Tuesday, September 28, 2010

When to Not Visit Barcelona

Now that I have finally found time to write about the final stop on my Contiki tour--Barcelona, Spain--the first and most important thing I can think of to say is that if you will only have one full day in the city (as we did)...make sure it isn't a Sunday.

That's right, we had the misfortune of visiting a seriously Catholic city in Spain...on a Sunday. And while yes, there were some gelato cafes and shops and restaurants open, many things were closed. Including one sight I really longed to see--La Boqueria.

We also didn't get the chance to go inside La Sagrada Familia, another small disappointment. That said, however, I really enjoyed my short time in Barcelona and would absolutely go back.

Playing drinking games at the Sangria bar (which is apparently a no-no)
After a long drive (due more than anything to traffic), we arrived in Barcelona around dinnertime on a Saturday evening and stayed on a hotel that sat just beyond what we Americans would call "downtown" Barcelona. This was definitely the nicest hotel of our trip--and the newest. It even had a pool! Our included dinner that evening was one of the better included meals of the tour, and when we were finished our guide took us to this hole-in-the-wall sangria bar about a block and a half off Las Ramblas. Drinks were cheap--a big pitcher of Sangria was only 10 euro--but the bar itself was in this dodgy little alley, and apparently they're really wary of tourists, so the people who worked there were a little, well, rude. Not exactly my type of place. They had music playing, but you could barely hear it, and when a bunch of us started playing drinking games, trying to liven things up, we got yelled at! Needless to say, between the atmosphere (quiet and hot) and the Sangria, I was practically falling asleep, so we called it an early night and caught a fairly inexpensive taxi back to the hotel.

Sagrada Familia...still under construction!
The next morning, we were up early to catch the Contiki bus into the city. We made a quick photo stop at the Sagrada Familia, and were then dropped off at the Placa de Catalunya. Our tour group (those of us up early enough to catch the bus) broke off into a bunch of smaller groups, and my sister and I and our Australian buddies Natalie and Gordana wandered off into the Gothic Quarter. We stopped for some Gelato and even did a bit of shopping, then made our way back to Las Ramblas to see the little tents where locals sell jewelry and what not and to walk down to the Columbus monument. Again, most of the stores were closed, so after lunch at a tapas place (which was pretty good! I don't remember the name but it was just of Las Ramblas, closer to the Placa de Catalunya) we took a taxi back to the hotel and lazed by the pool for the rest of the afternoon.

Me, Christy, Natalie, Gordana, Sheridan at the Fountain
That night, our last night of the tour, we went to a Flamenco show. It was interesting--not quite as fun as the cabaret in Paris, but the food was pretty good...they had Sangria there, but I could only stomach 2 glasses of it before switching to beer. Estrella Damm, for anyone who has heard of it, and it wasn't very good.

Once dinner and the show were over, our guide took us to The Magic Fountain of Montjuic at the Olympic Village. We all watched it for a while, but to be quite honest I wasn't completely impressed...more so because I worked at Disney for so long and I'm used to stuff like that ;)

A final picture with our favorite Australian ladies!
Our final night ended with a trip to club Baja at Port Olympia. For a Sunday night, this place was pretty fun! Many of us stayed until after 2 AM, and with the thought of having to drag ourselves out of bed and to the airport the next morning finally forced ourselves to return to the hotel.

A final note: we had called a cab to pick us up at the hotel. We arrived outside five minutes before the cab should have been there--but he was already there waiting, had been waiting, and had his meter running. I was honestly to tired and hungover to argue with him, but this added a good 8 Euro to a cab ride that would already run us 20 Euro...so in the future, my suggestion would be to be ready early and call the cab when you're ready to go. You will surely wait a few minutes but it will save you money in the long run.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Hotel Review: Hotel Ibis Amsterdam Airport

I stayed at this hotel with my Contiki tour group and was fairly impressed with it. The rooms were a decent size for a European hotel, and our room was very clean; also, we arrived at 9 AM and they were nice enough to check us in and put us in our room right away, even though check in wasn't until 2 PM! However, this hotel is not convenient to the city center--your choices are to either take a cab for around 40 euro one way, or take the free hotel shuttle to the airport and then take the train into the city for around 7 euro roundtrip. If you're only going to be in Amsterdam for a few nights, as we were, you might as well spend the extra money to stay closer to the city/in the city.

We also had breakfasts included during our stay here, and the breakfast buffet was pretty impressive for Europe, which was nice. We ate at the "diner" and the food was passable at best, so avoid if you can. We had an included buffet dinner that was average (as included hotel dinners go). So other than breakfast, I suggest going into the city for food!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Hot Date #7: A Walk on the Wild Side

As we near the end of our 10 weeks, 10 dates challenge, Steve and I decided to grab a date idea from the first date quicklist…and going to the zoo happens to be number one at the moment! Lucky for us, as the zoo here in Greenville offers adults-only “after hour parties” a few times a year. We missed the last two (Brew at the Zoo and Zoo-a-palooza), but we jumped on the chance to attend Sippin’ Safari!

We’ll spare you the details on Sippin’ Safari; suffice it to say, it’s a wine and food tasting sponsored by a local supermarket and, obviously, held at the zoo. The thing we were most excited about was finally having both a reason and the time to visit the zoo in the first place! The Greenville Zoo is fairly small and unfortunately doesn’t really have any room to expand, but as small city zoos go it gets rave reviews.

Of course, the real stars of this date were not us; they were the animals! Despite being such a small zoo, we were literally provided with hours of entertainment. First up—an animal we had never even heard of, the Alligator Turtle! We had coughed up the extra money for VIP tickets, which meant early entrance and a separate, less crowded area to in which to start our evening at the zoo. (Please note that when going on a date, especially early in a relationship, it’s never a bad thing to go VIP-style—so long as that’s in your budget, of course!) The VIP area at Sippin’ Safari was at the back of the zoo near the alligators, so after gathering some snacks and glasses of wine, we wandered off to find said alligators…and were instead treated to a view of giant turtles with funny-shaped heads! We actually watched these turtles for a few minutes before Steve looked up and realized that the alligators were just a few feet away. I guess you never know which animals will actually interest you until you see them!

As we exited VIP and made our way over to the main part of the zoo, we passed a lot of birds (including the toucans, which are always good for some Fruit Loops jokes) and an ocelot…and then we heard the noises.

These noises were definitely coming from some sort of monkey or primate—both of which are huge interests of Steve’s—and he rushed off like a little boy in a candy store (or, as a matter of fact, like a little boy in a zoo), leaving me behind. By the time I caught up with him, he was gaping at an animal that was definitely an ape, and apparently is called a “siamang”. Having never heard of them before, we had also never heard them before—and they were loud. Not only were they loud, but their noises were practically unearthly. We must have stood there for fifteen minutes, taking pictures, videotaping their antics, and just generally being in awe of them. Eventually, though, we figured it was time to let others have the front-row seat, and we made our way to the next stop—the leopard!
Now, we have four cats, so obviously we’re cat people. The leopard was pacing back and forth in front of the viewing window, but when Steve sat down it was like that big cat sensed something. It immediately stopped pacing, approached the glass, and stuck its tongue out at Steve!

(Okay, maybe it wasn’t exactly sticking its tongue out at Steve, but he was certainly hoping that was the case!)

This time I dragged Steve away fairly quickly, as he was monopolizing the leopard’s attention. They do say that a cat can always tell when a person is a cat person, after all…

Our next stop was the highlight of Greenville Zoo—a toddler orangutan named Bob, who was born there in 2006. Little did we realize that mom and dad were housed with him as well, and in just a few minutes we realized how scarily similar this primate family was to a human family. It was Steve who had to drag me away this time, as I could have sat and watched Bob swing around the enclosure for hours.

At this point, it was dusk, and we barely caught some time with the lions and giraffes before night hit and the animals were herded inside for the night. The lions were especially playful, possibly thanks to the slightly cooler weather, but eventually the male climbed up on his very own Pride Rock and turned his back on us, as if to say he’d had enough and to please go away. We then wandered next door to the giraffes—all the while wondering how smart it was for these two cages to back up to each other—and watched as they were fed and put up for the night. Watching them munch away led us to go find some more food; we grabbed the last of some really amazing salmon that was being cooked on an open fire grill and planned on calling it a night.

Until we neared the exit and I noticed, of all places…the reptile house.

Yes, for whatever reason—and much to Steve’s delight—I am utterly fascinated with reptiles. Or rather, with snakes. Seriously, if feeding them didn’t involve sacrificing furry little creatures, we would have a pet snake. Probably a king snake (yes, I’ve done research on this, but sadly always come to the same conclusion—I can neither kill a live rat nor buy a dead one and keep it in my freezer).

Therefore, so much for calling it an early night. We spent nearly 30 minutes in the reptile house, while Steve indulged my constant camera shutter clicking as I tried to catch every snake from every angle. We even learned some things—namely that there is an animal called a skink. Some sort of reptile, but we made more than one person giggle as we wondered what in the world a “skink” was and how it got its name. Steve insisted that it was a combination lizard/snake, but much to his chagrin the letters that make up those words simply cannot form an anagram like “skink”. Also catching our attention was a white amphibian—some sort of newt or salamander, I’m guessing—that looked like something from the Pokemon cartoon. Unfortunately I forgot to note its name, but we were simultaneously interested in and repulsed by it, and after snapping a picture and making some lame jokes (of the “Gotta catch ‘em all, POKEMON!” sort), we finally dragged ourselves away.

The good thing is, we have plenty of reason to visit the zoo again, if only to figure out the name of that Pokemon-type animal. The fact that we didn’t arrive until close to 6 PM meant that many of the primates, as well as the elephants, were hiding or sleeping (or both) by the time we came ‘round to their enclosures. Still, even with missing a handful of the zoo residents, we had a great time. Also, the regular concessions were not open, and we hear that you can even buy special crackers to feed to many of the animals on regular days. As dates go, we give an adults-only evening at the zoo a ten out of ten! However, we have to admit that this rating would have likely dropped a couple of points had we visited the zoo on, say, a Saturday afternoon—when it would be teeming with little children. But really, what better way to gauge a new guy or gal’s ability to handle ugly pets (alligator turtles, what?), obnoxious pets (those siamangs…), or creepy crawlies (snakes galore!) than with a date at the zoo?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Halloween at Disney!

It is obviously very popular to visit Disney during the major holidays--Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, 4th of July. That's why I am a stickler about avoiding Disney on these holidays.

But there are two holidays that I always wanted to spend at Disney--or more specifically, at EPCOT. St. Patty's Day (which I have yet to experience)...and Halloween!

Not quite two years ago, I took my now-husband Steve to Disney for Halloween. He hadn't been since he was 7 years old, and he had the pleasure of traveling with myself--a former Disney employee--as well as my cousin Katie (a Disney aficionado) and my friend Jonathan (a fellow former Cast Member).

Now, there are a few great things about visiting Disney over Halloween:
  1. It's off season. Less crowded and less expensive.
  2. It's Food & Wine Festival time at EPCOT!
  3. You can dress up in a costume and go to the parks.
  4. The weather is great. It's no longer 100 degrees and raining every afternoon. You will experience warm, comfortable temperatures and that makes wandering around Disney so much more enjoyable!

Being adults, we decided to spend Halloween day (one of only two full days that we had in Orlando) at EPCOT. We planned on dressing up, arriving early, enjoying Future World and then...drinking our way around the World Showcase, of course! Therefore, we were up at 8 and on our way to EPCOT--costumes and all--before 9:30 AM.

Katie, Steve & Jonathan entering the "secret" GM VIP area at Test Track

Steve and I got to ride the "new" Spaceship Earth, which was okay--but I miss the original! Then Jonathan and Katie met up with us and we all went on Test Track. As we were exiting the ride this cast member stopped us and said that because we were in costume we got to go up to the GM VIP area for refreshments and views of the park and then ride Test Track again without waiting. We totally thought he was kidding but turns out...he wasn't! So we got free drinks and candy, had a great view of Spaceship Earth and Future World, and then got to ride Test Track again without waiting at all. Great thing to happen for Steve's first time at Disney in over two decades ;o)

Of course, there was this little warning letter in the GM VIP area about how you shouldn't boast about being VIP in front of "normal" guests...and what does Katie do...boast...and not kidding you, our car was acting VERY funny on the ride! It kept stalling and the audio was all off...but whatever, I think that just made the whole experience all the more interesting.

After Test Track Katie and Jonathan took Steve on Mission: Space (the one attraction I can't ride), then we all went over to Soarin'. Now here's a story for you...seeing as it was Steve's first time on Soarin', and Katie had never ridden it sober, I wanted them to have the best seats--that being row 1 of section B. So we specifically ask for this row and section. We told TWO cast members that we wanted the first row of section B. Of course we were very polite about it, we knew we would have to wait an extra ten minutes, no big deal. So they move us off to the side--but they put us all the way down by section C, which seemed a bit weird. I had a bad feeling that they were going to put us in the first row of C...but at the same time, I couldn't understand how TWO separate people could have misheard our request to be in section B.

But apparently they did, and by the time we caught the attention of one of the cast members, they had already put people in the first row of section B. We weren't about to ask those people to move and I was already sick of waiting, so we went into the first row of section C. When we got into the attraction, I knew we were technically supposed to go to the end of the row, but I was annoyed that they screwed up and not about to take the shittiest seats (way at the end of the row, crappy views and all) after waiting that extra time. We sat down very quickly, weren't in anyone's way, and the people that had filed into our row behind us walked right around us without complaining--and yet the bitchy cast member that screwed things up in the first place still had the balls to say, very rudely, "Next time, move to the end of the row". To which I replied, "Next time, pay attention and do your job properly and you won't have to tell me to move to the end of the row." Grrr.

Katie (Evil Queen) and I (Tinker Bell) with our counterparts (Snow White and Peter Pan, of course!)
At this point we were done with Future World and made our way to World Showcase. We started in Canada and ate our way around the world first--I had keilbasa, potato peirogues, and carmelized onions from Poland, the potato/cheese/bacon/beer soup from Canada, escargots in France (never had them before, was VERY impressed), and Bobotie (sort of like a quiche thing with raisins, nuts, ground beef and lamb, topped with mango chutney) from South Africa.

Tinker Bell and Raoul from Fear & Loathing
We finally made it to Mexico to start our drinking around the world experience, Food and Wine--and Halloween--style. It was definitely fun doing it in our costumes, we got a lot of comments, got ridiculously drunk...Steve and I had a blast listening to the Beatles group, British Invasion, in Britain, we spent way too much time in the pub there...but in the end we all had an amazing time. We watched Illuminations, then spent a couple of hours at Jelly Rolls, the dueling piano bar.

All in all, it was one of the best Halloweens I've ever experienced! I'm sure visiting any of the parks--or even Universal--on Halloween, in costume, would be fun...but EPCOT is our favorite and drinking around the world on Halloween truly made the day far more fun an interesting.
Jonathan, Katie, myself and Steve in "France" at the end of the night

I can only hope that soon enough, I'm able to spend St. Patty's Day drinking around the world and compare!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Hotel Review: Sheraton Atlantic Beach Oceanfront Hotel

I stayed here for a convention, and the only complaints I had was that everything in the hotel (i.e. the bar) closed really early, and there was absolutely nothing to do at the hotel or in the area other than swim or sunbathe. However, the beachfront location was nice, and it was really neat having the pier right there (mainly for the opportunity to fish off it). Our room was large and clean, and the bedding was amazingly comfortable! That said, I wouldn't have been here had the convention not been here, and because there is nothing to do, I probably won't be going back. But if you have to stay here for some reason (convention or other) you can't get worse than a nice Sheraton right on the beach!