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:)

Cozumel
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.

Lodging
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.

Restaurants
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.
Hotel
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:)

Restaurants
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! 

Food
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.

Entertainment
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.

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

Ports
Nassau
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

Chicago

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.

Hotel
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. 

Restaurants
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 restaurant.com and made a reservation via OpenTable.com.
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. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Carnival Breeze - Southern Caribbean

The Breeze ports in Miami and does several different itineries.  We chose an 8-day, which included Curacao, La Romana, Grand Turk, and Aruba.

Parking in Miami

Premier Cruise Parking (premiercruisepark@bellsouth.net), 1415 NE 2nd Ave. Parking Garage
$8 per day, including tax.  Free shuttle to port.  The wait for the arrival of the shuttle at the parking garage going to port can be a little long, but it's worth it to us.  We've used this garage twice and will use it again.  I believe that it is better to prepay so you don't have to do it there.

The Food

The steakhouse is very much the same as any of the other Carnival steakhouses, but still very good. We also ate dinner in Cucina del Capitano - excellent food and service!  Highly recommend!  We also made use of Guy Fieri's Burgers several times - hello yumminess!  Tandoor Indian cuisine (aft pool location) and Blue Iguana burritos were also amazing.  We did not starve on this trip!

The Ports

Curacao
We did a sunset sail through Smallfield Adventures ($42 pp) since were docked from 2pm-11pm. Carlos, Esperanza, and Garret crewed our boat, and they were all awesome.  We had a great time and highly recommend this excursion.  Our group "leader" had arranged for pick-up right outside the port area, and the taxi service was included in the $42.  Wear clothes you will be comfortable in sitting and standing on a boat.  Unless it's raining, you likely won't get wet.



The RIF Fort Bar had come highly recommended to us from other cruising friends, but part of our group had a horrible experience there and will likely be writing up that review on Trip Advisor.  We will never go back due to how poorly they were treated by the manager and the staff.

La Romana
While in the DR, we booked the Soana Island excursion through Seavis Tours.  Total was $74pp including the taxi.  The tour we took was specifically for cruise passengers.  Pick-up is a short walk from the docking area with a van ride to the beach check-in area.  We boarded our speedboat and went to Soana Island for snorkeling, beach, and lunch.  After time was up, we loaded up and went to a sandbar to visit with some resident starfish.  What an incredible experience!

 


Grand Turk
This was a lazy day for us so we grabbed some free beach chairs as soon as we walked off the pier.  The water was beautiful, and it was really convenient to have Margaritaville right behind us.  Next time we might try an excursion, but the relaxing day was great for us.

Aruba
  • Snorkeling at Catalina Cove via Boca Catalina: From the port, take the number 10 bus going to Arashi.  Get off at Boca Catalina ($2.30 each way, per person - double check prices!  They give change in their Netherlands currency so use exact US money).  You can enter the softer sand here and snorkel just a little northwest (to your right when entering the water) to the Cove. This area is exactly where the snorkeling tours drop off so we were glad we got there early in the morning.  There are NO facilities in this area so bring water to drink.
  • After snorkeling, we waited a little bit for the 10 bus to come back from Arashi, waved them down, paid our $2.30 and went on our way to Eagle Beach.  There's not much to do there, but the sand is powder soft, and the water is amazing.
  • A tip on catching the bus from the pier: Walk off the pier, through the entry gates, past all of the waiting taxi vans, and across the busy 4 lane road to the bus depot.  It will be slightly to your right - big yellow building.
Map Adapted from: http://mappery.com/map-of/Aruba-Tourist-Map


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Royal Caribbean - Monarch of the Seas

Date: December 14-17 (3-day)
Home Port: Port Canaveral
Parking: Radisson Resort at the Port $6.95/day + tax (free shuttle)
Price: $340 total incl taxes - Inside Cabin 6521
Ports of Call: Nassau, Cococay (RCCL private island)

We have cruised Carnival three times in the past and wanted to try another line.  This short, last minute trip was perfect!  Found a great price and booked 8 days before embarkation.

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

Check-in and boarding was smooth and fast.  I think this is pretty typical with a smaller ship, but still very nice to not have to stand in line forever.

Food
Really, really disappointing.  The Windjammer was closed at odd times for set-up (example - 6:15 Sunday evening).  The food in the main dining room didn't really get good until Sunday night.  Friday and Saturday nights were pretty flavorless.

The BBQ lunch provided on Sunday at CocoCay was nice.  Typical Caribbean BBQ fare.

I liked the granola bar in the main dining room at breakfast.  They had a few types of granola base and all the toppings you could throw on.  Definitely a nice option since the breakfast service seemed pretty slow.

Beverages
Apparently RCCL changed their carryon beverage policy recently, which made this girl very happy.  They now allow each stateroom to carry on 2 bottles of wine.  We always take our own corkscrew so we can open it in our room.

Room (6521)
Quite small but adequate for a short weekend cruise.  The shower was super tiny, but we still were comfortable in our room.  Our cabin steward was awesome, which totally made up for the tight quarters.

Entertainment
Great cruise director.  Dancers were a little lacking.  A couple great singers.  We don't cruise for the shows, so whatever.

Overall
The boat is 21 years old and has been sold to another company who will take it to Europe.  Last trip for the Monarch on this itinerary is April 2013.  It was a relaxing weekend getaway, the staff were fantastic, and there were plenty of lounge chairs.  Debarkation was a breeze, and we made it off the boat doing self-assist earlier than I had thought.

I would try Royal Caribbean again - but on a different boat.