Friday, October 29, 2010

Vegas "On The Clock" (days 3,4,5)

The second morning of my conference trip to Vegas was, as I mentioned in my last post, an early one--6:30 AM to be exact, for an 8 AM conference start time at the Four Seasons (which is, of course, at the complete opposite end of the Strip from the Mirage). Thankfully, I had a great cab driver on the way to the conference--I mentioned that I was running a bit late, and he did his best to get me there on time. There was traffic on the Strip, but he even stopped the meter while we were stuck in it! This rendered a low cab fare for me...and a big tip for my driver ;o)

The view from a balcony outside our conference rooms
I don't think there's any point in me describing the conference I attended. I would say that about 60% of it was helpful to my job; the other 40% of my time would have been better spent lounging by a pool somewhere (at least in my opinion). The Four Seasons is a beautiful hotel, of course, and the conference rooms were comfortable and stocked with plenty of ice water, mints, pads of paper and pens. The food that we had for lunch was delicious both days.

But let me tell you, it absolutely sucked knowing that I was in Vegas, just a few hundred feet from hot sun and cool pools and stocked bars and thousands of slot machines...but I was stuck in a conference. For over nine hours on Monday and for seven hours on Tuesday.

Although it was, admittedly, worth the "free" trip to Vegas ;o)

Dessert samplings from the Bellagio buffet
As for the rest of my free time--by the time I returned from the conference and got changed and freshened up on Monday, both Maria and I were ready for dinner. We had met some friendly gentleman (I'm completely serious) at the pool the day before who had suggested the Bellagio buffet. We arrived around quarter after seven and waited about a half hour to pay and be seated. Sucking up the $30 price tag was hard...but worth it in the end! The only other time I've eaten at a dinner buffet in Vegas and felt that I got my money's worth was at the Rio, but Maria and I were both impressed with the Bellagio buffet. Amazing macaroni and

cheese cups, pretzel rolls, Kobe beef and a huge dessert buffet added up to one hell of a meal.

The usual awesome Bellagio fountains shot
Unfortunately, my stomach does not take buffets very well. After catching a couple fountain shows in front of the Bellagio, I was forced to retire when we got back to the hotel (it was maybe 9:30 PM--I was not a Vegas champ that night).

The one good thing that came out of such an early night Monday night was that on Tuesday, I finally wasn't tired! After a slightly shorter conference day, Maria and I grabbed some drinks, did some shopping, and had an okay-at-best dinner at BLT Burger in the

Mirage. Personally, although the food was decent it was so overpriced for the quality that I don't see myself eating there again. Post dinner we had a couple hours of pre-gaming and getting ready time before our final big night out.
The amazing view from Ghostbar at the Palms
Our names were on the lists at Ghostbar and Moon at the Palms, and I was highly impressed with both places. Ghostbar is more of a lounge, but the view was so spectacular that it simply isn't to be missed. Moon was a big crowded but did have a great DJ that night. The only disappointment was that they closed a bit

early, which caused us to catch a cab back to the Strip and hit up Rockhouse at Imperial Palace. This place reminded me of a regular old club here in Greenville, but hey--it was after 3 AM and we were still partying, so I'm not gonna hate ;o)

Maria and I at Ghostbar on our last night
Thing is, between my four Vegas trips I've realized the following: I don't know if I will EVER go back to a club on the Strip. The best times I've had in Vegas have been at off-Strip places--Ghostbar and Moon, of course, and Body English back in September '08. The clubs on the Strip are too crowded, half the time you have to pay a cover (even as a girl), and the people are mainly hoochied-up 21-year-old girls and douchey men that are on the border of being too old to be drooling over said 21-year-old girls. Moon, on the other hand, had great music, and even though it got crowded the people all seemed in general less slutty and douchey than those that frequent the clubs on the Strip. Lesson seriously learned.

Watching the sunrise through the dome over the Mirage lobby bar
Unfortunately, as the hour got later Rockhouse got...well...a bit too ghetto. We left sometime close to 5 AM and made our way back to the Mirage for a wind-down drink at the bar--only to realize, not much later, that the sun had risen and we had to be at the airport in less than four hours.


Still, how awesome to say that we stayed up 'til sunrise in Vegas?

Needless to say, I was tired and hungover when I arrived at the airport later that morning...and my luck, I have never seen the US Air desk at the Vegas airport such a mess! There was a huge line, half of the machines weren't working, the girl I was in line for disappeared and I was left waiting for thirty minutes while people who had been 20 customers back in the line checked their bags and made their way to the did not make for a good final morning of my trip. In the end, I had to put my foot down and get a bit nasty with one of the agents in order to get my bag checked, and despite arriving at the airport nearly two hours before my flight they were starting to board when I arrived at the gate! What a nightmare.

Still, I wouldn't let that ruin my trip! Just goes to show that when you're flying out of a major airport like Vegas, there's not really such a thing as being "too early" for your flight. And despite those issues, despite spending a third of my trip in a conference, even despite my stomach ache Monday night...I as usual had an amazing time in Sin City. Although I will say that four nights was a bit of overkill...I'll continue to keep my Vegas trips to three nights from now on.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Things I Love Thursday: [Affordable] Downtown Greenville Restaurants

Although Steve and I rarely eat out (seriously, once a month? twice if we're lucky)--and when we do, we do our best to try new places as much as possible--there are a few downtown Greenville restaurants that truly are staples to us. When people come to visit, these are the places we tout as much for their reasonable prices as their delicious food (and in two of the three cases, delicious drinks as well!). Sure, we love Mellow Mushroom and Wild Wings, but they belong to chains. And Cazbah is great as well, but their beer list leaves a lot to be desired. American Grocery? Absolutely amazing, but unfortunately it's a wallet-abuser. Therefore, our downtown Greenville favorites are as follows:

Grille 33 @ the Channel. Pictured is their cheddar stuffed cheeseburger...on a glazed donut. This is probably one of the messiest and most unhealthy things I've ever eaten--but it was beyond delicious. In general, they have a great menu--a wide variety of burgers and chicken sandwiches, as well as fish and chips, baked potatoes, etc. Prices are very reasonable and the employees are helpful and friendly. This place is just great for a quick drop-in meal!

Blue Ridge Brewing Company! I apologize for the low quality of the picture, but hey, at least it's of the last time we ate there ;o) This was actually taken the morning after our wedding--we met some of our out-of-town guests for a post wedding brunch, and Blue Ridge was our top choice. The brunch was as good as any lunch or dinner we've had there--and trust me, those have always been delicious. Not to mention the awesome beers BRBC offers, all brewed on premises! They even have a pretty lengthy shooter list, but beware--some of the shooter names aren't for the faint of heart (or for anyone not old enough to go see an R-rated movie in the theater).

Last but not least, the place that is our most favorite downtown Greenville haunt...Smoke on the Water! This is another place where I've never had a bad meal, they have a handful of sauces made on site that are all delicious, the prices are right and the martini list (particularly the Angel's Breath and the Milky Way) is to die for. Even better? Incredible happy hour specials...i.e. half off those awesome martinis! (Seriously, how can a $3.50 martini not make you happy?)

Of course, this list in no way shape or form covers the scope of awesome restaurants that exist in downtown Greenville...but for some inexpensive not-chain-restaurant burgers, an awesome pub-style menu, or some good ol' Southern cookin'...with Grille 33, BRBC, and Smoke on the Water, you just can't go wrong!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Hotel Review: Barcelona's Abba Garden Hotel

When I stayed at the Abba Garden in 2007, it was a fairly new hotel. The rooms are huge and clean, the beds bigger than they were in any other hotel I stayed in on my tour of Europe, and the pool was great. Technically it isn't in the city center, but depending on where you're coming from a taxi is only 12 (from the Placa de Catalunya) to 20 (from Port Olympia) euro and the hotel is convenient to a bus stop as well. The only downside I really found was that because the hotel was so new, a lot of the taxi drivers didn't know where it was--we kept having to use the hospital across the street as a reference point. However, I can only assume that in the few years since I stayed here the Abba Garden's location has become common knowledge.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Vegas...for work??? (days 1 & 2)

My fourth trip to Vegas came about in a most unlikely manner--at least for me. Because I know that there are thousands of people, maybe tens of thousands, who travel to Vegas each year for conferences. But I have to admit that I don't get it. Vegas is for gambling and shows and fun and sun and pool days and partying...not work! Still, who am I to pass up a practically free four day trip to Vegas?

Obviously I didn't pass it up, and here I am...a little more wise to what it's like to travel to Vegas for a conference. Not that I didn't have fun--I did. Probably too much fun.

Self-portrait taken at Tao
Because of the time change, despite the fact that registration for the conference began on a Sunday I got to fly out to Vegas on a Saturday. My friend Maria, who lives in San Diego, even met me there--and this was definitely a big part of why I had so much fun, because I can't imagine it would have been such a blast had I been on my own. We spent our first evening eating at La Salsa (one of my favorite restaurants in Vegas--yes, I know it's a chain, but the food is good, the margaritas are excellent, and the prices are decent), hanging out at the pool, and then going out to Tao at the Venetian. Which was...well, sort of a mistake. I've now been to four on-Strip clubs (Tryst, Pure, Jet, Tao) and three off-Strip clubs (Body English, Ghostbar, Moon), and the off-strip clubs are, on average, far my opinion. Of course Maria and I had fun at Tao, but the high cover charge coupled with average music, it being far too crowded, and the fact that any time we stopped dancing or walking for more than 30 seconds an employee approached us and told us to "move along" just didn't make for one of my better nights out in Vegas.

At the Spice Market buffet at Planet Hollywood
Sunday we spent the morning at the pool and then made our way out to have a champagne brunch. At Maria's suggestion we decided on the one at the Paris--but when we arrived around 12:30 PM, there was a two hour wait! Even she said that wasn't worth it. We went next door to the Spice Market buffet at Planet Hollywood instead. The wait was still about 45 minutes and the food was average at best, but we definitely drank our money's worth of champagne :)

And then it was time for the work to begin. We grabbed a cab down to the Four Seasons and Maria waited in a sitting area while I went to register for the conference. I expected to give my name, get some information, and then have to sit in some sort of meeting for a while--but no! Instead, I gave my name, they handed me a packet of paperwork and said "see you tomorrow"! The whole process took about five minutes.
So much for needing to be there on Sunday--not that I was complaining, because this gave me the rest of the afternoon/evening free. I collected Maria and we followed through with our plan to walk back to the Mirage, which would allow us to visit quite a few casinos on the way.

But first--a stop in Mandalay Bay for drinks! Champagne, of course! And after pricing out a bottle at the first "lounge" I approached ($70???) I thought I'd have to give up on this idea...but then we walked by a regular old casino bar, and I decided to try one more time.

Yeah, that same bottle of champagne at this nameless, plain casino bar vs. at the lounge with the awful loud music playing and the stupid one-word name? Only $40. Sold!

So I had my bottle of champagne and we started walking. Our first stop was
Enjoying the Oxygen Bar at the Luxor
the Luxor, and we were accosted by an oxygen bar worker. We gave in and bought 20 minutes at the oxygen bar. To be completely honest...I'm not sure exactly how much good it did, but at the same time I'm glad I tried it :)

From the Luxor, it was on to Excalibur, then New York New York, Monte Carlo, the new City Center complex, and finally the Bellagio.

Now, I like the Bellagio...but what happened there on this day completely turned me off. At this point, we'd been walking for...over an hour, at least. My feet hurt, I was hot, and my champagne was warm and the bottle nearly empty. We approached a casino bar,
My bottle of champagne made it all the way to the Bellagio!
I set the bottle on the bar and sat down. There was one other person sitting at this bar. One. I waited for the bartender to approach, but as I opened my mouth to ask what kind of wine they had available he narrowed his eyes at me and told me that if we were to stay there, he needed to charge me a $35 corkage fee for my champagne!

Now, there are a dozen things I could or should have done--but again, I was hot and tired and yes, a little bit drunk. So instead of doing any of those things, I stood up, took my bottle, mouthed off about how I'd been planning on ordering something but never mind now, and walked away.

At this point we decided to high-tail it back to the hotel, where there was a chilled bottle of wine waiting in our room. We opened it up, poured ourselves cups of it, and headed down to the pool, where we stayed until it closed at 8 PM (which I do.not.get.--it was summer, it stayed light until after 9...just seems a bit ridiculous to force everyone to leave the pool so early).

Our final adventure for the day (because we were both exhausted, and I had to get up early the next morning for a long day at my conference) was dinner at California Pizza Kitchen in the Mirage...and my pear gorgonzola pizza was absolutely delicious!

I collapsed into bed by 10:30, full of yummy pizza, champagne and wine...and two awesome first days in Las Vegas.

To be continued...

Monday, October 18, 2010

Hotel Review: Kyriad Nice Port

I was in Europe for 13 days and stayed in 6 different hotels, and this hotel had the smallest room by far! Thankfully my sister and I only had one suitcase a piece; I'm not sure anything more would have fit, because as it was we could barely move. The shower was also impossibly small and the water smelled terribly of sulfur. The breakfast selection was basically croissants or cold cereal, and whereas I know that in Europe they don't eat big breakfasts, this was one of the worst selections of all the hotels our group stayed in. Still, it was nice being fairly close to the beach and the bars and what not (20-25 minute walks), the room was clean, and the staff was much more polite and helpful than that of the other Kyriad hotel I stayed at during my trip (in Paris).

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Into the Wild, Volume Two

A week and a day after we'd left home, we boarded the Princess train in Whittier to travel to Talkeetna (and from there, to the Princess Mt. McKinley Lodge). The train ride was fairly uneventful--I slept for a bit and we saw some moose and that's about all. When we arrived in Talkeetna, we took the opportunity to explore the town--which is really just a stretch of road a few tenths of a mile long. We ate lunch at the Talkeetna Roadhouse, which has great food and is also a famous (infamous) place of rest for those about to set out or just coming back from a McKinley hike. We visited all of the [very few] shops that the town had to offer and caught the first available bus up to the Princess McKinley Lodge.

The Great Room at the McKinley Princess is beautiful, and I can only imagine that it offers amazing views of the mountain. Unfortunately, we saw nothing of the sort--it started sprinkling when we were in Talkeetna, and by the time we arrived at the lodge it was downright pouring. We checked into our rooms and headed to the 20,320 Grill for food and drinks. The fare here was delicious, although I will say that it was quite a shock to have to pay for our meal (we'd gotten used to the cruise, what can I say?)! Once finished we went back to the Great Room and drowned our sorrows over the rain with Alaskan beers at the Grizzly Bar.

The mirage-esque peak in the distance is the best view we got of Mt. McKinley
The next morning, as we prepared to board our bus to Denali, things were clearing up a bit...but we still only caught a brief glimpse of the base of Mt. McKinley before making our way to our next stop. Disappointing, yes, and to be completely honest if I'd known that only about 30% of the people who stop at the McKinley Princess really get to see the mountain, I probably wouldn't have bothered spending the night here at all.

I slept through most of the two-ish hour bus ride to the Denali Princess Lodge, but I do know that our bus
Look, it's 10:45 at night in Denali!
driver was informative and not overly so, which was nice. Thankfully, when we arrived at Denali the weather was clear. Clear, but cold. I don't think it topped 35 degrees at any point that day! We participated in the Natural History tour of Denali and saw plenty of animals (although no bears or wolves or anything quite that interesting) and even went to the Music of Denali show. The food was average at best and the show itself was completely cheesy, so to be perfectly honest if this is the only night one were to spend at the Denali Princess I think a regular restaurant would suffice (considering the dinner show cost).

Steamboat in Fairbanks
The very next morning it was on to Fairbanks! We made a stop in the city to do some sightseeing...but there really isn't much to see here. After this we were carted over to the river for a steamboat ride, which was definitely much more fun and interesting than walking around the city itself--we got to meet and converse with a woman who is training to run the Iditarod, as well as see some real sled dogs at work (pulling an engine-less ATV, in fact). Very cool.

Once the steamboat trip was through, we
were dropped off at our hotel--and this is where some things got severely, err, messed up. Princess had overbooked their Fairbanks lodge and therefore sloughed us
It's midnight in Fairbanks!
off on another local hotel (the Wedgewood Resort), which didn't really have the amenities that the Princess lodge offered. We walked a couple of blocks to the only restaurant nearby and had an average-at-best Italian dinner and drank away our woes with wine. Following that, most of our trip mates went to bed while a couple of us stayed up until the hotel bar closed, drinking Moosehead and waiting out the 20 hours and 1 second of daylight in Fairbanks.

Although we wanted nothing more than to leave the next day, our flight was later in the afternoon and we therefore lounged in our rooms until we got kicked out, ate a leisurely (but not exactly tasty) breakfast in the hotel's restaurant, and then hung out in the lobby until they literally practically forced us to "go for a walk". Seriously, a manager approached us and in no uncertain terms told us that they didn't allow loitering and then gave us a couple of "options" for nearby "activities". It apparently didn't matter that we were waiting to leave for our flight--they did not want us in that lobby.

They've got crabs! (yeah, I know, Ha. Ha.)
Needless to say, once we were through the Fairbanks airport and on our flight to Seattle we couldn't wait to be somewhere that had actual nearby activities. We arrived late that evening and really only had time to catch the public bus from the airport to our hotel, the Renaissance Seattle. This hotel was in the business district and I wouldn't call it extremely close or convenient to the sites, but it is a beautiful and comfortable place to stay.

Upon our arrival in Seattle, we came back to the real world when we realized that the Red Sox were in town playing the Mariners! We knew that we couldn't miss out on this and made plans to see the following night's game after our day of sightseeing--and sightsee we did! We spent our morning at Pike Place Market (which was as amazing as I'd imagined), our afternoon exploring the Space Needle and surrounding area (although we didn't go to the top, it seemed just a bit too pricey at the end of such a very long and expensive trip), walked through Pioneer Square (beautiful) that evening, and had dinner and beer at the Pyramid Brewery (yum) before heading across the street to watch the Red Sox lose to the Mariners (sad).
At Pyramid Brewery, showing off my Curve Ball beer and my ticket to the Red Sox/Mariners game!
The next morning was an extremely early one, as we had a 6 AM flight back to the east coast. Still, our little taste of Seattle helped us end our trip on a high! Because when it was all said and done, I'm not really sure I was that impressed with our Princess CruiseTour. Don't get me wrong, we had an awesome time--but considering the cost and what you get for that cost I wouldn't be the first to say that "a Princess CruiseTour is the only way to see Alaska".

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fall for Greenville, Take 1

I've been waiting for Fall for Greenville since we moved here, and this weekend it finally happened! We missed it last year by about two weeks, and even though I brushed it off at the time...I was disappointed! I knew that Steve would have to love Greenville (and living here) if he experienced this awesome festival...alas, it was not to be. Until this past Saturday :)

My awesome sister agreed to cart us downtown (and she even came and picked us up later!) to save on cab fare (no way were we going to drive, pay for parking, and end up having to cab it home anyway). Once there, we purchased our wristbands and tickets and wandered down North Main toward the beer garden. Of course, first things first, we had to eat! And the great thing about Fall for Greenville are the over three dozen restaurants who have booths featuring some of their menu favorites.

Our first stop was the Brown Street Club booth, where Steve sampled the crab fritters and I had the Flatbread Brisket Sandwich. My choice was exceptional but I think Steve was a bit disappointed with his fritters--more because of the quantity than the quality. He was still hungry, so we also grabbed a piece of pizza from the Barley's booth. We'd heard great things about Barley's pizza...thankfully the piece we had was hot and fresh, but to be completely honest we still aren't falling all over ourselves for what Southerners call "good pizza".

And then it was Beer Garden time! There were over a dozen small-batch breweries featured in the Beer Garden, so we each had a couple of beers and enjoyed some live music before heading down South Main to check out the rest of the goings-on. One thing I will say about Fall for Greenville is that I wish it wasn't so completely food-oriented--although I absolutely love that about this festival, there was still plenty of room for craft booths and the like and I wish these browsing options had existed.

We walked all the way down to the stage at the entrance to Falls Park, where we listened for a few minutes to a band that had far too many members (seriously, there were like four guys on guitar, a drummer, a singer, and someone playing tambourine? it was all just too much) and then decided to head back to the Beer Garden. We even ran into some acquaintances who tipped us off on the Beer Sampler! For 6 tickets--the same "price" as a craft beer--you could sample seven beers. These seven samples probably added up to just a few more ounces than one cup of beer, but it was still a great option and led to us tasting far more beers than we would have otherwise (after all, RJ Rockers was there with their Son of a Peach, and we all know I can't pass that up!). I think our overall favorites were Abita's Andygator and Magic Hat's Odd Notion.

Unfortunately, it was after 8 PM at this point and that meant that the booths were beginning to shut down (or at least, the Beer Garden booths were). We had caught up with some friends at this point and decided to check out an as-yet undiscovered restaurant (to Steve and I, anyway). A group of us made our way to the West End, where we climbed some indiscriminate stairs to Chicora Alley. This bar/restaurant wasn't very crowded and didn't have any music, but the prices were right, the menu had a wide selection, and the food we tasted (sweet potato fries and fried mac and cheese) was delicious. Definitely a place we will return to!

After scarfing down our food (between a small-ish early "dinner" and all that beer we drank, we were starving!) and having a beer each, our group had decided to relocate back to North Main. We don't much care for the bar they decided on (Sharkey's) so when my sister called asking if we wanted a ride home, we took her up on that. This was probably a good idea anyway, as we were exhausted--it was only about 11 PM, but those first beers we'd enjoyed were at 5:30...and well, we're getting old. So it was an "early" night for us, but we definitely had an awesome time. Between the great prices (food samples ranged from $2.50 to $3.25 each; craft beers were $3.75), the huge selection of snacks and drinks, and the live music every couple of blocks, it was basically impossible to not Fall for Greenville :)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Hotel Review: Chamonix's Hotel Prieure

I was only at this hotel for one night, and it was as part of a large group, but I was fairly impressed. It is very convenient to the center of Chamonix, as well as being clean, and the rooms were of good size for a European hotels. The heated towel bars were nice as well! Our room even had a view of the glacier, which was cool. Our tour had an included dinner here and not only was the dinner very good, but the drinks at the bar were very well priced. My one complaint was that we ate breakfast somewhat "late" (I want to say it was around 8:30 AM) and they were pretty cleared out of most of the decent breakfast food with no obvious movement to replace or restock anything. Still, if I were to ever return to Chamonix, I would certainly consider staying here again!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Into the Wild, Volume One

When I first became a travel agent (way back in 2004) and immersed myself in learning about new places, one of the first things I did was watch the DVDs for the Princess Cruiseline Alaska Cruisetours. This was both a good idea and a bad one, as it gave me a very strong desire to visit a place I had never been (Alaska)...but also instilled in me that there really was no way to do it other than a Princess Cruisetour. And of course a balcony stateroom on the cruise portion was a must.

Fast forward nearly four years and after talking about Alaska for nearly three years, then saving for, booking, and planning a trip for a year, I boarded the Sapphire Princess in May 2008. Balcony stateroom and all.

We had chosen the Voyage of the Glaciers cruise that left from Vancouver and ended in Whittier, followed by a three-night land tour that visited Mt. McKinley (sort of), Denali, and Fairbanks. We really went all out for this trip, and for the most part I don't regret that. If I never get back to Alaska, I can say that I've seen plenty of it...but mind you, in the end this 13-night vacation cost us close to $10,000 and put off any future major trips for a couple of years.

Steam clock in the Gaslight district of Vancouver
If your mind isn't churning about how a 7-night cruise and a 3-night land tour adds up to 13 nights, I'll start at the beginning; that being that we flew to Vancouver the day before our cruise left. If you're coming from the east coast, I highly suggest this option. Not only did we get to explore some of Vancouver, but flying in a day early left us far more rested for the cruise. We stayed at the Four Seasons Vancouver, which was a beautiful hotel. Very expensive and not in the most amazing location (I did not care for the mall next door, and other than walking 20 minutes to the Gaslight District there weren't many options of things to do right near/around the hotel), but we booked it through the cruise line and you take what you can get.

While in Vancouver, we visited the Gaslight District and ate at the Water St. Cafe. Food and service were exemplary at the time, but reading more recent reviews has led me to believe that things may have gone downhill since.

Gotta love the Mounties!
The next day, we took a Princess shuttle to the ship and were boarded very quickly (it helped that we had a gentleman in a wheelchair with us). After a quick bite to eat at the buffet, our rooms were ready and we settled in to watch the ship leave Vancouver by sailing under the bridge. This is something I hadn't experienced before and it was really neat to see such a huge ship fit under the suspension bridge!

As for our stateroom, the room itself was fairly small--actually smaller than the oceanview room we'd had on the Valor a few years prior--but we had chosen a room with an extra-large balcony, and that ended up being the best choice for us. We spend a lot of time on the balcony, and with all the scenic cruising that most Alaskan cruises involve, I do not regret one bit that we invested the extra money in this room category.

Enjoying our extended balcony!
Our cruise began with a day at sea. The weather was a bit gray and chilly (which was to be expected) and I spent most of the day at the spa and playing bingo. The next day, we were more than ready for our first port of call--Ketchikan, where we had booked a ziplining excursion!

My dad and I being "Double Dessert Daredevils"!
Ziplining was actually amazing. The platforms, which were anywhere from 90 to 130 feet in the air and didn't have railings, were a bit nerve-wracking at times--but I never felt unsafe and it was truly a great experience. It probably helped things that our guides were, um, gorgeous.

Our guides. Umm yeah the tall one was gorgeous.
Unfortunately, once our excursion was over it began raining and we rushed back onto the ship for some shelter. We had walked around a couple blocks of Ketchikan before meeting up for ziplining, and there really wasn't much to see in the little town anyway.

Our second port was Juneau, and we had a pretty long day here, which was nice. We began the morning with some shopping (okay, a lot of shopping, there are some amazing local stores in Juneau!) and followed that with a Princess-specific tour that took us on a tour of the Alaska Brewing Co., to Mendenhall Glacier, and to a cooking class where we got to watch a chef prepare a special dish and, of course, taste said dish--along with some wine! After all the beer and wine we ingested, we were happy to have a couple hours left to hang out at the Red Dog Saloon. Although quite touristy, this bar is an absolute blast and I call it a must for anyone who visits Juneau!

Porcupine in a tree at Mendenhall Glacier

"Dowtown" Juneau
Sailing away from Juneau
The third and final port of call for our cruise was Skagway. As this was another long day in port, we had booked two excursions through Princess. The first was a streetcar tour, which was more fun than we expected! The tour is run by local men and women, who dress up in period costume (from around the time of Skagway's founding) and played their part quite well, as we rode around in the streetcars and heard about Skagway's past and present. Yes, it was a bit cheesy, but it was probably one of the best history/sightseeing tours I've ever been on!

Arctic Brotherhood building in Skagway

We followed the streetcar tour with a couple hours of shopping, then boarded a coach to drive into Canada's Yukon territory! Personally, I could have taken or left this excursion. Although it was a beautiful drive and I love being able to say that I've actually "been to the Yukon", there wasn't much of note for that part of the tour. We did see some black bears, but the coach driver refused to stop so that we could take pictures...therefore I have no proof of what was probably our most exciting wildlife siting of the entire trip. However, we ended this excursion with dinner at the Liarsville Salmon Bake, and that is not to be missed! Although Liarsville is a sort of "mock" town, the food was absolutely amazing. So amazing, in fact, that we weren't even too upset that we missed the crab leg dinner on the ship.

The fault where the Pacific and Tectonic plates meet
Me on the Yukon Suspension Bridge! :D
We were left with two more days on the cruise, both of which were "at sea" days--although the first day did consist of some amazing sightseeing in Glacier Bay. The weather that day was cool but not cold, very sunny and very clear, which made for some great scenic cruising. To top it all off, we did our scenic cruising right on our private balcony with a champagne brunch to boot! It was a perfect morning.

Cruising beautiful Glacier Bay
Awesome wine tasting
My mom and I at the last formal dinner

Champagne Fountain
The last day that we spent on the ship consisted of getting a couples' massage (and yes, getting that maddening push to buy products from our masseuses) and eating at Vivaldi, the Italian restaurant that has a slight upcharge. The food here was very good, and there was a lot of it--but to be completely honest, I'm not sure it was so much better than the food in the main dining room, and it's not something I would say is a "must" if you cruise on the Sapphire Princess.

More scenic cruising
As a whole, I was pleased with our cabin, the ship, and the itinerary. As Alaska itineraries go, I feel like this one afforded the best combination of time in ports and best scenic cruising. The food, however, was disappointing--nowhere near as good as that on my cruise on Royal Caribbean. It was on par with the food on my 2005 Carnival cruise, but the vast difference in price just didn't make this cruise seem like too much of a "bargain".

Coming up, I'll discuss the land portion of our cruisetour, as well as a planned but also surprising stop in Seattle on the way home, and give you my conclusion on whether or not a Princess Cruisetour is the only way to go!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Hot Date #9: Fall Festival Madness!

What, oh what, were we thinking when we decided to spend our Saturday carousing all over Upstate South Carolina?

The truth is, I really enjoy attending fairs and festivals. Probably more festivals than fairs, as I can’t imagine rides that are dismantled and re-assembled constantly being especially safe. Unfortunately, what with moving last year, we missed out on Festival Prime Time, which meant that this year we felt the need to make it all up. At once. Add to that the fact that there were two great festivals being held this weekend, in two cities we had yet to really explore…it was like one big conundrum.

So, armed with our trusty GPS unit and dressed in our fall best, we headed out early Saturday afternoon to partake in everything these Upstate South Carolina festivals had to offer. Our first stop: the Spartanburg International Festival at Barnet Park.

We had planned on arriving around 2:30, which would give us two full hours before heading on to our next festival. But we got a late start, and then we couldn’t find any sort of address to the Park—which led to us driving in circles around Spartanburg (knowing that the festival was in downtown, at least) until we saw the road blocks and found a parking garage. This left us with just enough time for food, a quick walk around the booths representing the many different countries, and some glances at the belly and South American folk dances on the two stages.

I’m disappointed that I wasn’t hungrier, anyway. Because the variety of food at this festival—especially for a festival in the Upstate, and even more especially for one in Spartanburg—was astounding. Everything from Indian to Dominican to Slovakian! Steve and I settled on lamb and falafel platters from the Sahara Mediterranean Grill, which were absolutely delicious. However, as previously mentioned, thanks to our unreliable GSP system (and the fact that our first stop was 30+ minutes from home, our second stop another 30 minutes from our first stop) our time at the International Festival was cut a bit short. No matter, though, as we were ready to make our way to the Greer Station Oktoberfest Festival for beer, German crafts, and live Oompah bands!
Although only five years old (a baby in the way of Oktoberfest celebrations around the world), the Greer Station Oktoberfest is hailed as one of the best small-town festivals in South Carolina…and after just a couple hours there, we could see why! The stores and bars lining the streets of “downtown” Greer had their doors swung open and their festival specials well advertised. Everywhere we looked there were guys and gals in lederhosen and dirndls. The authentic bands playing on stages at either end of the closed-off street were talented and fun. Spaten was one of the main sponsors, but I was also pleased to see that a local brewery, Thomas Creek, had a booth—I’m a big fan of their Stillwater Vanilla Cream Ale.

The only disappointment? Steve’s insistence that despite the many booths selling brats, pretzels, and German chocolate cake…he wanted shrimp and rice from the booth of a local Japanese restaurant. I insisted that this was some sort of mortal sin and refused to partake in his extremely non-Oktoberfest dish. Come on, about the only thing Germany and Japan have in common is World War II!

When the day was over, we were hot and tired and our feet hurt…plus we had another 25-minute drive home. However, that doesn’t mean that we didn’t enjoy ourselves! In fact, quite the opposite. Although by doing two festivals in one day, we limited our time at each of them, planning an afternoon like this was a great way for us to discover new places in our adopted home. A suggestion on our part would be to research festivals in your area and simply give them a chance! Guys, maybe even use this as a surprise date. Tell your lady to dress comfortably and pack a camera and spend a day visiting two or three of the festivals that you find…because this time of year, there are bound to be plenty of them to experience! Regardless of how you do it, with the fun food and the cold beers and the interesting things you’ll inevitably get to do and see, a fall fairs & festivals date rates another 8/10 in our book.