Monday, June 23, 2014

Napa Valley, CA

Just home from a quick 3-day spin around Napa and Sonoma.
  • If you can, download the Winery Finder app on your smartphone.  There are some interesting deals out there for a lot of different wineries (2:1's, upgraded tastings, extra pours, etc.).  Please note that, unlike a couple years ago, these deals require a public check-in and photo on either Twitter or Facebook.  I was not happy with this change since we never post about a vacation until we are safely home.  In the two instances we used the app, I deleted the post on Facebook soon after.
  • We had to stay in two different hotels due to SpringHill being booked up for the NASCAR events Friday night.  
SpringHill Suites Napa Valley - There are probably some that will argue that this hotel is too far south to be convenient to wine country; however, we really enjoyed the hotel itself as well as the location. It is easy to get to either Sonoma or Napa, and it's closer to the airports (we flew out of Sacramento).  VERY clean, very quiet.  For those interested (we didn't have the time), they have a pool and beautiful fire pit.  If you stay here, Devlin Rd is a nice shortcut off the main highway that will alleviate a couple minutes in traffic.  Just turn right out of the hotel onto Devlin then make a right-hand turn onto Soscal Ferry Rd - that will get you where you need to go.  We'd stay here again.

Napa Valley Marriott Hotel & Spa - If you are going to wine country purely for wine tasting and plan to be gone through the day, I wouldn't stay here.  The grounds are beautiful and very resort-style, but we couldn't enjoy it with how long we were gone.  We literally only slept here and had breakfast in the Elite/Platinum lounge (thanks to the hubs traveling so much).  For the price, it's not worth it to us to stay here, although I will say it's a little more convenient to the Napa wineries.

Rombauer - If you like heavily oaked wines with a lot of vanilla and butter on the finish, Rombauer is the place to go.  Even if you don't like that style of wine, you will love the picnic grounds and the view from the ledges of the hill.  The landscape is top-notch lush, and there is plenty of space to picnic before or after your tasting.  We picked up pre-ordered boxed lunches from Sunshine Food Market (below) and grabbed a picnic table here.  Unfortunately, the tasting room is a belly-up to the bar type of place that was busy when we walked in.  It took several minutes for us to be acknowledged and were about to leave until a gentleman called us over to his tasting table.  Definitely recommend as a stop.
View from one of the picnic areas at Rombauer.
Markham - We were introduced to Markham in our off-time from pouring at a past Party for the Senses at Epcot during the annual Food & Wine Festival.  Markham's Chardonnay hits the buttery spot for me, but it's not nearly as oaky as Rombauer.  We usually have a bottle in the fridge because we can buy it at Total Wine.  The tasting room is lovely and the staff is attentive.  Recommend.

Jamieson Ranch - I would never have gone to Jamieson Ranch if a tour hadn't been set up for us by a good friend of ours who works in the wine industry.  It is at the very base of Napa (2 miles from SpringHill Suites), and the property is just absolutely stunning and inviting.  So happy we had a chance to visit here! We had the complete experience here - tour, tasting, cheese plate, honey tasting, and mini horse visit.  This is the kind of winery that you can visit with either your honey or a group of friends and have a really nice time. Plenty of indoor and outdoor seating and hospitable staff.  The wine is great, and we bought a bottle of their port-style dessert wine, the only style we drink.  They have a fantastic Viognier and a few wonderful Pinot Noirs.

Now, a little tangent.  We spent a little over two hours here and got a really nice tour of the property and facilities.  Something that I did not expect was a visit from their mini horses.  These sweet creatures have been rescued and then trained as therapy horses.  They are not much bigger than a large dog and can enter health-care facilities to visit patients.  The work that Jamieson Ranch is doing with the horses is amazing, and I love the story behind them.  They have a brand dedicated specifically to this initiative called Light Horse.  Highly recommend a visit here!
Sweet Jane - one of the therapy horses.
View from our spot on the porch.
Peju is one of our favorites, and we visited here again on our first winery stop.  Last year we took home a couple bottles of Zin.  This year, we took home a couple bottles of Syrah.  The staff friendliness can be a little iffy here, but we still really like this place.

Whitehall Lane was also a repeat for us, but this time we had a private tour set up.  We spent a good amount of time with one of the tasting room staff, Jeff Bailey, and had the opportunity to meet Tom, Jr, the owner's son who has a big hand in the business.  The wines here are quality, and the tasting room is small but comfortable.  Always a nice little stop, and it's right up the road from Peju and right down the road from Sunshine Food Market.

The Terraces - I will never forget the Christmas at my old wine shop, Cork & Olive, when we were tasked with making up 25 baskets with bottles of Terraces wine for one of our customers.  There were baskets EVERYwhere in our little store.  That was in 2008.  Fast forward to last week, and we FINALLY got a very up-close and personal look at The Terraces.  We spent a good amount of time viewing the gorgeous hill-side property - old stone winery shell constructed in the late 1800s, a stone outbuilding where they are making balsamic vinegar for the wine club, peach trees, honey bee boxes, vines, guests houses.  It's 130 acres of pure beauty.  The wines are terrific, and the hospitality director and winemaker are really nice and knowledgeable.  Highly recommend a reservation!

Thomas George (north of Sonoma - Russian River Valley) - As we were driving south on Westside Rd, we decided that one of the wineries might make for a good stop.  Wine tastings are done in their caves, and they have a great selection of Pinot Noirs.  It's a small, comfortable atmosphere on a beautiful property.

Ledson (Sonoma) - We still regret not buying that 2006 Zin from our 2012 trip, so this time we swore that if we liked it, we were buying it.  We walked out with a couple great selections after going through a tasting with Tom, whom we had met on our last visit.  The property and mansion are gorgeous and were featured as the cover on my Facebook page for quite a while.  They specialize in Zin, but have a killer Chardonnay that we almost passed on until Tom insisted that it fit the exact description I gave him of my preferred Chard style.  I should have known to trust him after the 2012 visit, but I really do now.  He was SPOT on, and I'm glad he challenged me on it.  Highly recommend!

Moshin (north of Sonoma - Russian River Valley) is right down the street on Westside Rd from Thomas George and was a last second recommendation from our wine industry friend via text.  The staff was very nice, the wines are solid, and the labeling clever.  I wish that we'd been able to meet the owners, but neither of them were on property at the time.  It's a neat little place that makes for a nice, quick stop.

Tasting Rooms
Flora Spring - We visited based on a recommendation from Whitehall Lane.  In a nutshell, the tasting room is neat, the wines good, and the prices insane.  Would not go back.

Girard - Went with a winemaker we met at an industry party so we didn't have to pay, which was great since I wasn't completely blown away.  I think if I'd had a more uninfluenced tongue by that point in the afternoon, it might have been a better experience.  If the mood strikes, we might pop by earlier in the day next time we are in town.

Spann (Sonoma) came pretty highly recommended on Yelp, so we decided to swing by here on our way out of Sonoma.  Glad we did.  The tasting bar is inside the entrance of an art gallery, and we had a really nice conversation with the gentleman pouring for us.  The wines are pretty good, and it was one of our better tasting room experiences.

Grace's Table Because we liked Grace's so much in 2012, I bought a certificate so we could have dinner there.  We ordered the cornbread with lavender butter that I'd read about over and over again on both Trip Advisor and Yelp.  Whoa, just whoa!  I really, really wish I could replicate that at home!  If you go, please try it!!!  The hubs had a really tasty burger, and I had the scallops over corn risotto.  Both were quite yummy!

Sunshine Food Market (Picnic Lunch Box) - I had read that there were nice picnic places at Rombauer, so we ordered our boxed lunches the day before so we could just pick them up and go.  The hubs had a full box with the Sioux-Z-Q sandwich and Pesto Pasta Salad, and I had a light box with the Tri-Tip sandwich.  We didn't have room for the chips or cookies because the sandwiches, pasta, and fruit filled us up.  I will definitely order from them again if we are looking to picnic.

Bounty Hunter BBQ was a happy hour snack stop for us.  We shared the $10 sampler.  Awesome!  It's right downtown Napa, over the bridge from Oxbow Market.

Carpe Diem - We enjoyed the happy hour selection so much in 2012, that this was our last stop before heading to our airport hotel.  We had a lot of different food, no wine, for a nice price.  We had the following: Harissa Fries, Truffle Popcorn, shot of soup, Quack N Cheese, and the mushroom flatbread.  So good that my mouth is now watering thinking about it!

One Other Thing...
A very scenic drive can be had by driving down Westside Road in the vicinity of the Russian River Valley. Things to consider before making this jaunt:
  • Drive it before you begin wine tasting for the day. The narrow road and tight turns can be a little hairy dead sober. And watch out for the cyclists.
  • Read over the route map carefully before driving down Westside. We still got turned around where Eastside and River roads converge. Thankfully I had a Sonoma wine country map, tiny as it was, with us. We definitely ended up going in the wrong direction for a while on River Rd.  
  • Stop at some of the wineries along the way.  They are so quaint, and the properties are beautiful.
  • Don't expect to keep a cell phone signal throughout the drive.  Our signals (and GPS) kept going out on us.  Not fun, especially when were lost.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Disney Magic - Bahamas

I was very interested to see how this cruise line compares to Carnival.  I knew that we could carry on as much alcohol as we wanted, so for the first cruise yet, the rum rummers remained neatly tucked into the "cruise box."  I had also heard that the food is amazing, and that the private island is beautiful.  I love Coco Cay (RC's island) and Half Moon Cay (Carnival's island), so I was really looking forward to experiencing Castaway Cay.

I couldn't help compare this ship to Royal and Carnival's 3-day cruise ships so I'm breaking my usual format to throw in some comparison tidbits.

We parked at the garage at port, which is different for us.  There were a couple of check points before even getting to the luggage and passenger drop-off point.  Drop off was easy, but it did take a while to get parked and walk back to the terminal.  The walk back to the car after the cruise was pretty nice though.  No shuttling back to the parking lot. We split the parking fee with another couple, but if it had just been me and the hubs, we'd have used Park Port Canaveral as usual.

The Ship
The Room 
We had Ocean View Deluxe stateroom 6506.  I was shocked at how big this room is.  I'm not used to having that much space.  From the looks of it, the couch pulls out into a bed, and there is a pullman over that. Also liked the divided bathroom, but each side was pretty darn tight.  Good size mini fridge, and I really liked that I could flip through channels and watch Disney movies - some new, some old.

Each room comes with a couple of portable "wave phones," which make keeping in touch on-board and on Castaway Cay really easy, and you can text on them.  Wish all cruise lines did this because walkie-talkies just don't do an adequate enough job.


The Food
The Disney Magic's food was really hit or miss.  Here's my two cents:

  • Breakfast: Mediocre.  Both the buffet and sitdown options are just OK.  I like Carnival's breakfasts much better.
  • Lunch: Really good.  We only ate at the buffet.  The food selection for lunch was really impressive. On embarkation day, I was really surprised to see lamb, shrimp, and crab claws.  I definitely enjoyed all of the food we had for lunches.
  • Dinner: Depends.  Carioca's - didn't like it much.  Animator's Palate - better than Carioca's.  I like Carnival's food better overall, although Disney's dinner menus did have a few tasty options here and there.  The dining room staff did a great job with our large group of 10 adults and 3 little ones.  
  • Specialty Dining: Palo - blew Carnival's steak house and Cucina and some the nicer restaurants in our area out of the water.  Absolutely terrific, and the server's knowledge, charisma, and attentiveness were amazing!  
  • It was wonderful not having to take sodas on board with us.  The Coke machines on board and on Castaway Cay were all in great working order and very convenient.
  • The Pirates party buffet had some nice selections.  I was astounded when I walked to the rear of the buffet in Cabana's and found freshly made crepes.  I was really full from dinner, but that didn't stop me from indulging in my favorite food.

The broadway-style shows are well-scripted and choreographed.  They definitely have a step-up on Carnival and Royal.

One night we went to the movie theatre for a late showing of "Captain America - The Winter Soldier" in 3D. Comfortable theatre, free, and great to see a first-release movie in the middle of the ocean.  We really enjoyed this option.

Public Space
The pools are small.  We enjoyed the adult-only deck and pool area.  Really comfortable, and clean towels are easy to come by.  No need to sign out a clean towel with the towel nazis.

O'Gill's Pub became the unofficial meet-up spot for our group.  During the day, it's very quiet and clean with lots of seating for a big group.

Cabana's (buffet area) is REALLY small.  In the morning at Nassau, children and families were shoulder-to-shoulder.  It was really hard to move around efficiently.

Castaway Cay
I like the umbrellas available on the beach.  It was much more family-friendly than CocoCay and Half Moon Cay.  Sand is a little rough with sea shells, and the snorkeling from the beach area isn't that great.  We saw some fairly large fish, but the coral is non-existent.  It's a heck of a swim, so do not attempt to snorkel out to the breaking wall unless you have fins and are a strong swimmer.  I understand now why they have a few lifeguard stands in the water.  We are both really strong swimmers and experienced snorkelers, but the swim back was exhausting.

The buffet lunch was really yummy!

We checked out the Serenity Bay adult-only area and found a little starfish.  It was a little too quiet for us so we headed back to join up with our group after only about 30 minutes.

Overall Assessment
We will not be giving up Carnival as our go-to cruise line, but it sure was nice to experience some Disney hospitality and spend a terrific (though short) weekend with some really fun friends.  We would definitely sail with Disney again.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Carnival Dream - Western Caribbean

This was a great Spring Break cruise out of Port Canaveral.  For the third time we used Park Port Canaveral at the Radisson.  As usual, it was much cheaper than parking at the port with great customer service and a quick shuttle.  $68 for a 7 night cruise.

We booked Early Saver through Carnival directly last May, and we had 4 different price drops including an upgraded room before final payment.  If possible, we always book Early Saver.  For this trip, the hubs and I went with my coworker who stayed with us in our room.  She slept in a pullman bed, which was a bit of a climb up the ladder every night but tolerable.  The room did feel a little tight with three people, but the fare was much cheaper this way.

The Ship
On our 7 night cruise, there were two formal nights in the main dining room.  We selected Any Time Dining but never really had to wait for a table.  We were able to request the same waiter 6 out of 7 nights; one night it was a 45 minute wait so we decided to sit in another section.  Our wait staff team was awesome, and they really worked hard.  It was non-stop for them, but they were always pleasant. Two tips if you are anything like me: order the cheese plate to come as an appetizer and mix the cherries jubilee with some chocolate melting cake on the first formal night:)

The hubs and I took a taxi from port ($9 each way for up to 4 people) to The Money Bar.  We got there early and were able to get two lounge chairs under a tree.  We ordered a plate of nachos, a soda, and a margarita for about $20.  Snorkeling is right down the steps in front of Money Bar.  There were plenty of fish but not much in the way of truly healthy reef this year.  The current was also very strong heading toward to the cruise ship docks - a little energy to snorkel to the right first, but a drift back.  A set of people started to the left with the current and saw a huge ray they followed for a good bit, but the swim back was difficult for them.  We've been there twice, so we will probably try something else in Cozumel next time.

Belize - Caye Caulker
We walked out of the port to get to the Belize Express water taxi terminal.  The entrance on your left is marked well with a big sign with the logo, and the ticket desk is all the way down the plaza to your right. Belize City doesn't feel safe to me, although I know some people say it's just fine.  Here's a tip: Go all the way to Terminal 4 (far left side of the tourist village) before you walk out onto the street and turn left to go to the water taxi terminal.  Less time on the street means less time being harassed by locals.  We know this now.

We bought round trip tickets for both of us for $45.  The taxi was packed full on our way out to Caye Caulker, lots of locals on their way out to their various jobs.  The ride to Caye Caulker is 45 minutes and fairly smooth.  We turned right as soon as we walked off the dock on CC and walked down "front" street.  It is lined on both sides by restaurants and excursion booths on the water.  Very easy walk from the dock to the Lazy Lizard at the Split.  This is a very popular spot for the younger crowd who are staying on the island.  We couldn't stay long, but apparently it gets pretty busy in the evenings.  We bought their drink, Lizard Juice, for $5 USD.  So good!  This spot is a place to just relax and enjoy the scenery, but there were a few people snorkeling.  The current is really strong here at the Split.

Roatan - West Bay Beach
Last time we were in Roatan, we really regretted not snorkeling so on this visit snorkeling was priority one for us.  We found 2 other couples from our ship and hired a private driver through Victor Bodden for the day.  We lucked out with having Tex as our guide.  He is by far the most popular and most-talked-about guide on Cruise Critic.  He was great!  For $25 pp, he took us wherever we wanted to go.

We drove through town to West Bay to snorkel in front of Infinity Bay Resort through the infamous "kidney bean."  All I can say is "WOW!"  Such an easy snorkel from the beach with a ton of healthy reef and fish.  There are dive boats and snorkel boats available for hire along the beach, but the beach is public, and the snorkeling is free with your own gear.

The "kidney bean" entrance to the reef directly in front of Infinity Bay Resort.

After snorkeling, we headed right down the road to Celeste’s for lunch.  Great food, worth a stop.

We still had time before we had to be back at the ship, so I asked Tex if we could see some monkeys.  He drove us to Victor’s little zoo.  For $5pp, we toured the well-kept facility with Jorge and had the chance to play visit with monkeys, parrots, toucans, and white-tailed deer.  It was definitely worth the stop!

Costa Maya
At Costa Maya, we decided that this would be a relaxing beach day.  Several months in advance I emailed Steve at the Tropicante to reserve lounge chairs for the time we were there.  Steve is originally from Texas and runs a great business with attentive, friendly staff.  We had guacamole, $5 margaritas, and the fish ceviche.  All of it was very good!  It was a relaxing way to spend our last port day.

$2pp taxi ride there, and a $2pp taxi ride back.  Easy peasy!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

St. Augustine, FL

The Tini Martini lit up for the holidays.

We needed one more night in a Marriott brand from hubby to keep his Platinum status for the year, so we decided to take an overnight trip to St. Aug, a place we've been a couple of times already.

Fairfield Inn - We usually stay outside the city, and this hotel is a good option.  Clean rooms, newer hotel, and continental breakfast to prep for a day of walking around.  It's a good affordable option.

The Back 40 Urban Cafe - I found this little gem on Trip Advisor a couple hours before leaving for St. Aug. You will need a car to get here since it's a little outside of the old city downtown.  They have a happy hour hour each day from 3-6, and it's a hot spot for locals.  While we were eating, a couple about our age came in and ordered.  We asked them if they had been there before, and she said that they are there a couple times a month.  Hubby had the wet burrito, and I had the tacos, both with jerk chicken.  So good!  Lots of food for the money and a really great stop before heading into downtown.

Pizza Time - This was a quick stop for lunch before heading home.  We both ordered calzones, and while the crust was perfect and the portion was huge, there was way too much ricotta cheese and very little meat.  Next time we go we'll probably try the pizza instead.  For the money, it's a good bet.

The Tasting Room - We were ready for drinks after walking around looking at Christmas lights and we found this place.  The wine list is extensive, and there is a fair selection of small plate options along with regular dinners.  They offer a 4-course dinner option on the menu, which was about $50.  Adding a wine pairing is an extra $24.  We both agreed that if we were going to spend that kind of money on an option like this, we'd much rather go back to the Chef's Table in Winter Garden.  In any case, we chose a Monday Funday special Spanish wine for $30, an order of truffle fries (good but we had better at a place in Napa), and the best Creme Brule I have ever had, hands-down - Coconut.  It was absolutely delicious and so creamy!
Coconut Creme Brule and San Cristobal red blend @ The Tasting Room
Things to Do
Spanish Military Hospital Museum - The historical home we wanted to visit was closed for Christmas so we toured the hospital instead.  The guide, even talking at break-neck speed, was really informative.  My favorite part involved the history of the apothecary and use of certain herbs.  Very fascinating.  At $6 for a 40-min tour, this place is worth a stop!  So much interesting history to learn while visiting the oldest city in the US.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Savannah, GA

The River Street Inn - a nice example of the riverfront architecture.
Fairfield Inn Savannah Midtown - We stayed in this hotel one night and decided to book another hotel for Saturday night.  It was a little bit rundown and not very convenient to get to the historic part of downtown  The price savings did not make it worth staying for a second night.

Savannah Residence Inn Downtown/Historic District - Switching to this hotel was a much better option for us. 1) It was more convenient and within walking distance of many more things.  It is right next door to one of the Visitor Centers. 2) The fare-free DOT public transportation passes right by. 3) If you can find parking on the street (we got lucky with a spot in front), there is no need to pay for the valet parking. 4) The hotel is in much better shape with more amentities than the Fairfield.  I wish it hadn't been pouring outside Saturday night because I really wanted to relax with a glass of wine by the firepit in the courtyard.  We are planning to stay here in the future, so the fire plan is most likely going to happen at some point:)

The Cotton Exchange - We were looking for somewhere to eat when we got into town on Friday night, and we chose this restaurant.  I had the Shrimp and Grits, and hubby had the chopped sirloin.  Both of our meals were OK, nothing to rave about.  It's definitely a little pricey because it's right on the river, but the view and the building are fantastic.  I doubt that we will come back to this particular restaurant when there are so many others to choose from in the area.

B. Matthew's Eatery - We ate lunch at B. Matthew's on Saturday.  It was crowded, but the wait wasn't too bad.  The building architure and ambience is enjoyable, and the food is very good!  Hubby had a burger with goat cheese, and I had the Fried Green Tomato sandwich with the bacon bleu cheese pasta.  Oh so good!!!  The brunch menu also looks fantastic, and we will definitely visit this restaurant again when we're in Savannah.  The food was quite reasonable for the quality, and the service was quite good.  Highly recommend a stop here.

Planter's Tavern (under the Olde Pink House) - I didn't make reservations at Olde Pink House in advance, but I had read that the Tavern below serves the same food and has a terrific atmosphere.  What a great idea this was!  While we waited for a table, we dried off from the rain by the fireplace and the live music.  We each ordered a glass of Atteca for $8 each, which is a great deal at a restaurant if you know this wine.  The room is lit by candlelight and really cozy.  It was pretty crowded and busy, but I think we only waited about 20 - 25 minutes for our table for two.  The menu is the same as you get upstairs in the main dining room, and it is fantastic!!!  Hubs had the pecan crusted chicken, which was absolutely delicious.  Who knew that collards could be so good?!  My chicken pot pie was the size of my hand and about 2 inches deep.  Just wow!  We loved it here and can't wait to come back.

Our candlelit dinner at Planter's Tavern

Things to Do
Green-Meldrim House - Since it was pouring down rain on Saturday, and we wanted to save more houses for when we return with friends, we toured the Green-Meldrim House for $8 each.  The plaster work and wood work in the come is absolutely stunning and intricate.  The tour guides were knowledgeable and friendly.  It was a nice stop to get out of the rain, and it wasn't a far walk from the hotel.

Getting Around Savannah
Since we drove into the city from our hotel, I knew that I wanted to figure out parking ahead of time.  I found the DOT's website to be extremely helpful because it shows both parking and the fare-free public transportation routes.  We only used the DOT once, but I can see where next time we'd use it much more since we plan to stay at the Residence Inn again.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Carnival Ecstasy

I really wanted to take my mom on her first cruise, and I chose this 4-night out of Port Canaveral because I thought it would be a good place to start for her.

Date: October 3rd - 7th
Home Port: Port Canaveral
Parking: Park Port Canaveral (at the Radisson) $7.95/day + tax (free shuttle)
Price: $520 total incl taxes - Porthole cabin R23
Ports of Call: Nassau, Half Moon Cay (private island)

Embarkation Day
Recommend making a parking reservation at Park Port Canaveral. Easy, cheap, convenient, and quick. They have shuttles running pretty much non-stop and nice staff.

Check-in and boarding was smooth and the fastest yet! 

Your typical Carnival fare.  The Lido deck buffett area is small, but there are still enough choices to find something to eat. 

I was surprised to find out that Elegant night was the evening as Nassau (port from 12-8).  Needless to say, dinner wasn't all that crowded. Dessert suggestion on Elegant night - order Cherries Jubilee and eat it along with Chocolate Melting Cake.  It was an amazing pairing!!

I'd always been curious about the cheese plate appearing on the dessert menu, and I was always too full to try it AND get my CMC:)  This time, I remembered to ask our server to bring it as part of our Starter course.  Definitely glad that I finally had a chance to try the cheeses - they are delish!

The first two nights, Your Time Dining (Wind Star dining room) had no lines of people waiting for tables.  The last two nights, though, had a fairly long line, although I wouldn't say it was more than a 15 wait at the longest.

The chocolate buffet on Lido was on Sunday (sea day).

Room (R23)
This is a double porthole room on Riviera deck (bottom room floor, 4th floor).  The room is conveniently located near a main stairwell and has easy access to the main show lounge and Wind Star.  It's also easy-access for debarking at ports.  The only bad thing is that a main loading area is under the room, so there was some noise from staff moving things one evening.  Lot of banging around, but nothing intolerable.  The room does NOT have a hair dryer.

Boring cruise director.  The entertainers for the main show lounge shows were awesome!  Definitely the best troupe we have seen in a several cruises.  They could all sing well and dance. The piano guy was terrible.

Relaxing time on Ecstasy!  Small, older ship - wonderful staff.

I have said it in other posts, but I will say it again - I dislike Nassau - a lot.  I had originally planned to just go to Arawak Cay for the the Fish Fry restaurants and then to Junkanoo Beach, but a few weeks before leaving I decided to look into snorkeling excursions.  I will never do a ship-sponsored snorkel trip through the cruiseline again since we had a horrible time on the Sensation in 2009 when we stopped at Nassau for our first cruise.  As usual, I hopped on Cruise Critic's Bahamas board and then Trip Advisor.  I came across Blue Hole Watersports, and the latest reviews on TA were all fantastic.  I decided to give this one a shot so that Mom could experience snorkeling in a tropical environment.

Blue Hole Watersports' 2-hour excursion leaves from the British Colonial Hilton, which is walking distance from port.  Price is $55 per person with no deposit required.

Mark was our captain, and there were 9 of us that day.  What a wonderful experience from start to finish!  The water was clear and calm, and the reef was beautiful.  I had about given up hope for colorful reefs in the Bahamas, but this proved me wrong.  We were dropped at two different locations - a reef and a sunken ship used for the James Bond film "Thunderball."  I was so excited to see my first Lion Fish just hanging out at the bottom of the wreck.  On the ride back to the pier, we had our choice of soda or water from the cooler Mark stocked.  Would definitely recommend BHW for a snorkeling excursion!

Half Moon Cay (private island)
We really enjoyed Coco Cay last December, and I kept hearing how great HMC is.  It did not disappoint!  The tender process from the ship is pretty quick and painless, and we were able to grab a couple loungers in a fairly shaded area.  Lunch was very good - hot food, plenty of covered picnic areas.  HMC's "snorkel" area is to the far left of the beach, by a jetty that creates the waterway for the tender boats.  There is very little to see in terms of coral, but the fish do like to hang out there.  Don't expect much, but do know that the water and beach are simply amazing,

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


The hubs travels often for work, and it was great to finally have the chance to join him over Labor Day weekend plus visit my cousin at the same time.  Here's a rundown of our weekend  - we ate a lot and the rest was family time for me so not much touristy stuff.

Crown Plaza Metro - W Madison & Halstead - Hubs always stays here when he has to go to his corporate office, and it really is in a great location.  My favorite things about it?  It's close to Greektown, right off the highway, is convenient to CTA buses, and is within walking distance of Union Station. 

Amarit Thai & Pan Asian Cuisine - Good food, reasonable prices. 
600 S. Dearborn

Blokes and Birds - Such a neat little pub-style restaurant just south of Wrigley Field.  I had the lamb sandwich, which was just OK.  Hubs got shepherd's pie - lamb-based.  Very good!  The service was fantastic!  We got there about 6pm, right before the Cubs game ended, and I'm glad we got there when we did.  After a Cubs game, all the bars and restaurants on Clark are flooded with everyone leaving the stadium. Also, I found this restaurant on and made a reservation via
3343 N. Clark St. (near the iO Improv)

Toast - Great place for breakfast/brunch.  I had the Pancake Orgy and Hubs had Huevos w/ Chorizo & Cheddar.  Both of our dishes were incredible! The pancakes are HUGE and surrounded by a lot of fresh berries and fruit.  I have never tasted a pancake like the lemon poppyseed, and it was so different!  I don't think I'd get a plate of just the lemon poppyseed, but they were a great balance to the rest of the deliciousness on my plate.  I'd go back there in a heartbeat, and it was easy to get to from our hotel (take the 8 all the way up Halstead). We were absolutely stuffed for hours so it was definitely a good choice before we started shopping.  I'm drooling just thinking about my pancakes!
746 W. Webster at Halstead
Pancake Orgy at Toast

Tweet - Had a wonderful brunch here with my cousin and her husband who used to live in the neighborhood.  They are both gluten-free and lactose intolerant, and I can see why they love this place so much!  The menu is VAST, and there is about everything on it that you can possibly imagine that fits ANY diet criteria. I had the Heavenly Havarti Omelette, and I wish that I had chosen something a little different because the flavor wasn't quite there for me - too subdued, I think.  I love that nearly everything on the menu is organic and/or local.  Please note, they only accept cash and this place gets packed on a late Sunday morning!
5020 N Sheridan Rd

Potbelly - Small chain sandwich shop.  It's a great place to stop and get a bite to eat when you are out and about in the city.  We stopped for a very quick breakfast on Friday morning, and I ordered a cup of the steel cut oatmeal with apples, cranberries, walnuts, and brown sugar - so good!  I may have to try this combo at home.  Hubs had a breakfast sandwich that COULD sound like it came from a McDonald's menu, but trust me, it is on a different planet than the fast food giant.  The bread is super fresh!

Mariano's Fresh Market - I had no other place to put this, so I'm putting this amazing fresh market here! It is right across the street from our hotel, and I didn't believe Hubs at first when he told me we should go there to get something to eat. He described it as similar to the market and cafe in Whole Foods, so I was just like, eh, whatever. We needed something to eat and had just gotten back from a few hours of shopping so we finally stopped in to grab some food. Holy smokes! I wish I had discovered this place sooner and believed him!  The prepared food selection doesn't even look like something that belongs in a grocery market.  The copious varieties of salad, baked items, deli selections, made-to-order pizza, sushi, hot meals, and everything else under the sun was amazing and so affordable!  We grabbed a bottle of wine from the great selection and bought food to take back with us to the room.  What a wonderland of quick, convenient food items!
40 S Halstead St

Things to Do
iO Improv Comedy Club - We reserved tickets online for the Saturday night show: Goldstar and The iO Musical ft The Deltones.  Liked the audience participation and cabaret-style feel of the room.  These people are talented and work really well together.  If you are looking for a budget-friendly comedy show, this is the place for you!  $14 per ticket for a Saturday night - not too shabby!
3541 N Clark St

Chicago Cultural Center - This is a free activity, great to do solo, and easy to get to.  The Tiffany glass dome is the must-see area of the center, but I have to tell that was not my favorite aspect of the building.  The intricate tile work blew me away!  I happened to look underneath one of the stair cases, and the tile artwork and marble pattern was right there above my head.  This building is truly astounding and worth a visit!
78 E Washington St at Michigan Ave

Getting Around Chicago
This is the very first time that I have ever tackled public transportation by myself so I was really nervous and wanted to be as prepared as possible.  I found the Chicago Transit Authority site to be extremely helpful - even better than San Francisco's.  The interactive maps gave me a good idea of where our hotel was in relation to other popular areas of the city and gave me an easy-to-view route of all buses and trains.  I ordered the 3-day pass for $20 a couple weeks before leaving so that I'd have it on Friday morning.  Shipped right away to my house with no shipping fee.