Monday, August 23, 2010

Two nights in the French Riviera...

After our short summer stay in Chamonix, we hopped back on our Contiki bus for the drive from Chamonix to Nice. Thankfully, it was another fairly easy one (compared to Paris-Lucerne and Nice-Barcelona)...especially at the end when we were looking down at the Mediterannean and it was just absolutely beautiful. We stopped at the Fragonard Perfumery on the way in...it was a bit interesting to hear exactly how much goes in to making one little bottle of perfume, but as I'm more of an "eau de toilette" person (perfume is just too concentrated for me), and as a tiny little bottle of their perfume was something like 22 euro, I was ready to leave right after the little tour/demonstration thing.

From there we checked right into our hotel, which was...interesting, to say the least. It was another Kyriad, and I will say this--the staff was certainly much more friendly than the staff at the Kyriad in Paris! The hotel itself was clean but our room was so small we could barely move around in it--I had to step over my suitcase every time I had to go to the bathroom, and the shower was so tiny (it was shaped like a triangle with a curved base) I could hardly even bend over to shave my legs. Of course...I'm on the tall side as girls go, and a short/small girl may not have as much trouble.

We had an included dinner that night...not as good as the one in Chamonix, but edible at least! After dinner our tour guide Kristy took us to the old town area, to this bar called Wayne's...we had to get there early for happy hour, so it was kind of boring at first...once the band started playing, they were pretty good, but it just wasn't my kind of place--way too small, way too many people, way too much smoke--to the point where I started getting nauseated and eventually left with my sister and some other tour mates. Unfortunately, on the way back to the hotel we lost one of our group members when he wandered off to go to the bathroom! It was a bit nerve-wracking to say the least--his girlfriend handled it much better than I would have--but needless to say we had to take our time getting back to the hotel...thankfully, he showed up there not long after we did! There were a lot of dark little alleyways and bums around, so I think we were all pretty worried about him for a bit there.

That night was probably the first time that I really started feeling homesick...of course, it didn't help that I didn't feel well. I felt a little better the next day after 6-7 hours sleep, but I have a feeling that it was the tap water that was making me slightly nauseated...

On the beach in Nice (note the comfy chairs in the background!)
We went to the beach all morning for our full day in Nice. We got there around 9 AM and the chair rental place wasn't open yet, but I'm still glad we got there early because when it did open we got prime choice ;o) We took some chairs in the second row that had these mats on them, and I swear that was the best 12 euro I spent all trip! With the mat things, those chairs were more comfortable than any bed we had the entire trip, and I spent the entire morning sleeping in the sun.

Around 1 we walked over to the shopping area for lunch. We chose this little cafe on a street corner and sat outside, but it was not one of the better lunches we had during the trip. After that, my sister and some of the other girls went shopping while a few of us went back to the hotel to laze around and shower.

Overlooking the French Riviera
It was definitely nice having this day to do absolutely nothing...and to spend all the time in the world getting ready for the Monaco dinner that night, which was definitely one of the best dinners we had all trip (the asparagus and goat cheese pastry...yum!) The Grand Casino was NOT worth the 10 euro, though, and drinks were expensive everywhere in Monaco, so I was ready to go back to Nice and go out.

Not that many people wanted to go out that night, which was disappointing, but a group of us went back to Wayne's. I didn't bother changing out of my "little black dress", but that turned out to be a good thing, because when we got there there was a line. There
We got to cut in line!
were a bunch of guys and even a few girls in front of us (and the girls were definitely cute!), yet for some reason the bouncer picked myself and another girl from our tour who was out with us, to cut the line and go inside.

Can't complain about that! Anyway, we had a few drinks and I was feeling pretty good, but we left at a decent hour anyway (around 2 AM--which, yes, is a decent hour for Contiki!) because we knew we had to get up really early for the drive to Barcelona, and because it was still just a little too hot and crowded in that particular bar.

And that was Nice...the people were a little nicer than they were in Paris, but the city itself was not impressive. I heard that a bunch of the people in our group almost got pick-pocketed, and it just bothered me that there were bums and trash EVERYWHERE (including glass and cigarette butts amongst the rocks on the beach_...so probably not a place I will ever go back. Monaco, on the other hand, was beautiful...but WAY too expensive ;)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter

I wanted to write about this while it was fresh in my mind. You see, this past weekend we visited Orlando (our usual yearly trip). Mainly because Star Wars Celebration was being held there this year, and we were also dying to see the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal's Islands of Adventure!

To be completely honest, I went in with questionable expectations. One day, I would think "Universal had to have gotten this right, it's going to be amazing!" The next day, my mind would veer off along the track of "It's Universal, not Disney...I shouldn't expect too much or I'll end up disappointed".

And in the end? Well, in the end my opinion was somewhere between those two trains of thought.

First, I'm not sure if Universal didn't expect the turnout they've gotten for their Harry Potter themed area at IOA, or if they just really are that daft about crowd control and the like. Because when you enter the park, despite the fact that the quickest way to WWoHP is to walk through Seuss Landing and the Lost Continent, they direct you to the left--through Marvel Island, Toon Lagoon and Jurassic Park. Okay, I guess that they're probably trying to distract you along the way, maybe hoping to slow up the crowds who only go to IOA to see WWoHP. But still...no bueno.

View of the Hogsmeade buildings
Thankfully, after a long unnecessary walk, you are greeted with what are at first some amazing sights of Hogsmeade and Hogwarts. Despite the crowds, I couldn't help but feel completely taken in by the scenery--and by the butterbeer! First things first, and all that ;)

We continued on to the new attraction, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which is located inside "Hogwarts"...and this is where we first began to notice the telltale signs of the fact that we were in Universal, not Disney. From afar, everything looked great--but
Me, Steve, Melissa and Emily in front of Hogwarts
once you were in line, and especially in the extended queue that snakes through the "Herbology greenhouse", you could see that the castle was a mere facade and right behind it was a giant white building that obviously didn't fit in with the theme at all. The thing was, they could have given that building a paint job, made Hogwart's walls a little higher, etc...and hidden that completely mispaced white building. Of course I understand that this is where the ride is housed, but that's not my point.

And yes, we waited a long time for that ride--nearly two hours, actually. Was it worth it? I think so. I wouldn' t have wanted to wait longer than that, or wait that long had I been on it recently, but the attraction itself is exceptional. Sort of like a really intense version of Soarin' at EPCOT.

Now, the other issue I take with Universal is the fact that they force you to store your belongings/bags in lockers before you go on most rides--including this one. It's nice to not worry about losing anything, sure, but I would have liked to have my camera with me in the queue. And for the Forbidden Journey ride in particular, we waited about 20-30 minutes just to put our bags in a locker! There
Lunch at the Three Broomsticks--note my pumpkin juice!
really have to be better ways to accomplish this if they are going to insist that you stow your belongings, and excuse me for being a Disney snob, but Disney would have done it right.

Immediately after the Forbidden Journey, it was time for Dueling Drag--oops, excuse me, I mean "Dragon Challenge".

(For those of you who don't know, when they built WWoHP, they basically just renamed the coaster that was already there and threw a few Harry Potter-esque things in the queue to make it fit into the theme. Smart, and surely a money saver, but again...Disney would have re-vamped it much better.)

Ugh, I realize that I'm whining a lot about how much better Disney would have done things. Sorry. It's just that...well, it's the truth. However--Universal did get a lot right with WWoHP. For instance:
Steve with the yummy frozen butterbeer

  • Butterbeer and Pumpkin Juice. They's got them, and them's awesome. (Although we did the frozen butterbeer and I've heard not-so-great things about the regular butterbeer)
  • The Three Broomsticks. Great theming, amazing food. We all ate different things (there were eight of us there) and we all agreed that it was the best quick service theme park food we'd ever had.
  • The Forbidden Journey ride, as previously mentioned, and at least the inside part of the queue for it.
  • The stores (their theming and products), especially Honeyduke's (although I have to be honest about having some complaints here too, and I'll get into that in a moment)
  • The general look of Hogsmeade and Hogwarts, barring the fact that you can see a bit too much of the "outside world" for my taste

Cauldron Cakes (nothing but good things!) at Honeyduke's
My complaints about the stores--well, this first bit is a complaint I hate to make, honestly. Basically, the stores are built to scale. They are small. And crowded. And full of stuff. And I love all of these things, because admittedly...that's the way it should be. Unfortunately, they simply aren't built to handle the crowds of us muggles who visit WWoHP. You can barely move once you get inside, and on a regular basis there are waits of anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes to get in at all--longer for Ollivander's!

Ollivander's
Speaking of Ollivander's...what can I say? You can wait in a much shorter line to just get into the store. Or you can not have any idea that there even is a much shorter line hidden in the back, and wait upwards of an hour (surely it's shorter sometimes, but not for most of the time we were there and that's how long we waited--an hour) to view the interactive experience. Which is really cool, mainly because in doing so you actually get to see the area of the shop that looks exactly as Ollivander's did in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. But parents be warned! They may choose your child, and a wand will choose him or her, and I wouldn't want to be on the parental end of that tale. Because you will either be spending $30 on a wand, or dealing with your child pitching a fit. I feel compelled to mention that at Disney, when they choose children to participate in Jedi Academy, those children get to keep the Jedi Academy robes that they wear. For free. Hint hint, Universal.

All in all, it was a great experience. I'm glad we went; maybe we'll even go back again in a couple of years. I certainly suggest a visit to all big Harry Potter fans such as ourselves. And if you go expecting not perfection, but "just enough"...you won't be disappointed.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Two words: ROAD TRIP!



.

Long ago, I lost count of the number of times I took a road trip. Whether it be three hours for a weekend away; eight, nine, or twelve hours to a vacation destination; fifteen hours when moving from Connecticut to South Carolina...it would simply take up too much brain power to go back and figure out how many times I've driven up and down the East Coast, how many hours I've spent in the car.

Needless to say, taking so many road trips--be they for pleasure or a move or whatever else--means that I deem myself something of an expert on the matter. I don't think I need to get into the particulars of safety...as in, we all know that a blanket, a flashlight, a first aid kit and jumper cables are always good things to have in one's car. Outside of the usual items, I have a few of my own favorites that are musts for a roadtrip
  • Starbucks Double Shot Espressos. I can't stand the taste of energy drinks and the Starbucks bottled frappuccinos simply don't have enough caffeine!
  • Bottled Water and plenty of it, and if you have a small cooler pack it up in here to keep cool for your drive!
  • A fully charged and updated iPod, along with a few CDs as just-in-case backups
  • A cell phone charger for your car
  • Sunglasses
  • Eyedrops
  • A recently updated GPS unit or at the very least, a road atlas for the current year
  • Some sort of wet naps in case of spills or needing to freshen up a bit :)
  • Comfortable clothes! Honestly, I will never understand how people--especially women--can make long drives in tight jeans, heels, etc. Is it really necessary to look "cute" when you're going to be on the road for hours?

And if you're not the driver...
I prefer the NAP brand sleeping masks.
  • Plenty of books/magazines
  • A charged laptop, your own headphones, and a movie or two (or three, depending on length of the drive). On very long drives I've also carted along an adaptor that allows me to charge my laptop (or at least keep it from dying) by using the cigarette lighter.
  • A sleeping mask and pillow (especially if you're traveling at night)
  • And again...comfortable clothes!

Personally, I don't bring lots of juices/sodas/snacks because those just up the chances of spilling in the car and/or ending up with sticky or messy hands. (Yes, I've been there, done that) As a safety tip I don't ever suggest driving more than 15-16 hours in one shot...that's the longest I've done and even that was cutting it close! Normally I'm of the "just hop in the car and GET THERE" persuasion, but of course there are always exceptions!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Hotel Review: The Yorktowne Hotel

source
I visited York a few years ago for a wedding and stayed here for two nights. Now, God only knows why people would travel to York for fun, but if you do so, this hotel is probably the best one in the town. However, I found it to be a little pricey for being in York, Pennsylvania--and not only did we travel there in March, but we got a discounted rate because we were in a block of rooms set aside for the wedding party!

The hotel building and common areas were gorgeous, and the room was large and clean--my only complaint was the bathroom, as it did not have a fan and therefore got very hot and steamy. I'm not sure if it is the norm for the rooms at this hotel to not have a fan in the bathroom, but ours didn't. That, combined with such a high price for a not-so-desirable destination gave me the opinion that this hotel is average at best.