Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Best Disney Hotels

In my opinion, of course.

I've been considering this post for a while, but honestly didn't know where to start. After all, there's just no way I could pick one single favorite Disney hotel. And surprisingly enough, I've had my fair share of mediocre stays at Disney--and even one really, really bad one. After all, I've stayed at the following Disney resorts:
  • The Disney Inn, which is now Shades of Green
  • The Polynesian
  • The Grand Floridian
  • The Boardwalk Resort
  • Coronado Springs (x2)
  • The Disney Institute, which is now Saratoga Springs
  • Animal Kingdom Lodge
  • All Star Music
  • Port Orleans Riverside (x2)
  • Pop Century (x2)
  • Saratoga Springs
  • All Star Sports
  • Port Orleans French Quarter
  • Fort Wilderness Cabins
  • Caribbean Beach (x2)

I'll begin with the "Value" resorts. I put that in quotes because nowadays, you're still going to pay $100+ per night to stay at a "Value" resort...which to me doesn't seem like much of a value. But I'm a stickler for staying on Disney property--despite the fact that I've lived in Orlando and know my way around. So if you're scraping to afford a Disney vacation but still want the proximity to the parks, transportation options, and use of the Disney Dining Plan, the "Value" resorts are simply a better bet than something off-property. And if you can get into the Pop Century Resort, that's my pick for best "Value" resort!

I didn't have a horrible stay at the All Star Music. In fact, at the time I was very pleased with it. But my stay there was in 2004, and considering that a mere three and a half years later I had a horrible stay at the All Star Sports (I'll delve into that at a later date), I simply can't in all good conscience recommend the Music as best "Value" resort, either. On the other hand, with two stays at the Pop behind me and the knowledge that this resort is far younger than the All Stars, I can safely say that the Pop is the best value for your money at this Disney hotel level. Plus, I prefer the Pop's proximity to MGM, EPCOT, and Downtown Disney/Typhoon Lagoon over the All Star resorts' proximity to Animal Kingdom and Blizzard Beach.

The Moderate Resorts is where I'm seriously torn over my "best of" pick. Because I've never had a bad stay at a Moderate Resort--and I've experienced all four of them. I will admit that my stay at the Port Orleans French Quarter was mediocre (they closed the pool for a couple of months and didn't point this fact out to me when I booked my room there; plus, this hotel is seriously lacking in amenities and just not close enough to Port Orleans French Quarter to make up for that), and that Coronado Springs, while a great resort (amazing food options and pool!), is simply too far out of the way to make it into my top choices. Really, I have to say that if I had to choose between Caribbean Beach and Port Orleans Riverside...I wouldn't know which one to pick!

Caribbean Beach has the better lakeside beaches--love those hammocks! I also prefer CBR's food court over that of POR, and of course, CBR has a great pool. On top of that, they have been working on re-doing the rooms and the updated decor and bedding is far superior to that of POR. However...I cannot hide my love for the "fishin' hole" at POR, and I seriously believe that the poolside bar here is the best on property (and the pool itself isn't so bad, either). POR is also a lot quieter and has some great little photo opportunities--areas with fountains and landscaping that Disney obviously put a lot of time and detail into. If only they would clean up/update some of the room interiors...

The last category I am at all inclined to rate is the Deluxe Resort category. In addition to the Deluxe hotels I've actually stayed in, I've spent a lot of time at the Beach and Yacht Club resorts, including seeing a room at the Yacht Club. I have a feeling that if I were to stay at the Beach Club, I would rate that as my personal favorite...but I digress.

Since Disney started labeling the Polynesian, Contemporary, and Grand Floridian as "monorail resorts"--and giving them the requisite price hike that came along with this new category--I simply can't say that these three are worth the price. I absolutely love the Poly--the pool, the beach, the lobby, O'Hana and Kona are all amazing. But I prefer EPCOT to Magic Kingdom, and even if I didn't, being charged an extra $50+ per night to be on the monorail line just doesn't fly with me. Also, the Grand Floridian is simply overrated and blase.

Regarding Animal Kingdom Lodge--I wouldn't bother unless you can get a Savannah View room (which I did). While I love this resort as well, the Savannah View rooms are really the only thing that set it apart, and it's so far away from everything but Animal Kingdom that even if I could bring myself to shell out the cash for said room, I'm not sure I would choose to stay here again.

But The Boardwalk Inn...that's another story. Walking distance to EPCOT, great pool, great bars right there (Jelly Rolls and Big River Grille & Brewing Works, plus the ESPN club if you're a big sports nut)...not to mention beautiful understated decor everywhere you go. Add to that the fact that you can walk to the Yacht or Beach Clubs (mainly for their pool or to eat at Beaches and Cream, yum!) as well as the Swan and Dolphin (karaoke at Kimono's in the Swan is a blast!), and you have my solid pick for best deluxe resort at Disney.

In conclusion, I need to give an honorable mention to Disney's home-away-from-home resorts. The only one I've stayed at is Saratoga Springs, and even though the only thing it's close to is Downtown Disney, I have to say that I love this resort. If you're planning on going to Florida for a week or more and can afford the slightly high price tag of a home-away-from-home resort, I definitely recommend Saratoga. Good pool, for one, and the full kitchen in the rooms is such a nice option if you think you'll need more food that the Dining Plan offers (which, for a week or more stay, you might--if you're on the basic 1 snack/1 quick service meal/1 full service meal per person, per night plan). The spa is absolutely amazing and I fell in love with the flatbreads and sandwiches at the Artist's Palette.

Eventually I will elaborate on some of my not-so-amazing Disney resort stays...but for now, I rest my case on my favorite ones!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Chicago Pizza Face Off: Malnati's vs. Oven Grinder

No, I'm not a food critic. And no, I haven't eaten at every pizza place in the world, or even every pizza place in Chicago (obviously--I've only been there once). But I love pizza, and it's a proven fact that I at least know a good pizza from a bad one. Not that either of the pizza places that will be discussed here are bad--far from it, in fact. So far from it, that I have had a difficult time deciding which one is better...because they're both amazing.

What it all boils down to is what a person likes. I'll begin with Lou Malnati's, a Chicago staple since 1971. The moment I took a bite of this pizza, I was in some sort of heaven. The buttercrust, the sauce, the hot freshness of it all...took my breath away. I'm a food lover, but it takes a lot for me to be quite this reverent--yet reverent I am. I won't even get into the delicious dessert that I had--a Chocolate Chip Pizza. Self-explanatory, and also hot, fresh, and delicious. If I could have fit more pizza and two of those desserts in my stomach, I would have been a much happier girl.

What also impressed me about Malnati's was the service (at least at the Naperville, IL location). Apparently, the waitress messed up our order--our friends ordered a pizza that was half cheese and half with a bunch of toppings; ours was supposed to have the same toppings on the whole thing, but she claimed that she put ours in as half and half as well. Honestly...I wouldn't have even noticed, I was so impressed with the quality of the food. But she didn't even wait for me to notice! She called herself out on her mistake and gave us our pizza for half off. Needless to say, she earned her giant tip ;o)

The very next day, we were lucky enough to experience the Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Co., which is in quite an interesting location--the ground floor of the building that is located directly across from where the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre occurred!

The "Oven Grinder", as my local friends call it, is one of those places that many people will never experience. There's no giant sign outside. They only accept cash. Their pizza comes in two sizes--half pound and pound; two different crusts--white or wheat; with or without meatsauce, and with or without mushrooms. Yes, there are other things on their menu (the Mediterranean bread is a great appetizer/meal accompaniment!), but we (and from what I hear, most people) went for the pizza. Or rather, the "pizza pot pies", because that's what they are. A thick, heavy-duty crust filled with sauce (and mushrooms, if you wish, but I don't) and covered with a thick layer of cheese.

Now, I'm pretty traditional when it comes to pizza. I don't care for thin-crust or New York Style. I love regular crust (so long as it's not from some crappy chain like Domino's) and I especially love deep dish pizza (when it's done right). That's why, in the end, I'd say that I prefer Malnati's pizza over the pizza pot pies from the Oven Grinder. But really, when it comes down to it--you can't compare the two. They're actually totally different meals, and whereas I would choose Malnati's over the Oven Grinder if I ever make it back to Chicago, in the end...it's all in what you prefer.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Contiki Tours

Well, the old adage "you get what you pay for" has been proven time and again, has it not?

But I truly believe that with Contiki, you get at least a little more than what you pay for :)

The hotels themselves were clean, and only one was so far out of the city as to be inconvenient, that one being the Ibis Schiphol in Amsterdam. I will admit that the Hotel Lowengraben in Lucerne (it's an old jail) was creepy and that it was annoying to have to pack an overnight bag for it, though.

The bus was a newer one and very clean as well, and our bus driver, Henk, was pretty cool. I wouldn't want to have to navigate that bus through the Alps, that's for sure! The only bad thing was that the seats were really small. As a fairly tall woman (5'8"), when the person in front of me put their seat all the way back I had to sit with my legs spread in order to fit, which got a little old on some of the longer bus rides.

The included meals were what is to be expected. The breakfasts in Amsterdam and Barcelona were pretty darn good, and Paris and Chamonix were okay as well. Nice and Lucerne were questionable. For the dinners, most of them were at least edible, except for the one in Lucerne, which I won't even get into.

The optionals were mostly really great. The canal cruise in Amsterdam was awesome because it included unlimited drinks and gave you a neat view of the city...the Sea Palace dinner actually got canceled because hardly anyone signed up for it...the Nouvelle Eve cabaret show in Paris was fun, had great food, and if you were sweet about it they even gave you a little more free wine than they were supposed to ;o)...the lake cruise in Lucerne was okay--really cheap drinks, and it was cool to see more of the lake than we would have seen had we not gone on it, but it was rainy and cold there so that kind of sucked...the Aguille de Midi cable car would have been cool had it not been so foggy at the top (we couldn't see more than a few feet in front of us, so it turned out to be kind of a waste of money), but had it not been foggy it would have been amazing (I will warn that even I, who has been up fairly high in the Rockies here in the States, got really lightheaded at the top)...the Monaco dinner was just that, a dinner, but the food was really, really good, so I recommend that as well...and finally, the Flamenco show in Barcelona was a lot of fun (neither the show nor the food was as good as the cabaret in Paris, but it was still worth the money).

The "informal" optionals were basically just the tour guide taking us out places that aren't technically Contiki sanctioned, the first being the "cultural show" (read: sex show) in Amsterdam. That show itself was, well, weird--basically just a bunch of not really attractive people having completely dispassionate sex on stage, but it's one of those things that it's cool to say you saw ;o) Our tour guide also took us to bars in different places--this Irish bar/club sort of place next to the Moulin Rouge in Montmartre in Paris was tons of fun, but expensive...the "pub crawl" in Chamonix was lots of fun because the places we went were less touristy...Wayne's in Nice was interesting, but a little too crowded for my taste (and also still expensive)...the sangria bar just off La Ramblas in Barcelona was cheap but a little dodgy, and pretty boring (no music, and we got shushed when we tried to play drinking games)...and last but not least, Baja on the beach in Barcelona was a blast, even on a Sunday night!

Our tour guide, Kristy, was absolutely wonderful. She was nice, approachable, and I feel like she really went out of her way to do many different things so that everyone could have a good time at one point or another. She was also great at getting us to do and see as much as possible in the very limited time we had in most of the cities.

The people on the tour were...well...interesting. We had a lot of couples, somewhere between 8 and 10, but most of them were lots of fun. We had three women that were a bit older and kind of separated themselves from the group, whereas most of the couples were friendly and open and went out with us almost every night. I would say that 70% of the people on our tour were from Australia...there was only something like 8-10 Americans and maybe 7 Canadians! No problem with that, though--it was awesome to meet people from all over the world!

As a whole, I had the time of my life on my Amsterdam to Barcelona tour, and I would do a Contiki again in a heartbeat. I would definitely recommend it for younger people who are outgoing and want to have a lot of fun, but if you get easily frustrated with loud and crazy Australians it might not be for you ;o)

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Neat Tool/Travel Goals

Many years ago, I decided that one of my goals would be to visit every single U.S. state. Considering I'm only 27, I think I'm doing a pretty good job. Check out my Visited States Map:

Visited States


Visited US States Map from TravelBlog

I decided to post this today because I just returned from adding another state to my map--Illinois. I am both lucky (and unlucky, in a way) enough to have friends scattered all over the country, and this past weekend got to visit Chicago and the surrounding areas and be shown around by someone who was born and raised there.

I also wanted to mention that, sometime after deciding that I wanted to visit every US state, I made a goal to see at least one a year. Unfortunately, with the love I have for certain places (like Las Vegas, Maine, and Florida), last year was the first year in a while that I didn't reach that specific goal. No matter, though--it's only mid-April of 2010 and I have already added three new states to my list, as we drove through Mississippi on our way to New Orleans, Louisiana in February and, as previously mentioned, just returned from Chicago, Illinois.

Obviously I have some pretty lofty travel goals, and I understand that not everyone out there feels the need to visit, say, Oklahoma. Or North Dakota. Hell, I may not ever reach my 50-state goal. But having the desire has certainly inspired me to try!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Ohhh, validation.

The following is a case and point on checking a hotel's reviews before staying there.

Yes, I know that sounds obvious, but even I fail to do it sometimes--in this case, because we were simply going out of town for a concert and only staying one night.

And that is how we ended up at the Fairfield Inn in Suwanee, Georgia, for the first and last time.

As I said, we only stayed here for one night, which is probably the only reason I can give this hotel an average review (rather than a completely negative one). The bed had the usual comfy sheets and pillows Marriott has recently become known for, but the mattress was hard as a rock. I was pleased that there was a fan in the bathroom (the last two Marriotts I stayed in did not have bathroom fans, which I found a bit annoying), but the light in the shower/toilet room was far too dim. The staff was very friendly, but after we returned from a concert and were chatting in our room as we got ready for bed our phone rang--someone was complaining about us being loud! I can only assume that the walls are about as thick as a dime, considering we didn't have the TV or radio on and weren't yelling or anything.

We were woken up three times the next morning by the same car alarm going off in the parking lot. I know there isn't much that the hotel employees could do about this, but it was frustrating all the same, and that coupled with the hard-as-a-rock bed didn't make for the best night's sleep.

Also, other than the Applebee's next door, be prepared to drive a few miles for any decent food, and don't expect anything in Suwanee to be open before mid-afternoon on a Sunday--we learned that the hard way. As we only stayed here to go to a concert at the nearby Gwinnett Center, we should have just stayed in the Holiday Inn next to the Center.

Following the posting of my review, I decided to read back a couple pages on TripAdvisor--only to see that numerous other people had already complained about the thin walls. If I had seen these reviews before booking our stay, I would have likely booked somewhere else, such as the aforementioned Holiday Inn. After all, one does go a bit deaf after a loud rock concert...if other people were getting chided for merely talking in their room, I would have known that we would be pretty much screwed. The price seemed right...but in the end, it just wasn't worth it.

Alas, we did not do our research and had a less-than-average stay at this hotel. I'll consider this a lesson learned.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Beer, Beer, and...rude tree-hugging hippies?

Saturday was the inaugural Top of the Hops Beer Fest for our fine city, and of course Steve and I had tickets. VIP tickets, to be exact. And let me tell you, sucking it up and buying our tickets a month early, and being able to get VIP admission, was the best idea we've had in a while.

I want to say that VIP tickets were maybe an extra $20-25 per person, but let me explain this festival to you, and I'm sure you'll understand why they were a good idea ;o)

First, the festival was scheduled from 2 PM until 6 PM, but with VIP tickets we got in at 1 PM. This meant that we were able to make some rounds, try some great beers, and have time to chat with the brewery employees before things started looking like this:



And if you think that looks crowded...it only got worse.

But while those people were waiting ten minutes for a two-ounce sample, and having to pay for food and then balance eating it and standing or walking around, we were relaxing in the VIP area with chairs. And a table. And free food. And free bottled water. And of course, beer!


Eventually the lines were too long, the crowds too much, and they had run out of some of the best beers, so we decided to leave around 5 PM. No big deal, as we'd had an extra hour there anyway thanks to our VIP tickets ;o)

And some how, some way, we ended up back out later that evening for another Greenville Drive game! Our friends Nick and Annie came with and we all enjoyed an evening of drinking beer and doing more chatting than baseball-watching...which was probably a good thing, considering the Drive unfortunately lost this one.

After the depressing end of the game, we took a pleasant walk back up to North Main and hit up Barley's. We were hungry, and have heard great things about their pizza. Unfortunately, after heading upstairs, ordering drinks, and starting a game of darts, we beckoned a bartender, who told us in no uncertain terms, through his tree-hugging hippy beard, that THEY DO NOT SERVE FOOD UPSTAIRS. Okay, one, that makes no sense and has no reasoning other than them wanting to keep things separate, probably to make things easier on themselves. And two...there is no reason to be rude about it! Honestly, sooorrryy that we ordered Stellas and not one of your crazy disgusting small batch taps. Go back to Montana or something.

Needless to say, we finished our drinks and headed next door to Wild Wing Cafe (again), where we over-ordered on the appetizers and ate way too much before saying good night to Nick and Annie and grabbing a taxi ride home. At least the taxi was inexpensive--we actually took two on Saturday, from different ends of Greenville back to our house, and paid $12-14 for each ride! Definitely a pleasant lesson learned ;o)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Great Bar Food, Atmosphere at Wild Wing Cafe

Okay.

I'm not usually a big purveyor of chain restaurants. As someone who worked in the restaurant industry for over four years, places like Outback Steakhouse are the bane of my existence. But every once in a while, a chain restaurant (pretty much always a small chain restaurant) gets it right.

And Wild Wing Cafe is one of the ones who's got it right.

I think of Wild Wing Cafe as a small chain--it has dozens of locations, but most are in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, with a few scattered in Virginia, Texas, etc. I don't pretend to be some sort of wing connoisseur, but I've eaten wings at the WWC in Charleston SC and Greenville SC and been pretty impressed both times. But despite the name, you shouldn't just go there for the wings, because the rest of their appetizers are very, very good as well! Although I have yet to try a full-on meal, I don't think this is a place I would choose for that anyway...I would rather just take advantage of their late-night feeding time.

Wild Wing Cafe serves their full menu until midnight and wings until 1 AM, which is apparently pretty late in both Charleston and Greenville. Of the three times we've eaten at a WWC, we've sampled their pretzel bites (awesome, although I wish we had asked for cheese to dip them in, instead of just mustard), mini corn dogs (to die for), tomato basil tortizza (surprisingly good), and steel town spuds (some of the best loaded fries I've ever had).

It's not just the food that draws us to WWC, though--the atmosphere is great as well! They have constant food and drink specials, live music a few nights a week, as well as trivia and karaoke nights.  Personally, I think it's pretty rare that you find this perfect storm of quality food (with late-night serving hours) AND entertainment, especially at a chain, but I'm happy to report that Wild Wing Cafe has got it right!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Take Me Out to the Ballgame: Greenville Drive Opening Day, 2010

Is ironic the term for two Red Sox fans who happened to move to a city where one of the Red Sox farm teams, the Greenville Drive, is based?

In past years, my company has had season tickets to the Drive, and I have enjoyed many a game. Some Northerners who have tagged along have complained that Fluor Field, which is a mini replica of Fenway, isn't Fenway...well, duh. But you take what you can get, and I am more than happy to sit mere feet from the field for less than $10, pay $5 for a huge Yuengling, and enjoy watching the Drive [hopefully] kick some butt. Maybe we're not as die hard Red Sox fans as we could or should be, because I'll take Greenville and its low cost of living/warm weather/nice people/Fluor Field five minutes from my house over New England and its high cost of living/awful weather/rude people/Fenway any day.

That said, with the current economic crunch, my company couldn't justify the season tickets again this year. But that's okay, because the Drive offers a handful of different, less expensive packages--one of which is the weekend package, which gets you tickets to twelve weekend games and five weekday games for a slightly discounted rate per game. This is the package we chose, and although it put a bit of a hurt on our bank accounts, we know it will be worth it!

Now, because we bought our season tickets so late (paid for them the day before opening day), we had to take different seats for opening game last night. Whatever, no biggie. So we were just chatting and watching the game and enjoying ourselves when one of the guys behind us started talking--kind of loudly--and we immediately recognized his voice! He's a radio personality who goes by the handle "Nine" and is one of four members of Steve's favorite morning radio show here in Greenville, The Rise Guys on 93.3 FM! (I listen on occasion, as well, but have less patience than Steve for the fact that at least 60% of the music on this station is douchemetal of the "Click Click Boom" and Five Finger Death Punch persuasion)

We kept our cool and waited for some other jerk to call out Nine and the other two morning show members sitting with him, Paige and Mattman. Once those obnoxious people left them alone, we introduced ourselves and even had a conversation with them. They were really nice, and Steve was super excited to meet a few local celebrities.

Our great night was topped off when Greenville won the game. We had a celebratory post-game drink (just one!) at Liberty Tap Room and unfortunately still stayed out a bit too late for our working-class selves. But all in all, it was a great night, a great opening game, and great to hear from Steve (yet again) how much he loves this city :)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Rhode Island: The Biggest Little State in the Union












Growing up in New England, I was able to visit many amazing places on a regular basis--places that I feel everyone should see (such as Boston, Martha's Vineyard, Ogunquit Maine). But if you had asked me about Rhode Island, I would have said "What? Watch Hill? Misquamicut?" (Those being the beaches I frequented in my teen years)

Of course, when I started dating someone who is originally from Rhode Island, knowing most of his family still lives there, and that he is very, very proud of his heritage...well, I knew it was only a matter of time before I got the grand tour of his homestate (much easier when said state is the smallest in the US, at only 1,214 square miles). Surprisingly, it was every bit of late August 2009 before he finally took me there! Of course I met some of his relatives, who live in a beautiful neighborhood in East Providence, but mainly he wanted to take me to Waterfire Providence, a sort of art installation involving bonfires on the Providence Rivers, as well as to do some shopping and dining on Thayer Street.

The dining came first, with the shopping hot on its heels. We ate (and drank!) at Andreas, a Greek restaurant, on Thayer. I was pleased but not amazed by this restaurant (details will come in a full-on restaurant review sometime in the future), but at least it was something different. After dinner and drinks, we walked up and down Thayer Street and shopped shopped shopped! Most of what we bought were some great vintage consignment/thrift store finds and we both had a great time. If you're a big purveyor of vintage clothes, Thayer Street is the place to go!

Steve and I, sweaty and half-drunk, experiencing Waterfire
We finally made our way to Waterfire, just as the sun was setting. We had to drive around for a while to find a parking space, and in the end...well, it was hot. I wasn't super impressed with the Waterfire itself, but the nightlife that it, err, spawned was definitely neat. There were families with children, vendors with carts of cotton candy and fake "lightsabers" and glow-in-the-dark necklaces, big band music and swing dancing a block from the river, and a few bars and restaurants here and there. Now, as for that last bit...when I say "here and there" I mean here and there. Granted, neither of us knew the city that well (or in my case, not at all), but even with our trusty iPhones it took us over 30 minutes to find the Union Station Brewery (I'd link to it, but it doesn't have its own website). As brewpubs go, this place was good, but it being so crowded that night and us being full, we didn't have a chance to do much--we just had two beers each and decided that it was time to call it a night.

My verdict on Waterfire: If you are in Providence while it's happening, go see it. If you're not...don't sweat it, you're not missing a once-in-a-lifetime experience or anything.

Taking a leisurely stroll up and down the beach...
The next day dawned sunny and warm, perfect for a day at the beach! Unfortunately, Hurricane Bill was just off the coast, and that prevented us from actually swimming, but it was still great to take a pleasant drive through Tiverton and Little Compton and end up at Elephant Rock Beach.

Now, I'm a lucky girl whose boyfriend belongs to a sort of special/important Rhode Island family ;) His wonderful grandmother packed us a picnic lunch and we went to experience a truly private beach. Steve's dad was the last Gross to be grandfathered in and allowed at Elephant Rock without having to own a house there; therefore, this was probably the only time I'll ever get to visit this beautiful beach (which is TECHNICALLY in Massachusetts, but it's right on the state line and the only way to get to it is to drive into Rhode Island).
We may not have been able to swim, but the waves were amazing!

We spent a good few hours eating our picnic lunch and walking from one end of the beach to the other. It was clean and beautiful and I can only hope that there are other beaches in Rhode Island like this--because if so, the aforementioned Watch Hill and Misquamicut absolutely do not do Rhode Island beaches justice! What was also neat is that there are ruins scattered on the beach from previous hurricanes. Even without being able to swim, we had a wonderful, relaxing day at the beach.

After Elephant Rock, there was a quick ice cream stop at Gray's in Tiverton (their grape nut ice cream is to die for!), and then about an hour and a half drive home to north-central Connecticut.

I have to say that experiencing Rhode Island with someone who has lived there was a big part of what made this a memorable overnight trip. However, I know far too many people who live only a couple hours (or less!) from this amazing little state and never experience it at all. My comment to those people is, "You don't know what you're missing!"

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Pre-Cruise Trip Report: Disney Cruise Line

Recently, I've written about Drinking around the [Disney] World and about losing myself to the charms of Sin City, the true adult playground. So I thought it was probably time to write about something a little more family friendly ;)

This post is actually about something I haven't experienced yet--that being a cruise with Disney Cruise Line. But have no fear--you are reading this now, and in about a month and a half I will be able to write a review of an actual Disney cruise, because cruising with Disney is how we have chosen to spend my boyfriend's 30th birthday!

Why Disney Cruise line, you ask, for a grown man's birthday? Especially when we don't have any children of our own? Well, there are many reasons that I stand behind my decision, not the least of which is the fact that I am, as you probably guessed, a pretty big fan of all things Disney. Other reasons are that (a) I've heard wonderful things about the staterooms [supposedly bigger than most other cruise lines], the service, and the food; (b) I wanted a shorter cruise but didn't want to deal with the craziness [and I'll leave it at that] of a Carnival Bahamas cruise or end up on the same Royal Caribbean ship I experienced in 2000 [the Monarch is the ship RCI is sending to the Bahamas these days]; (c) surprisingly enough, Disney is the only cruise line that offers truly adults-only areas all day long, including an adults-only pool! Those are my main reasons for choosing a Disney cruise, and I think they more than suffice.

But enough about Disney being adult-friendly, because I promised a blog about something family-friendly, for once!

Now, first of all--I don't pretend to know everything about every cruise line out there, but I do know that last I checked, Disney was the only major cruise line (at least out of Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess, and Disney) that offered discounted rates for children! Part of me thinks it's just ridiculous for a cruise line to charge the same price for an adult as they do for an infant, or a toddler, or pretty much any child under the age of, say, 10. I'm sure some of you are likewise screaming, "The outrage!" But...the business woman in me knows that while this sounds ridiculous to the traveler, money-wise, it's the smart decision for the cruise line. To play devil's advocate--why should the cruise line lose money by selling a bed to you for less, just because you're traveling with a child, when they could cram more adults into that same room and sell that bed for more? Yet in the end, Disney has it right. Children certainly eat less food and use fewer other resources on the ship; I highly doubt Disney Cruise Line is actually making less or losing more money than their fellow lines, by offering discounted rates for youngsters.

We should also talk about soft drinks. Because although I personally do not drink soda, I understand that most people do, and so do all those cruise lines out there. While other lines charge you for soft drinks--even at meals!--the only time you will pay for a soda on a Disney cruise is when you order one from a bar. Not only are sodas included when you're sitting down to a meal, but there are soda fountains on the ship that are also included in your cruise price.

And of course, there are the obvious reasons why Disney Cruise Line is simply more family friendly--the Pirate Party with fireworks, the opportunities to take pictures and the Broadway-style shows with Disney characters, and the fact that they offer an actual nursery for children 3 months to 3 years for a minimal fee.

Plus, if you like to think outside the box, there is something called a Fish Extender Exchange that is not necessarily sanctioned by Disney Cruise Line...but looks like a great idea nonetheless! A "Fish Extender" is a piece of fabric with pouches that you hang from the fish outside your stateroom. You can go to disboards.com and sign up to participate in the Fish Extender Exchange for your particular sail date, and other cruisers will leave little gifts/surprises in your Fish Extender throughout the cruise. Probably sounds a bit silly to an adult, but I can only imagine how much a child would love the anticipation of getting back to the stateroom and seeing if there is a surprise in his or her special pocket of a Fish Extender!

Although currently, that is the extent of my knowledge of traveling with Disney Cruise Line, I'm sure that the next time you see me writing about it I will have much more to say...and here's to the hope that most--or maybe even all--of my musings will be positive ones!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Vegas Dreamin'

I have to admit that I was very reluctant to love Las Vegas. I'm not much for gambling. I don't eat enough to bother with $25+ buffets. I love a good Broadway musical, but the clips I saw of Vegas shows didn't catch my attention. Therefore, for the first 24 years, 11 months of my life, I had no biting desire to see Sin City. In fact, the only reason I ended up going at all--about a month before my 25th birthday--was thanks to a close friend. He wanted to celebrate his birthday out there, and after a lot of emails, and learning that my flights and hotel would cost next to nothing...I simply couldn't say no.

Unfortunately, to take the direct flights from Greenville (which no longer exist), I had to fly out at the crack of dawn on a Friday morning and take a red-eye back Sunday night. This left me pretty much exhausted the entire weekend--and although my not-quite-25-year-old self handled it okay, I'm not sure my 27-year-old self could. Still, despite the fact that I had only about two and a half days in Vegas (not arriving at the hotel until after lunch on Friday, and having to be back at the airport around 8 PM on Sunday night), I was able to experience just enough to know that I had to go back.

And I did go back--twice--but those are other stories for another time. For right now, I felt like writing about Vegas because there is a chance that my big-girl job will be sending me out there for a conference this summer, and I've suddenly realized how much I want to go back. Again. For what will be the fourth time.

Of course, the thought that I may get to go to Vegas in just a few months has led me to reminisce about my first trip out to Sin City. It may have been short, but like I said--that gave me enough of a taste to want to go back. And I really did get a little taste of everything, thanks to my good friend Andy and his vast knowledge of all things Vegas.

That's the thing about Vegas--it's one of those places that, in my opinion, is best to see with someone who has been before. Especially if you are only going for two or three days.

On this, my first trip to Las Vegas, I learned the following:
  • Stay on the Strip, or, if you must stay off it, pick a hotel that is closer to the center of the Strip. You're going to be spending most of your time here anyway, right? That money that you are "saving" by staying in downtown Vegas or way out at Mandalay Bay on one end or the Stratosphere at the other, you'll end up spending in cab fees.
  • If you can, catch a champagne brunch. So far I've only experienced the one at Mandalay Bay, but it was more than worth the $23 per person, in my opinion. The food was delicious (best Eggs Benedict I've ever had!) and the champagne was flowing...can't beat that!
  • Avoid the thrill rides/roller coasters. I am well aware that some people will disagree with me on this, but my experience was that I paid $14 to ride the New York New York coaster and spent the entire time freaking out because it simply did not feel safe (at one point, I swear it went off the track). I love thrill rides, especially roller coasters, but there are simply better things to do in Vegas...especially with $14 ;o)
  • Unless you can eat your weight in food, the buffets simply aren't worth it (or at least, the $25+ per person ones aren't). There are so many other amazing restaurants in Vegas that if you only eat at buffets, you are totally missing out.
  • If you're going to gamble--especially card games like Blackjack--do it off-Strip. I prefer the $5 Blackjack at Binion's in downtown Vegas, but there are many other places with low buy-ins (versus the $15 min--or more--buy-ins at the tables in major Strip casinos).
  • Don't miss seeing the Bellagio fountains! I always try to catch them at least twice when I'm out there, once during the day and once at night. It's a different experience in the sunlight and in the dark, but always amazing.
  • Know that nightclubs are expensive. If you are a girl traveling with other girls, you will likely be able to skip lines and get in for free, but if you have guys with you, I can only say "good luck". Try to go online to the websites of whatever clubs you are thinking about visiting before you go out there, and sign up for the VIP lists. This won't guarantee you no waiting at all, or no admission, but it may help a little bit. Also, while you're out there keep an eye out for booklets and business cards in cabs. We got friendly with a cabbie one evening and got free admission to Pure at Caesar's!
As for me, I've learned something new on each of my Vegas trips--so this is only the surface of my Vegas knowledge, and you'll have to stay tuned for more. I'll say this much--I already know the one must-do on my list for my inevitable next trip to Vegas (whether it ends up being for this conference, or another time)--seeing the inside of the Luxor pyramid. Tacky, I know ::sigh:: But for whatever reason...it's the one thing I've always missed, and I simply need to see it for myself.
My first trip to Vegas, all thanks to my good bud Andy (he's on the far right)!