Friday, May 28, 2010

Reflections re: Our Disney Cruise

I've definitely heard the term "great product, not for us" thrown around a few times lately...and I have to say that this is probably the best way to describe our experience with Disney Cruise Line.

Obligatory Captain Mickey picture!
I will say this - though we had the most inexpensive room available, it was really really nice - and large - for a cruise cabin.
Now, there will be no bashing here--because we really did have an amazing time, and I think that if one is traveling with children, Disney Cruise Line is probably by far the best way to go. But I have to write from the heart about my experience, and writing from the heart means admitting things like: we checked with the onboard booking specials and could have gotten a great price (for a Disney cruise, anyway) on a cruise in October, but decided to forgo that option because as adults traveling without children, the experience simply wasn't worth the cost for us.

Steve and Jonathan with our stash of liquor
First things first--I do have to express my absolute love of Disney's alcohol policy, that being: if you can fit it in the designated carry-on, you can get it on the ship! We brought four pint bottles and some nippers with us, and I can't even fathom how much money that saved us in the long run. That, and it was nice to be able to run by the (free!) drink station and mix up a nice strong rum and coke or bourbon and coke when the urge grabbed us, rather than heading off to a bar and just hoping that they put a proper amount of alcohol in your drink.

We participated in a Disboards fish extender exchange - it was a blast!
However. In the end, the cost of the cruise itself was prohibitive enough that we probably could have gone on another cruise line (for instance, we could have spent half the amount on the cruise and had an oceanview room on Royal Caribbean rather than an inside room on Disney) and ended up spending the same amount on cruise fare plus alcohol as we did on just the cruise fare for Disney.
Enjoying the views...

Another huge plus for this cruise was the adults-only area. Better lounge chairs, a nice quiet pool, and two jacuzzis--it was perfect. There were maybe two times when cast members had to ask children to leave the area, but the point is--they actually asked them to leave. Adults only means adults only! (And thank God for that). Plus it was right next to the spa, and we purchased Rainforest Room passes in order to take advantage of their amazing steam rooms and aromatherapy showers. We also enjoyed the adults-only Cove Cafe quite a few times--great coffee, great little snacks (mini caprese sandwiches and the like), and the best service on the ship!

Towel animals!
Last but not least, I could never say enough good things about Disney's private island, Castaway Cay. Beautiful, clean, and again--an amazing adults-only area. Not to mention beachfront cabanas in which one can receive a massage. We partook in this "activity" and it was the most amazing massage I've ever had--mainly because of the location, but let's not get picky, right?


Now, for the not-so-amazing bits...the food was good, but not the best I've had on a cruise. I was only truly impressed on two separate occasions--when we went to the buffet for lunch on the first day, and when we went to Palo for dinner. Of course, the only time I was actually unimpressed was when I tried the pizza at the poolside counter. It was gummy and tasteless and kind of, well, gross. But otherwise, our dinner at Parrot Cay on the first night was above average, and the dinner at Animator's Palate on the last night was okay as well.

In the Pirate Museum on Nassau
With Jack Sparrow!
The deck parties (the sail away party on the first day, and the Pirate party on the second night) were very obviously geared toward children. I remember loving the sail away party on my Carnival cruise, so I was a bit disappointed with Disney's...the area where it was held (decks nine and ten) were simply too small for the crowd of people.

Amazing dinner at Palo
At the pirate party - note the kid standing ON TOP OF THE TRASH CAN in the background. WTF.
I think the Pirate party could have been a total blast had I not spent the entire time being jostled by the family standing next to us and worrying about the fact that the mother had her 5 or 6 year old son standing on top of a trash can on the top deck of the boat. This was the one time when I was truly frustrated that cast members were walking by us and not saying anything to this mother about her children.

Docked at Castaway Cay
Finally, our stop in Nassau was very disappointing, but I won't go into detail about that now, because it really is an entire separate blog in itself.

Massage Cabanas at Castaway Cay
When I said that this was a great product--I still think that if you are cruising with young children (as in, any children under the age of 12), Disney Cruise Line is the way to go. Their deck parties and shows are geared toward kids. They offer discounted children's rates, which other cruise lines don't. Sodas and whatnot are included with your meals and if you get them from the drink station on deck nine, so there's no paying extra for a soda card once on board. They've got opportunities to meet characters left and right. Their rooms are bigger than other cruise lines. And I can only imagine that it would be a great vacation to do a 3 day cruise and then spend 4 days at Walt Disney World.

On the adult beach at Castaway Cay...lovely :)
Would I do another Disney cruise? Yes, if I had the extra vacation and if the price actually dropped to $400 per person or less for an inside cabin. I would do it for the Cove Cafe, the adults-only area, the Rainforest room at the spa, Castaway Cay and the beachfront couples massage. And again, we did have an amazing vacation regardless! I just wish that it hadn't been quite so pricey, because I'm not sure we really got our money's worth.

Making a drink with fresh coconut on Castaway Cay
View from the bar at the adult beach on Castaway Cay
Enjoying the awesome coffee shop on the Disney Wonder

Thursday, May 13, 2010

It's about time!

Disney has finally decided to build a new resort--its first in seven years!

I have to admit that I balk at the idea that it will be a "value" resort, as the Pop Century opened in 2004 and they haven't opened a new moderate resort since Coronado Springs in the late '90s. Although I love the price points of the value resorts, they simply don't offer enough amenities. Ah well, what can you do? I suppose it's Disney's decision and not mine ;o)

Monday, May 10, 2010

Greenville is for Art/Food/Nightlife Lovers!

This past weekend marked the Artisphere celebration in downtown Greenville, which was a perfect excuse for us to get off our asses and do something different from the norm. I had bragged to Steve about Fall for Greenville and we were sad that we moved just a couple weeks too late to experience it last October, but when I read up on Artisphere I realized how similar it was and knew that we had to go!

Basically, the city of Greenville shut down South Main Street downtown, from the Peace Center to the split of South Main and Augusta.

View Larger Map

The street was lined with booths of artists, both local and national, selling everything from jewelry to photographs to digital art to oil paintings to handmade leather goods. Everything was high-quality...and a little out of our current price range ;o) But it was great to see so much beautiful art, and Steve did end up picking out a handmade leather belt, which the artist fitted to him right then and there. It's quite a feat for poor willowy Steve to find a belt that fits properly, so he was obviously very excited.

Artisphere was free, but we did purchase tickets to use toward drinks and food. That's right, during special events like Artisphere and Fall for Greenville, the closed-off areas of downtown drop those silly no-open-container laws and allow people to drink in the streets! Steve grabbed a beer (I stuck with bottled water for the time being) and we used the rest of our tickets to sample food from Takosushi and Larkin's, two restaurants we had/have yet to visit. Everything was delicious and after wandering around for a bit longer, we finally meandered back up to North Main. For whatever reason, I had been craving a margarita and some chips and salsa for nearly a week, and as we hadn't visited any of the local Mexican restaurants we decided to try Cantinflas, which supposedly has the best margarita in the Upstate.

The verdict? Not enough tequila, too much sour mix in our pitcher of margarita. The chips were good and obviously homemade; the salsa was amazing as well. But the queso was barely passable and we decided to move on to bigger and better things.

By the end of the night, we ended up visiting five different bars (including Cantinflas)--four of which (Cantinflas being one of them) we had never been to! And the best part? There are still more to experience! Although we gave a thumbs-down to the Cantinflas margaritas, to the late '90s techno and rude doorman at Addy's Dutch Cafe, and to the claustrophobic's nightmare that is Blu Martini, we can't wait to re-visit the Brown Street Club for the live jazz, and we also ended up returning to DT's Tavern (which we had visited the previous weekend), which is sure to become one of our usual hangout choices (decent DJ and drink prices, and it draws a crowd that tends to be in our age group).

Wow...that's a lot of parentheses. Sorry.

My point? We really do fall in love with this city a little more all of the time, and we can't wait until our next chance to hit up the town and check out a few more new re-visit old favorites!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Amazing Amsterdam

I visited Amsterdam via my Contiki tour, and surprisingly (to myself) it became one of my absolute favorite European cities.

You see, I had heard that Amsterdam was "dirty", and the people who claimed it was dirty insisted that that word encompassed a realm of nasty little details. But as I said, this city became one of my favorite European cities--definitely in my top three--and only counting major cities, I've visited nine cities all over continental Europe, as well as in Ireland. No, I haven't seen anything close to everything over there, and I am certainly less well-traveled in Europe than I am in the US; however, I've seen much more of Europe than those who told me Amsterdam was dirty. Hmm...

My sister and I arrived in Amsterdam around 8 AM the morning of July 5, 2007.  We caught the free shuttle to our hotel--the Ibis Schiphol right near the airport--and they were nice enough to check us in and send us right to our room! We immediately went to bed and slept the morning away, got up and ate lunch at the hotel (in the little diner--the food wasn't that great but at least it wasn't overly expensive), then went right back to bed. We woke up one more time later that day, went outside for some fresh air, and ended up going back to bed in hopes that we could get up early the next morning and simply head right into the city for some sightseeing.

Although I feel as if maybe we did waste our first day/night in Amsterdam, it was nice getting up the morning of July 6th and not being exhausted--I think we were probably two of the few people who were caught up on sleep and ready to do whatever when the tour met up later that day! Anyway, we had to take the shuttle bus to the airport, and the train into the city, which took us nearly an hour, but once we got into the city we went directly to the Rijksmuseum. Although it was a bit smaller than I expected, I was excited to go there because it has a higher concentration of Vermeer paintings than any other museum in the world, and he is my favorite artist. The museum also had a huge Rembrandt painting, The Night Watch, as well as a really neat collection of antique dollhouses and the like. After talking with some of the other people on our tour who saw the Van Gogh Museum, I got the impression that that museum was very small and that a lot of people didn't think it was worth the money, whereas I really liked the Rijksmuseum. My opinion? If you're going to be in Amsterdam for a short time and have to be selective about what you see, my vote is for the Rijksmuseum!

Enjoying free beers at the Heineken Experience
After the Rijksmuseum, we went for lunch at a little cafe. It was only a couple blocks from the museum and was called the Hans en Grietje Cafe. I was actually impressed with the prices and the food (great sandwiches and french fries!). After that we headed over to the Heineken Experience, which was probably one of the top things we saw in Amsterdam! Although we only spent about an hour in the Rijksmuseum, we spent about three hours at the Heineken Experience ;o) Besides telling the history of Heineken and how it is made, the Experience had a lot of cool interactive activities, and there were three beers included in your admission (plus a free gift). If I were you, I definitely would not miss this, err, "museum".

We were feeling pretty good after the Heineken Experience, and it was nearing 4 PM, so we made our way back to the hotel. It actually didn't take us quite as long to get back as it did to get into the city that morning, but that was probably partly because we knew what we were doing the second time around ;o) We freshened up and met up with our tour group. The meeting was short and sweet, we all had dinner together (included dinner at the hotel, it was a buffet and it was nasty), then some of us had a few drinks in the bar before heading out for our (unofficial) optional excursion to a sex show! The sex show itself was weird (the people in it weren't very attractive, and the sex was, well, without any sort of feeling or passion at all), but my sister got pulled up on stage to strip a stripper, which was hilarious, and I think it was an interesting sort of bonding experience for all the people on our tour, and hell, there were two drinks included! After the show a bunch of us went to The Grasshopper, which I wasn't too impressed with. It was definitely a tourist trap--the waitresses in the basement (read: smoking) area were bitches and everything (and I do mean EVERYTHING) was really expensive there. My sister and I hung around until almost midnight, at which point we rushed back to Centraal Station to catch the train back to the airport (because that late at night, they only run every hour). Once at the airport, we waited a ridiculously long time for Burger King, but in hindsight I'm not too annoyed about the wait because I think it kept me from having a hangover the next morning ;o) We then caught the last shuttle back to the hotel and somehow made it into bed by 2:30 AM.

On the bicycle tour, seeing the windmill in Edam
The next morning we met up with our tour group to go to a cheese and clog factory, where we stood through a short but sweet presentation and then boarded the bus to go to Edam, this beautiful little town out in the country. We took a bicycle tour through the village, which was actually a lot more fun than I had expected, and saw a beautiful windmill, among other things.

See! I told you there was a Sex Museum!
After the bike ride, we headed back into Amsterdam, and a bunch of us visited the Anne Frank House, which was extremely moving and another Amsterdam must-see! After the Anne Frank House, we ate lunch at one of the many pancake houses (it was okay, nothing to brag about) and then did some shopping! I found that Amsterdam actually has a lot of cool Amsterdam souvenirs, and even some good deals on things like purses and jewelry. After shopping, we visited a coffee shop, because who can pass up a pre-rolled joint of White Widow for 6.50 euro? It was just after our coffee shop sojourn that we discovered the Sex Museum, which is nestled amongst other stores and the Victoria hotel not far from Centraal Station. For only 3 euro, this is another must-see, simply because it's cheap and absolutely hilarious. I also heard, from some other people on the tour, that there is a Pot Museum! Sadly, we missed this, as well as the Amsterdam Historical Museum (sorry that the link is all in Dutch--I couldn't find the link for English), but I heard both were cool and plan on checking them out on my next trip.

We then went to a restaurant that was located right under the Victoria Hotel (I don't think it was part of the hotel, though, and unfortunately no longer remember the name). I can't remember the name, but it's right there and you can't miss it. The food was excellent, especially for the price, but I will warn that I was feeling pretty good at that point and that might have affected my opinion ;o) After dinner, we met up with the other people from our tour for our canal cruise--another must! With unlimited drinks and the ability to see a little more of the city then we might have otherwise, I definitely recommend doing a canal cruise if you visit Amsterdam!

Of course I partied hard my last night in Amsterdam, but that tale is a bit more personal and will remain so ;o)

All in all, I was impressed with how clean the city was, and how friendly the people were, especially after hearing such negative things about Amsterdam, but having seen how dirty Rome was, and having been to numerous icky Caribbean islands (i.e. St Maarten), I didn't see anything to really complain about.

So that was my short but amazing trip to Amsterdam--although I'm not sure it is the type of place I would spend a full week at, I have to admit that I would have loved to stay at least another day, maybe two, and I will probably go back!

(I was told that I should include more pictures on this blog, so let me know what you think. Too image-heavy? Just right? Better with pictures, or without? All that good stuff!)

Monday, May 3, 2010

Louisville Lovin'

Well, I should have written this a few days ago, but what can you do. The Kentucky Derby was this past Saturday and in honor of that, I want to write about a trip I took to Louisville, Kentucky!

This was a few years ago now, but that doesn't change the fact that Louisville is a great destination. I went over Labor Day weekend, for three nights, and probably could have spent four nights there without a moment of boredom. Unfortunately, we were on a bit of a budget for this trip...but that didn't stop us from having a great time! We stayed at the Econo Lodge Downtown (it used to be a Comfort Inn and was when we stayed there), on South 2nd Street, and for the price ($60 per night for a holiday weekend!) we were very, very pleased. The room was spotlessly clean, there was free wi-fi and a free continental breakfast (which was surprisingly good), and the hotel was only about a five minute walk from 4th Street Live, the hub of [touristy] entertainment in downtown Louisville. The only real "complaint" I had about our stay was that this hotel is right across the street from a sort of night club complex, and one night it got pretty rowdy and we were kept awake.

Of course, if you're not on a budget, I spent hours in the Galt House one day and fell in love. If I ever make it back to Louisville (and trust me, I want to!) this is where I'll be staying!

I spent an entire morning at Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby museum, including the tour of the racetrack. Unfortunately, we were there during the off season, and they weren't running any races--yet another reason to eventually go back to Louisville! Still, Churchill Downs is a must-see, and I hear that the Derby museum (which was really neat when I saw it, years ago) recently underwent a big renovation and is even better now.

Of course there are a couple restaurants of note from my trip--for instance, on the way into Louisville I had dinner at the Claudia Sanders Dinner House in Shelbyville. Is it a place you should go out of your way to visit? Maybe not. But it is located on the same spot where Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame lived! (And would probably be the original building had that not burnt down and needed to be rebuilt in 1999.) Regardless, the prices were reasonable, the portions huge, and the food delicious.

On my first full day in Louisville, we had lunch at the cafe that is attached to the Kentucky Derby museum, and I was very impressed. I had the best BLT of my life there, as well as an amazing Mint Julep. The third and final meal of note that I consumed in Louisville was actually--and surprisingly--at a 4th Street Live restaurant called The Pub. Great food, drinks, and atmosphere!

Other than food and Churchill Downs, I divided my time between WorldFest Louisville, a yearly celebration of the many cultures that comprise the city; sightseeing Old Louisville, America's largest Victorian neighborhood; visiting the Frazier Arms Museum; gambling a bit at Caesar's Indiana, which is now Horseshoe Casino; and doing some shopping, drinking, and eating along Bardstown Road. I completely missed out on the Louisville Slugger factory, along with numerous other great Louisville sights...hence, yet again, my desire to eventually go back to this fine city!
A great lunch and my first-ever Mint Julep at the Derby Cafe, Churchill Downs, Louisvilly KY
Enjoying the best Mint Julep ever at the Kentucky Derby Museum Cafe!