Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Napa Valley, CA


They say that the first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem.  Well, sorry, but this is one addiction I'm OK keeping!  In fact, now that we've gone mainly paleo, wine is my ONLY vice, and Napa remains a favorite vacation destination!

*Remember to check your Winery Finder app for discounts and BOGO's at different wineries when you are driving around!

Rental Home
We were finally able to take advantage of our wine club membership with The Terraces and rented one of their houses for three nights with four other people.  The two houses are only available for rent by wine club members, so most people probably wouldn't even realize they have guest homes on property.  We loved the location because it was much further north than where we've stayed in the past - on Silverado Trail a quarter mile south of Zinfandel Lane.

View Coming in from the driveway to the right side of the house.
The house is beautifully nestled among the vineyard and has a huge wrap-around porch, wonderfully equipped kitchen, and 3 newly renovated full bathrooms.  The owners said that wifi will finally be installed within the next week - we just missed it!

Rows of Cabernet Sauvignon
Wineries - Napa
The Terraces - I'm totally biased, but I think everyone should visit!  Currently, tastings are $25pp or you can take a tour for $45pp.  While I was talking to Sharon, one of the owners, she said they may be raising their prices so check the website.  Newly learned fact: they lose money on tastings and make money on wine purchases.  In other words, check the prices when calling to book your appointment! While we were staying there, Terraces was bottling some of their wines.  What a neat experience! The bottling is done in a giant semi-truck trailer built AROUND the equipment.


Peju - Returned to Peju for another visit.  This time, our wine guide was Alan - the well-known singing entertainer.  The wines here are still solid - recommend a visit.  Tasting is waived with purchase and no appointment is necessary.

Black Stallion - Spent a bit more time here on our second visit.  I bought another bottle of the Viogner, and I'm sure you will find something here you like.  The tasting room is spacious and comfortable.

Madonna Estate - We stopped by Madonna on our way into Napa.  It's located in the Carneros region, so further south than Napa itself.  A big tour bus of about 30 people had pulled in right before us, but the tasting room staff accommodated us within a few minutes and took us to a different tasting room.  We appreciated the customer service.  The winery itself is cute, but nothing spectacular - same with the wines.  I ended up buying a Gewurztraminer that will be perfect for Thanksgiving, and it was unique enough for the Napa region that I couldn't pass it up.  It's not a wine you see often.  In summary, it's worth a visit if you are down in the area, but I wouldn't go out of my way for it.

Lava Vine - This place was recommended to us by a couple other wineries.  The website says that reservations are needed for groups of 7 or more, but that is not the case - it's groups of 6.  They were very busy when we walked in with our group of 6, and the guy seemed a little caught off guard.  He served us, but we kind of got an unwelcome feeling.  After the drunk tour group left, he admitted that he had his hands full with the group and had to monitor their alcohol intake.  Knowing that and seeing his demeanor change for the better, I'd say it's a cool little stop if you are up on Silverado Trail.  It's super close to Lincoln Rd in Calistoga.

Chateau Montelena - If you have ever seen the movie Bottleshock, then you know why we just had to go.  The property is absolutely gorgeous and has many opportunities for great photographs.  The wine, though, is not stunning.  We didn't buy anything here.  Go see it once and you're good.
Chateau Montelena - Calistoga
Chimney Rock - We visited Chimney Rock with a wine club member.  We didn't have a reservation, and it was super packed.  We were seated after a few minutes outside on the patio, and the wine guide was attentive - until she completely disappeared.  The wine member went in after about 10 minutes of no eye contact from any staff and asked if we could finish the tasting.  The tasting room had pretty much cleared out by this point, but the service still wasn't up to where it should be for such a high-end winery.  They did comp our tasting fees and found a white reserved only for a certain wine club level so we could try it - absolutely stunning! We bought the bottle right there and then, and the sour taste that I had in my mouth from the poor service dissipated somewhat.  Try with caution and make a reservation beforehand.

Rutherford Hill - Great views and interesting wines.  Located on Silverado Trail, it is a sister to Chimney Rock with less stuffiness.  It's a nice place for a picnic, but I wasn't bowled over by the wines.

Tank Garage - This new place absolutely blew us all away, and it provided the perfect reason why you can't ever judge a book by its cover.  Tank Garage literally sits just feet from Hwy 29 in Calistoga and looks like NOTHING from the outside except for an old garage.  It's not until you step up to the bar that you realize this place is legit.  Heath, our wine guide, explained that the winemaker will never replicate a wine - all of their releases will be different from the last.  There is a wine worth mentioning that is called Golden Era of Roller Derby, and this wine is freaking awesome.  It starts with a pineapple nose and front on the tongue before turning into banana in the middle and finish. Truly unique!  This is a quick, unpretentious stop - highly recommend a visit if you are up that way.
Tank Garage Winery
Envy - We started off a morning here - nothing like drinking wine at 10AM! - and the wine guide was so pleasant and chipper.  The wines are great, and our friend fell in the love with the late harvest dessert wine - the color is near gold!  It's a nice little tasting room and a neat place to visit.

Franciscan -  I had consumed a Franciscan Chard before the trip and instantly decided that I had to go there!  Unfortunately, we couldn't get in to either Rombauer or Markham, so Franciscan's Chardonnay kind of made up for it.  The wines are solid, but this winery definitely has a Mondavi-commercial feel to it.  I had no idea that they were part of a huge wine conglomerate, and that was disappointing to find out.  Visit if you like their wines or are curious about them.  Skip if you want small-winery service.

Paradigm - We met Mary Ann, the hospitality director, while hanging out at The Terraces.  A beautiful black lab greeted us when we parked and ushered into the very tiny tasting room.  The wine is good, and the property is cute, but it's a little pricey.  They do have an interesting rose if are into that - it's 100% Merlot.

Wineries - Sonoma
Buena Vista Winery - This was our first stop of the day, and I had super low expectations going in because I knew that it would be much more commercial due to its history as Napa's first winery. Well, I was right about the commercial part, but what I didn't expect was to love it so much.  The wines are great, and you get to taste while on your tour of the old facilities.  The new owners are very eccentric so expect to see the unexpected.  The sparkling rose at the beginning of the tour was fantastic, and I'm neither a sparkly nor a rose person.  I think that it's definitely worthy of a visit.
Buena Vista Winery
Nicholson Ranch - OK, so NR has a good story to it and they take a lot of pride in their wine making.  The tour and property are also nice.  The wine, though, is quite pricey, so just be prepared for that.  The views from NR are absolutely spectacular, so you may want to consider relaxing for a bit with a bite to eat and glass of wine.

Robledo - Famous for being the first latino-owned winery in the area, Robledo is a small place with a fantastic port.  Other than the port and the story, the winery underwhelming.  Consider skipping.

McKenzie-Mueller - Family owned winery with a tasting room that is literally in a garage - sometimes these are the best places!  The property itself is beautiful, and the wine carries wonderful qualities.  Definitely worth a visit if you are looking for a family-feel with absolutely no airs.

Restaurants
Torc - We booked a dinner reservation at Torc via Open Table following our Sonoma tour.  The food is excellent and the atmosphere interesting.  I wasn't entirely blown away, but I have absolutely no complaints whatsoever about this restaurant.

Carpe Diem - Oh how I love, thee!  Their restaurant and bar are back in service following the earthquake that shook down some bricks (and did a lot of damage).  Happy hour remains delightful (I swear that I dream about the truffle parmesan popcorn!) with a nice selection of apps and a constantly rotating happy hour wine offerings.

Gott's Roadside - It only took our fifth visit to Napa to try Gott's for the first time!  Every other time we have wanted to go, the lines were insane!  When we went for dinner Wednesday night, the location near Yountville was reasonably busy with almost no wait.  The selection of burgers is more than adequate, and I love that you can ask for a lettuce wrap instead of a bun - one of the only times I really tried to stay paleo on this trip.

Tour Company
Platypus - We broke form and actually hired a tour company to take us around Sonoma.  For $110pp (+ automatic 15% gratuity attached to groups of 4 or more), we had a great driver, comfortable van, cheese board, and picnic lunch for our full-day tour.  We were picked up at the Napa Valley Visitor's Center at 10AM and were so happy to learn that we were the ONLY people on that tour - we could have had up to 6 more people with us.  What a pleasant surprise first thing in the morning.  For me, handing over the planning reigns to someone else (our driver) was absolutely freeing.  I usually obsess over every little thing, especially when we have friends with us, and I didn't have to do that at all on this tour.  SO WORTH IT!  Besides Robledo, which was a bit of a let-down, the winery choices were awesome.  One other thing to note, they keep your records on file if you have used them before and also take notes of wineries you tell them you don't wish to visit.  This helps guests from repeating places they've already been to.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Negril, Jamaica - Couples Negril Resort

For my Spring Break this year, I had suggested a week cruise with a beverage package on either Celebrity or Princess, but the hubs wanted to do something we hadn't done in long time - an all-inclusive resort.  We also had not been to Jamaica in about 10 years.  I agreed.  After much research, I chose Couples Negril for their inclusions and great reviews.  We spent 5 amazing days there and met some really fantastic people!  Here is the write-up:

Transportation
We used points on Southwest to fly direct from Orlando to Montego Bay.  We made it, but it was a clusterfuck of epic porportions.  Here are the things we learned the hard way when flying Southwest internationally:

  • CALL well ahead of the check-in time to make sure that the passport information for ALL members in your party is correct and complete.  Their website will NOT help with this part beforehand.
  • Addendum to the first bullet: make sure the information is good for BOTH ways.  Seriously, you'd think it would be automatic, but don't assume that.
  • TSA Pre-check/Global Entry privileges do NOT apply to international flights on Southwest.  Get to the airport earlier than normal.
Couples Negril has a shuttle bus that will take you to your resort.  It's about a 1hr 15min drive from Montego Bay assuming good traffic flow.

Resort - Couples Negril
Property
Great wifi in most areas of the property.  

We were in room 2104 (Building 2, 1st floor), and it is in a great location.  Quiet but very close to everything - restaurants, gym, pool, beach, water sports area, etc.  The whole resort property isn't very big, but I loved our location!  The room was clean, good A/C, and serviced twice daily.  They will stock the minibar with whatever you want, and you are given two re-usable Couples water bottles on the first day that you can fill up anywhere that has water and ice.   Every room has a patio or balcony.
Room 2104

The propery is well-taken care of and feels like a home away from home.

The only dressy clothes you will need are for the reservation-only restaurant.  Other than that, everything is very casual.

On the beach, each of the chaise lounges have a floating mat that you can take out into the water.


Food
There are four restaurants on property, one of which is a reservations-only.  No matter where you eat, all the food is fantastic.  Especially at dinners, there is a lot of attention to detail on presentation.  The wait staff are awesome!

Activities

It had been 10 years since we first dove, so we did a refresher SCUBA course in the pool first - $50pp and so worth it!  It's much cheaper than what you would pay here.  All daytime dives are included at no extra cost.  You can dive twice per day.  The dive boat is in really nice condition and all the SCUBA equipment is included and well-cared for.  You could go there with none of your own gear and be just fine.

If SCUBA isn't your thing, they offer snorkel trips, sailing lessons, waterskiing/wakeboarding, and kayaks. The ski boat looks fairly new and will pull you out of the water quickly - good amount of power.

Other options include trips off property to Margaritaville, shopping, the sister resort, and to the cliffs.  There is a sunset catamaran cruise that is 2.5-3 hours and is stocked with rum punch, Red Stripe, and some liquor and mixers.  Definitely a good time, and it leaves right from the beach.
View from inside the cavern - Sunset Sail


Summary
Amazing staff, uncrowded environment, lots to do, tasty food and drinks, and truly ALL-INCLUSIVE.  No tipping allowed, and 90% of the activities are free.  There are fees for night dives and snorkel trips,  Highly recommend this place!
Negril - known for its amazing sunsets


Friday, October 30, 2015

Rhapsody of the Seas (RCI) - Greek Isles

We started planning this enormously intimidating trip a year and a half out.  There is so much information to include that I also started setting up this post way early.  I'm a planner deep into my bones.

Cruise transportation
Public buses between the train station and port are €2, not €1 as stated on the Cruise Critic forums. Buses run very sporadically so you will need to plan on standing around waiting for a while. The shuttle runs far more frequently from port gate to the check-in area but still plan a little extra time.  Also, hold onto your bus tickets if you don't validate on the way there. They didn't check or ask for ours so we used them on the ride back.

We self-debarked with our luggage at 6:30am and got to the train station at 7:30. Our train left at 10. Next time I would book an earlier train.

The Ship
We booked Rhapsody of the Seas, 9-nights out of Rome, because of the excellent itinerary.  We booked the cheapest inside cabin (Category Q) because we wanted to spend more of our money in port and on the land portions of our trip.  Based on recommendations from friends, we booked through www.CruCon.com and were able to combine a previously purchased Next Cruise voucher (terms have since changed since 2012) and the CruCon incentives.  I put down the deposit of $250 in early April 2014 and received $75 OBC from CruCon and $100 OBC from Royal (NCV).  The next week, I bought our travel insurance, again using www.InsureMyTrip.com to search for policies.  Cost of the interior room including taxes and port fees for both of us was $1661.08.  Not too shabby for a 9-night!

The ship is older and smaller but was perfect for this trip as there were only two sea days. Service was fantastic, and food was very good overall. There were some misses but they didn't overshadow the generally good quality.

We were completely unprepared for the lack of television.  The same shows were set on a loop and shown EVERYday. They were only a couple other channels in English.  It was truly awful when we just wanted to relax before bed or while getting ready. Major fail.

The shows and live music were of high quality, but overall there wasn't a lot to do most times unless you wanted to play BINGO or trivia. It wasn't a high energy ship.

Ports
Souda (Chania), Crete, Greece
I was pleasantly surprised by this port. We took the public bus from port for about €3 per couple. It reminded me of a Greek cross between New Orleans and Key West. It is a big shopping area for olive wood and leather as well as olive oil-based products.  We had a nice lunch on the harbor at 4 Seasons.  This stop is very relaxed and easy to DIY.
Bus stop location from port to help you get your bearings.
Mykonos, Greece
Easy to do on your own, and you will find lots of jewelry and clothing shops here in this quaint little town. Just as photos show, the walls of the buildings are white-washed and the paths meander with no pattern.  The town was purposely built this way to discourage and confuse pirates and looters who would quickly become lost.  There are a lot of restaurants and bars with great views of the water. We had a fantastic lunch at Katerina's.

Santorini, Greece - A group of 10 of us formed up and booked NST Travel for a private tour of the island.  Highly recommend NST travel as a tour company.  We arrived an hour early for our tour, my mistake. Our guide, Elisa, arrived within 40 mins of my phone call although the bus did take a bit to arrive.  The van could easily fit 16-20 people so we had plenty of room for our group of 10. The Mercedes is almost brand new with cream leather seats- very comfortable! Tour cost €500 for group - €100 per couple.

The cable car to the top of the cliff after tendering in from the ship (the town of Fira) is €5 pp one way. ar: €5 pp one way. We took the cable car up with no problem and no wait since it was early in the morning.  Coming back the line was so long we decided to walk down the donkey path. It takes 20-30 mins and is not an easy walk.  I don't know that we would do it again because of dodging donkey dung, rough patches, and donkeys. We were quite sore and tuckered out from the journey down.

The winery, Venetsanos, was very good with gorgeous views. Oia, the postcard town, is really spectacular but the shopping is better near the port.  We had an incredible lunch at Skala, recommended by our tour guide.
View from Venetsanos Winery on Santorini - incredible place for wine tasting!
Athens, Greece - A DIY port!  I had read up on the X80 bus that runs from port and to the Acropolis. At €4 per person for a day of travel on public transportation, we couldn't go wrong.  As long as we'd planned well.  Which we did!  The only word of warning is that this bus doesn't run in the non-peak seasons.  I believe it will stop for the end of season sometime near the beginning of November. Also, plan extra time to get back to port as we must have just missed the bus and had to wait about 45 minutes for the next one to get back to the ship.

We bought our tickets into the Acropolis using our credit cards for about €11/12 each. It is definitely a must-visit but there is still a lot of excavation and restoration to be done. Be cautious of the very slippery marble throughout the site. Wear sturdy, comfortable shoes with good traction.

The Plaka is a wonderful place for shopping and eating. I bought a beautiful pair of  leather sandals at a shop there. It's a very cool place to walk around and enjoy the leisurely shopping.

Katakolon (Olympia), Greece - We booked a private tour for the four of us with Taxi Katakolon. Our tour was about 6 hours and included a stop off at ancient Olympia and Olympia Land Winery.  Total cost was 180 euro. Our driver, Takis, will take over for George, the current owner who requires major medical procedures. Takis is a wonderful guide and let us run our day. He took us to this cute bakery and bought a small box of pastry for us. The baklava there was the best I've had, but the pastry he sent with us was not spectacular.

Ancient Olympia is not labeled that well as far as telling you what you are seeing so you may want to preview information about it prior to your trip. Takis gave us a nice guidebook to use, but the large site can still be confusing.

Olympia Land Winery was €8 per person for the tasting, which included 4 wines and a small plate of snacks. The wine wasn't good at all but the winery itself is cute.

Kusadasi (Ephesus), Turkey - Our foursome joined up with another couple for Tour 5 by Ephesus Shuttle.  Emre was our tour guide, and he was so friendly and knowledgeable.  He made us all feel very comfortable right away, and was a fount of information throughout the day.  We had full control of our day, which is extremely important because many of the tour companies will take their tourists to a Turkish carpet demonstration/factory where they are subjected to hard sales tactics.  There was no pressure whatsoever from Emre to go to any of the outlets, which was completely refreshing.  At the end of our trip, we asked where we could get an authentic Turkish lunch, and he brought us to a restaurant he knows well right by the port.

Ephesus, only 18% excavated, is absolutely incredible! Words cannot possibly describe what a fantastic historical site it is, and I highly recommend including the Terrace Houses in your tour. There is so much to see and appreciate, and I think it would be great to revisit this site in 20 years after more of it has been excavated.  If you have a choice of cruises and Kusadasi is on the itinerary, take it!
Library of Celcus - Ephesus
A word about Turkish bazaars - they are NOT for the faint of heart.  I'm not particularly meek, but there is nothing I hate more than in-your-face shop owners.  In Turkey, they have no problem approaching you, and unless you are actually interested in something, don't go into their shops.  The sales tactics are less than trust-worthy, and it can be difficult to try to walk away.

Money Stuff
We bought €1000 to take with us from Wells Fargo in our home town.  The small fee is included in the exchange rate, but our bank always has foreign currency on hand so we didn't have to order, and there were no additional fees.  Be sure to keep euros on hand when you go ashore because several places we went to were having technical difficulties with their credit card machines.

Resources for Pre-Cruise Research
Rick Steves' 2013 "Mediterranean Cruise Ports"
Rick Steves' 2014 "Italy"
Rick Steves' amazing website:
Cruise Critic Port of Call Message Boards

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Rome & Venice - October 2015

We spent 3 days in Rome and 3 days in Venice pre- and post-cruise.  Here is the breakdown of cities, transportation, apartment rentals, food, sites/museums, etc.


Trains and Transportation
FCO airport to Rome: We used RomeCabs for a private transfer to our apartment. Great service and highly recommend. €55 total + tip

Getting around Rome: We bought a RomaPass, which allows free rides on public transportation during the period of activation. We didn't swipe our cards at all, though, and the drivers didn't enforce it. We paid for the cards but others may have been riding free.

Train Travel: We pre-booked travel via Trenitilia.  Be sure to book as soon as the dates become and be ready to buy the tickets at that moment.  Do not back out to the previous page, open in another browser, or think too long.  The price would literally go up a couple times within a few minutes because I was bumbling around the website.  So my advice is get on before your dates are available and play with the site so you are comfortable using it when you ARE ready to purchase.

We chose 2nd class on the short regional rides between Civi and Termini.  For the longer trip from Rome to Venice, we booked 1st class for more leg room.  The 2nd class options for the shorter rides were fine, but 1st class was nice to have on the long trip - nothing fancy, just more room to move.

Vaporettos: In Venice, we bought a 3-day vaporetto pass so that we could ride the public water buses around at a vaporetto stop right in front of the train station.  It was €40 each and totally worth it. We used the vaporetto to get from S. Lucia train station to the stop for our apartment.  Although somewhat of a pain, we were able to easily transport our luggage.  You do need to validate for each ride, and they were doing random spot checks.  Highly recommend buying a vaporetto pass for the length of time you will be in Venice.

Apartment to VCE airport: Our wonderful apartment owner set up the taxi service for us and gave use step-by-step directions on where to meet the driver and also included a map.  It was about a 20 minute ride and cost 46 euro.  It is the quickest way to get to Marco Polo airport.

Rome
We bought the Roma Pass, which includes use of public transportation and free entrance into your first two museums.  Look over the list to decide where you want to use it as some of the sites require reservations (like the Borghese Galleria). We chose Castel San Angelo and the Colosseum/Palatine Hill.

Apartment
Pantheon Apartment (Via Acro della Ciambella, 9 00186 Rome) - Booked this apartment for 3 nights via www.RentalinRome.com.  It is a few blocks south of the Pantheon. There is a wonderful deli right around the corner that we visited every day for cheese, salami, and fantastic cheap wine.  Our favorite happened to be €3,90. Unreal!  We think the name is Panini. The store owner speaks almost no English but we did fine with hand gesturing. There is also a bakery and gelato place within steps. Very easy to walk to Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, and pick up public buses from this location.

The apartment was perfect for two couples and is very secure - three locking doors to get into the building.  Very nice courtyard and washing machine.  There are two full bathrooms but the the shower on the first day was ice cold.  We all showered in the downstairs bathroom but was just fine.

A/C worked perfectly when used, and we were also able to get good breezes through the open windows.  We stayed in October, but I'd imagine that it would still be comfortable in the summer months.  Wifi was also very fast and reliable.

Would definitely recommend for the price.

Museums/Historical Sites
The Necropolis de Via Triumphalis tour that we booked ahead of time at the Vatican was awesome! Simply amazing to visit this active archaeological site under a parking garage. The tickets also included the Vatican museums.  We saw the Sistine Chapel, which was not as awe-inspiring as I thought it would be. St. Peter's Basilica, on the other hand, was absolutely beautiful.

Castel Sant' Angelo surprised the heck out of us. We thought it was just a fort, but the building was immense with unexpected art and frescoes at many a turn.  Very cool place to visit.

The Colosseum was everything I was hoping and more.  There is still a lot of restoration work in progress, but ignore the scaffolding and just appreciate the immensity of the building that has withstood a VERY long amount of time. Palantine Hill (included in admission) was also worth the trek on tired feet.

Finally, we visited the Galleria Borghese.  It was a beautiful art museum, but my favorite pieces were the Bernini sculptures, especially the Rape of Persephone.  It would have been better if we hadn't been so exhausted and feeling half dead on our feet. 13 euro entrance fee, and this visit MUST be booked ahead of time as they only let in so many visitors in 2-hour time blocks throughout the day.
"Rape of Persephone" by Bernini - Galleria Borghese
Other sites you will see just by walking around the city if you stay close to where we did are Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, and the Spanish Steps (not worth a trip out of your way).

Restaurants
Gran Caffe Cavour close to Palantine Hill was a random stop for us. It was the best meal we had and was perfect for lunch.  Fantastic food and great service.

4 Fiumi at Piazza Navona - my fettuccine con tartufo (truffle) was good but overpriced.  The food didn't meet my expectations.  So just "eh."
Gelato and candy shop near the Pantheon.  This picture says it all.  
Venice
Apartment
Ca'Venexiana - Booked this apartment for 3 nights, and it sits right on a canal in the Dorsoduro neighborhood.  Jackie, the owner, lives in Massachusetts and was SO responsive to any questions I had. Her documents that she provides will help you with navigation in the city as well as personal recommendations for places to go.  I would say that she responded within 12 hours to any of my emails. She emailed me a welcome the day we checked into our apartment and arranged a taxi for us on the day we left. Her customer service is Ritz-level!

Kitchen is VERY well appointed; washer is small but mighty; water runs nice and hot; stocked with lots of DVDs and books; very cute courtyard that opens right onto a canal; fabulous location. There are so many cafes, bars, restaurants, and dessert places within a 5 minute walk. There are two vaporetto stops close by. Words cannot describe how wonderful this apartment is! Highly recommend!

Our favorite part of the apartment are the empty liter bottles that you can carry to a local wine shop and have filled with their house wines on tap for just a few euros each. You can't find this anywhere at home.

Restaurants
Pane Vino e San Daniele was just down the alley from our apartment.  We ate dinner here on our last night in Venice.  The hubs and I each had a glass of house wine, a buffalo mozzarella appetizer, and two entrees for about 50 euro.  Great price, but the food was fabulous!  I had the best mushroom risotto ever, and that buffalo mozz was to die for!

Museums/Historical Sites
I'm not going to lie.  Because Venice was the last destination following two weeks of travel, we were done with ruins and museums.  Venice was a great place to unwind and roam aimlessly.  There are many little wine and cicchetti bars where you select whatever you want from the counter in front of you, order your wine, and stand somewhere close to have a quick bite.  Super cheap and requires no planning.  Just elbow up to the counter and point to what you want.  You can go to several during your meanderings.

We did take the vaporetto to Murano to buy some items from the famous glass artisans.  There are a lot of little shops and factories selling the glasswares.  Definitely worth a visit.  Plan to spend a couple hours there and take whatever vaporetto you want as long as Murano is on the list of stops. neat little island to visit, especially if you are in the market for unique glass pieces.

Piazza San Marco is worth the visit.  Unfortunately, the line to get into San Marco church was really long the day the hubs and I were walking around, but our friends had gone in the day before and said it was beautiful inside.  Next time...  The outside is really fantastic to look at, and the piazza is a great place to people watch.
View from a vaporetto approaching Piazza San Marco.
General Tips
Wear your money belts and don't take anything from anyone (like a rose).  The hubs wore the belt that goes around the waist, and I had this one that tucked into my pants.  Both worked out very well and kept our credit cards and cash secure.

For the ladies, the eBags Piazza purse worked beautifully for me.  Plenty of room to carry what I needed for the day, and I was able to keep my hand on the zippers if I was in a crowded area.  It was great to tie my scarf around the strap or sling my jacket over the top if I wasn't using them.

I did a lot of research on "capsule wardrobes" before packing on this trip.  All of my bottoms were black except for my one pair of jeans.  I could mix and match tops and layer them over one another for extra warmth.  If travelling in the cooler months, take two scarves - you will find more in Italy:) We had washing machines at the apartments, and I took Dr. Bronner's soap to handwash clothes in our cruise cabin's sink.

Don't be afraid to step into a local place and gesture for what you want.  You will find that not everyone speaks English but are capable of elaborate hand-gesturing.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Napa Valley, CA

Sadly, my fourth visit to Napa was nearly ruined by a cold-turned-sinus infection that completely took out my senses of smell and taste.  Worst.  Timing.  Ever!  Thank goodness for a great husband and four wonderful friends who saved the trip for me.  Well, them, and the beautiful landscape that makes Napa my favorite vacation spot.

Here's a rundown of the trip.

Rental Home
This 3-bedroom, 2-bedroom farmhouse located about 7 minutes from Oxbow Market is quiet and perfect for 6 people.  It has been updated and re-decorated and was well-stocked with supplies needed for a relaxing stay.  Unfortunately for future vacationers and the homeowner, David LaMonica, one set of neighbors complained to the county after a very loud party night from guests staying there at the time.  It has been removed from VRBO, but it would be worth a look if you would like David's contact information.  He is hanging onto the house for "family and friends."

Wineries - Napa
The Terraces - Love, love, love Terraces!  If you visit, I promise that it will be one of the most laid-back experiences you will have.  Tours are usually conducted by Monica (the hospitality manager), Emmy (new blood to the team), or Dominic (the winemaker).  Both the wine and the hospitality are fantastic!

Peju - Another favorite of ours.  Great reds, beautiful tasting room, lush garden.  We had a great wine guide in Scott, an older gentleman with a fun personality.  This continues to be a winery I highly recommend.

Jamieson Ranch - Unfortunately, the mini horses were recovering from an illness so our friends didn't get to meet them, but our visit was relaxed and enjoyable.  Our friends agreed that JR is a great start to the day, and after the weekend, it was among the top of the list of favorites for them.  This winery is technically in American Canyon, not Napa.

Black Stallion - This was a quick stop on our way back down Silverado Trail.  They were getting ready to close and only giving splashes of wine to guests rather than a full tasting.  I would really like to revisit this place because the tasting room was nice, and the back patio area had a lot of seating. Very laid back atmosphere, and I hear that the wine was good.

Mumm - Sparkling wine was a special request from a couple members of our group, so I planned a stop at Mumm on Silverado Trail. It felt a little stuffy to me, but the two ladies enjoyed their bubbly.  I would stop by again if I was in the area and had time.  It was a little tough not to be able to try anything.

Whitehall Lane  - There was something about this visit that turned us off.  I think there is a changing of the guards that caused there to be a little tension in the air, but the wines were good.  They were generous enough to let us eat lunch on their grounds before our appointment was scheduled, but I think I've had my fill of Whitehall for a while.

Merryvale - We first visited in 2008, and our friends were looking for a quick stop before our scheduled appointment with Terraces.  We brought them to Merryvale since we couldn't remember much about it, and there was a deal on the winery app.  My husband didn't enjoy the wine, and in the short time I had some working taste buds, it wasn't good at all.  The facility is beautiful, though, and boasts a LARGE (read 23K gallon-sized) barrel that has a round table and chandelier in the center for special tastings.  Really a gorgeous facility, but don't go there for great wine.

Wineries - Sonoma
Gloria Ferrer - This last-minute decision turned out to be a nice way to start the day for our little group.  From what I hear, the bubbly is quite good, which I'm sure I'll discover when we open our group-consensus vintage.  Sicky me was still quite happy to enjoy the scenic back patio and the laughter of friends while I stared longingly at the pretty bubbles.  I would recommend this as a nice way to start your Sonoma day.

Ledson - We had a different guide from our last two visits, and he was fine.  He tried a little too hard, but the wine is still good according to my husband.  If you go for a visit, have your camera handy and plan to share with someone else as the winery app gets you three free bonus pours on top of the six you already get.

Gundlach Bundshu - Gun Bun was a recommendation from our server at Eiko's.  What a neat place!  The grounds are stunning and vast, and the tasting room is welcoming.  Whoever does their merchandising is spot-on with their offerings.  Great clothing options, neat gifts, and clever logos.  I hear the wine is good, but I didn't see "spectacular" written on anyone's faces.  I think most would enjoy a stop here.

Deerfield Ranch - We wanted our friends to see a wine cave so we brought them to a place we had visited previously.  They enjoyed it, and I still love the living room set-up in the center of the cave.

Restaurants
Eiko's - This a neat sushi restaurant right in downtown Napa.  Great menu, comfortable lounge seating near the bar, and a terrific server in Brooke - she is amazing!  Ask for her if you can.  We stopped by both Friday and Saturday evenings for dinner.  Our group ordered the table-side s'mores from the dessert menu.  Holy cow!  It was almost as bad as not being able to drink wine because my family knows how much I love a good s'more.  Homemade crackers and marshmallow, roasted over smoldering wood. I want to go back when I can actually taste it!

El Dorado Kitchen - We ate brunch on the back patio.  Everyone seemed to really enjoy the food, and it looked fantastic.  I'm sure my brioche french toast was good because my husband said so:)  Really neat place if you are looking for a cool restaurant with good food in downtown Sonoma.

Cadet - Cute little wine and beer bar that we stumbled up on in downtown Napa.  Great wine selection and few different app options would make for a nice stop to get off your feet.

Sunshine Foods Market (boxed lunches) - I've heard many times that Oakville Grocery is another option for picnic lunches, but we returned again to Sunshine because we had a good experience last year.  Definitely worth a look if you are wanting to picnic somewhere.

Suggested Tour Route - Silverado Trail
Because of the location of the wineries, this would make for a great day of tasting: 1) Rombauer with a picnic breakfast, 2) Scheduled visit at Terraces, 3) Mumm for sparkling, and 4) Black Stallion.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Carnival Conquest - Southern Caribbean

Parking
Used Park N Go near the Ft. Lauderdale airport and port.  We prepaid this time, and it was $69.77 for our 8-day cruise.  Again, super convenient, quick and friendly service.

Ship
Food - Delicious!  Everything was prepared correctly, and the food was great on this boat.  Loved the ceviche available at Fish N Chips.  My favorite breakfast was the huevos rancheros from the Blue Iguana grill.  Guy's Burgers were a little hit or miss, and we missed the Tandoor.  The chefs working the Taste Bar in the evenings were entertaining, and the food quite tasty.

Service - Amazing!  Service was quick and friendly throughout the entire cruise - vastly different than our experience on Splendor last November.

Entertainment and Things to Do - OK, not great.  Good variety of Dive In Movies, and the stage shows were alright.  If you are looking for a more vibrant atmosphere with more things to keep you busy, the Carnival Breeze is your best bet.  If you're looking for relaxed socializing or reading a book, the Conquest will give you that.

Ports of Call
St. Kitts - A member of our group booked a private catamaran tour with Blue Water Safaris. The snorkeling at the cove was a pointless stop as there was nothing of note to see, but the rest of the excursion was really quite relaxing.  Our group of 36 enjoyed the lunch, open bar, and beach stop at Nevis.  I think next time I would explore the mainland.

St. Maarten - We took a taxi to Orient Beach on the French side for $7pp each way ($28 total per couple).  A member of our group had visited the Aloha Beach Bar on a previous trip, so that's where we went.  $16 got us two lounge chairs, an umbrella, and 2 free rum punches/beer.  The place is very welcoming and clean, and the owner, Nat, is a hoot.  We split the chicken wrap for lunch - yummy!  Others in our group had the calamari and shrimp app and really enjoyed that, too.  The water is beautiful there, and it makes for quite a relaxing day.  There are a lot of beach bars to choose from, so I wouldn't be adverse to trying out another one next time.

San Juan, PR - We had a short port day and decided to stay in town for sight seeing and wandering.  We took our small group to Casa Cortes since I loved it so much the first visit.  This is a great place to eat fantastic chocolate creations and get out of the heat for a bit.  Highly recommend a visit!

Grand Turk -  We love GT for its very chilled out, relaxed vibe.  If you want to walk off the ship and grab a lounger, that's easy!  If you want to visit Margaritaville, you can do that, too, but be prepared for high prices on everything there.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Carnival Splendor - Southern Caribbean

We saw this cruise early and were intrigued by the really unique itinerary so we booked at a great price of $1000 for both of us including taxes and port fees for our inside room.  What was different for us about this particular sailing was the repositioning aspect of it - San Juan to Miami.  We flew into San Juan from Orlando on Southwest and rented a car from Miami back up to Orlando.

Like the San Fran and Napa trip of 2012, I was in a boot for another stress fracture.  This put a pretty big damper on some of our plans.  I had really wanted to hike the rain forest in Puerto Rico, but that didn't happen this trip.  Guess we'll need to make another trip back when I'm not hobbling around:)

Hotel in San Juan (2 days pre-cruise)
The Renaissance La Concha in Condado.  We used the hubs' Marriott points and stayed two nights for a total of 60,000 points.  Very nice resort, good location, a couple of pools, and right on the beach.  Across from the hotel is a great breakfast joint - Pinky's.

Restaurants
Pinky's - Really great place for breakfast in Condado.  We went both mornings and had different items each time.  It was all fantastic!  Prices are attractive, too.

Casa Cortes - If you love chocolate as much as I do, stop at this place for dessert or a mid-afternoon snack.  Can't wait to go back to try more of their menu offerings!  This place is downtown Old San Juan,

Ship
Restaurant service: Painfully slow almost every night.

Steakhouse: Worst steakhouse experience we've had - bad service, food mediocre relative to our usual steakhouse meals.

Common areas and room always really clean.

Entertainment: Laughable.

Overall, we enjoyed our cruise, but the service just wasn't good.

Ports of Call
St. Croix
We had an island tour scheduled with a friend of a friend, but a medical emergency of a friend in our tour group changed our plans quickly.  The beach is pretty and the plantation ruins cool, but the hospital visit was a unique part of the tour that none of us were expecting.  I definitely want to go back and re-do this port.

Dominica
Sadly, the boot I had to wear on my foot did not allow me to go with the rest of my group on the Sheppee Pirates of the Caribbean tour.  From the pictures I've seen along with the commentary from the hubs and our friends, I'm really glad I didn't attempt this tour.  In fact, if you have any physical limitations at all, not a good swimmer, and adverse to cold water, don't choose this tour.

Instead, I joined up with a smaller group and took the Discover Dominica tour with Exodus.  Normal price is $50pp (same price for the same tour through Carnival), but the group leader negotiated down to $40pp for our group of 10.  Definitely recommend this tour if you are unable to do strenuous activities.

Martinique
We had a heck of time coming up with something to do here that did not require knowing some French and need euros so we took the usually-avoided ship excursion through Carnival - The Historic St. Pierre tour.  So NOT worth it!

Granada
I set up a private tour with AJ Meddy for our group of 6 and chose the West Coast Half-Day.  It was $32pp.  We had a great day with this tour company and would definitely use his company again.  Very personal service from the beginning, and we really enjoyed the tour guides he set up for us.  Very nice guys!

Grand Turk
LOVE this place as a beach day!  So easy!  Walk off the pier, and BOOM, you're there.  Next time we'll wander down to Jack's Shack, I think.