest decor and the food was absolutely delicious.   After breakfast, I drove up to Sedona with my top down (it was January!!)  in my rented convertible.

View from Airport Mesa Vortex Site
Sedona is gorgeous!  I almost wish I stayed there the whole time and didn't go to the Grand Canyon.  I don't think I've been anywhere quite like this.  The beautiful burnt red rocks completely contrast the blue sky leaving you in awe.  In addition to the incredible views, the entire town seemed very mellow and welcoming.  When I mentioned this to one of the locals, she informed me it was because of all the positive spiritual activity in the area.  I only had a day, but I did manage to get some hiking in at the Red Rock State Park and the Airport Mesa vortex site.  Both are must-do's if you are in the area!  There are some impressive rock formations that can be seen from both locations.  If you don't know what a vortex site is (neither did I before this trip), look it up online.  Basically it's an area that has a heavy concentration of positive or negative spirits.  I didn't feel anything supernatural when I visited, but there were people, both locals and tourists, everywhere walking around with crystals trying to attract energy.  It was very interesting to hear about! Before driving on to the Grand Canyon, I stopped at  Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village for lunch and some shopping.  The shops were expensive, but just walking around and looking at everything is a lot of fun.  You won't find your typical keychains and magnets there, but as a trade off, you won't find crazy tourist crowds either. 

From from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon at Sunrise
I took the Oak Creek Canyon road north to the Grand Canyon National Park.  This road is very windy and not the faint of heart.  If you can do it, you will be rewarded with some really nice views.  Eventually the top on the convertible had to come back up because it started getting pretty cold out after some time on the road.  Entrance to the national park is $25/car, but they do have a couple free days each year.  I'm pretty sure most people actually stay in hotels outside of the park.  There is only one company that has lodging within the park itself, Xanterra.  This company actually has a monopoly on lodging at most state parks... I have to imagine they have some kind of contract with the government.  Prior to actually visiting the area, I had a grand idea of staying in a cabin the park.  After some research and the limitations of finding lodging in the winter, I was booked for two nights in the Bright Angel Lodges.  From the outside, they look like adorable little cabins literally steps away from the rim.  From the inside, they are pretty much that.  Very basic lodging with minimal ammenities.  In heinsight, maybe the El Tover hotel next door might have been more my style.  As far as location though, it was unbeatable.

Trekking through the forest on my mule
I arrived after dark, so I didn't get my first glimpse of the canyon until sunrise the next day.  It's actually very hard to put a description of the canyon into words.  Even looking down, you don't really get a feel for how deep it actually is.  It was much easier for me to grasp the height of the rock towers is Sedona.  I had a very similar experience actually when I climbed Mt. Sinai in Egypt.  Looking over the range, my mind couldn't really understand how far it went. Maybe I am just odd, but I guess I get a bigger sense of wonder looking up than looking down.  That said, it was still incredible!  I was scheduled for an earlier morning Abyss Overlook Mule Ride along the rim.  There are a couple of options to mule rides, but the one into the canyon took much longer and I just didn't have the time to do it.  Maybe next time!  I arrived on time for a quick safetly briefing and was saddled up with a souvenir canteen at my side in no time.  The mules were pretty entertaining and the group rode out to a great lookout point, Abyss Overlook, where our guide took lots of pictures for us.  It was a lot of fun and I highly recommend this activity.  After the ride, I had some time to drive out along the canyon rim to the other scenic lookout points including Hermit's Rest. That night I had dinner in the El Tovar Dining Room.  Initially I was a little annoyed that I wasn't seated by a window even though I had a standing reservation for a long time, but eventually I decided it was better to be by the fireplace because it was already dark and I couldn't see anything outside anyways.  Dinner was delicious (especially my buffalo steak), definitely 4 star quality with an extensive and impressive wine list.

At Hermit's Rest overlook on the South Rim
The next morning I woke up to a massive snow storm, so I ended up leaving the park early and driving, very slowly, back to Phoenix.  By the time I got near the airport, I was starving.  Fortunately, there was an Arriba Mexican Grill that I'm pretty sure I owe my life to.  I had the most delicious enchilada... yumm, perfect last stop before heading home.  

For more in depth reviews on restaurants, activities, and places I went while on this trip, check out my Yelp account.

A Quick Look at St Paul and The Mall of America

I had high hopes for this post and this trip in general, but I knew going in my schedule was going to be tight, and mostly likely I wouldn't see everything I wanted to see.  As expected, my original "2 Days in the Twin Cities" post got nixed and instead I get to write about a very brief visit to St. Paul and the Mall of America.

After a quick layover in Milwaukee, I arrived in the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport Saturday morning around 10 AM.  I went to The Mall of America in Bloomington, MN directly from the airport.  Conveniently it is right next door.  It probably took me longer to find a parking spot at the mall than it did to drive there from the airport.  There appeared to be 4 floors and a basement in the mall, but the basement is the aquarium and the top floor looked like it was mostly the movie theater and some bars.  That leaves 3 floors of shopping, excluding the space in the center dedicated to the Nickelodeon Universe amusement park (I'll get to that in a second).  As far as shopping goes, I must be spoiled living in Boston.  I was not wow'd with the selection.  There were multiples of many of the stores and there were no high end stores at all.  My go-to store for work clothes, Brooks Brothers, was no where to be found.  Most of the stores catered to working class families, which makes sense considering where the mall is located.  Having worked in retail during high school, I keep thinking about how awful it must be walking around that mall in December, haha.

Nickelodeon Universe
The definite cool factor to the mall in the indoor amusement park. It is geared towards younger kids, but there are plenty of big kid rides too, including an inverted roller coaster.  I glanced at the prices, and if I remember correctly, a day pass is $30.  That is not bad at all considering you could spend all day riding rides.  One word of advice... Do not buy toys in the toy shops in the center of the mall.  You are paying amusement park prices when you can go to the Target down the street and get the same things for half the price.  They really try to rip you off in these stores, and if you decide you want to return something because you did find it for a cheaper price, they make you wait forever for a manager to come by because they typically don't do returns.  I guess that makes sense if you think of it as an amusement park, but it doesn't make sense if you think of it as a toy store.  Also flanking the center part of the mall is a lego store (super cool!) and a giant American Girl Doll store.  My little cousins would have loved this!

On a riverboat floating down the Mississippi
Part of Day 2 was spent in St. Paul.  Knowing that I only had a little time in the city, I looked to my trusted trip planning sources and booked a 1.5 hour sight-seeing tour along the Mississippi river with Paddelford Riverboats.  I love historic things and I figured this would be a good way to see some highlights of the area; boy was I wrong.  The "tour" was a pre-recorded narration of the exact same words as what was listed on the paper map.  In addition, there were long periods with no narration at all, including the entire second half of the trip.  Most of the people were not paying attention and it was hard to hear the sound coming out of the sparsely placed speakers.  To top it all off, there was really nothing much to see on this sigh-seeing tour.

If you are ever in the area, I'd say to pass on this experience. The rest of my day including driving around the city and trying to find the Como Park Zoo (no parking anywhere so I didn't go).  I left St. Paul feeling very underwhelmed.  Based on this trip, I'm not sure Minnesota is the place for me.  I did enjoy all of the lakes though.