Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Mt. Snow: The First, the Last, the Ugly.

I'm going to keep this one short and sweet.

Mt. Snow in Vermont was the first place I ever went skiing, and as of today...it's actually the last place I ever skied, as well. Which is severely unfortunate on both accounts...because I do not like Mt. Snow.

The first time I was there it was my dad's choice--I suppose because it's one of the Vermont mountains that's closer to where we lived at the time. The second time it was a combined, discussed choice of my boyfriend and I, again because it was the closest mountain that wasn't Berkshire East in Massachusetts (which we had already visited two or three times that season).

Both times, Mt. Snow was overcrowded and, for the mountain size, overpriced. And both times, the state of the trails was deplorable. Seriously, one would think that between 1999 and 2009 they would have learned how to (a) use snow machines and/or (b) groom their trails properly. Apparently not, as the trails consisted of far more ice than snow.

The one redeeming quality is that the last time we were there, they had one of those waffle stands. Those things are to die for. That said, if you live in Mass or Connecticut and are looking for a nearby place to ski, Berkshire East is in my opinion far superior to Mt. Snow (both in price and trail quality).

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Hotel Review: Holiday Inn Charleston (Historic District)

This is by far the best Holiday Inn I have ever stayed in. Although the decor wasn't exactly my taste, everything was spotlessly clean and well kept. The employees were extremely friendly and helpful, especially the concierge! We had the most amazing tour of the city thanks to him. The service is free and I highly suggest that anyone who stays in this hotel utilize it!

The location of this hotel is also good. Although a little further of a walk from the main shopping and sightseeing areas than some of the other historic district hotels, the walk was an easy one and the hotel was basically right across the street from Marion Square--great for visiting the Farmer's Market there early on a Saturday.

Parking is on-site and the rates are the usual for Charleston. There's a pool as well, but I stayed here in December and it was closed for the off season. The rooms are quite large, especially for a downtown hotel.

The one semi-complaint I have is the "Best 4 Breakfast" rate. DO NOT BOTHER BOOKING THIS PACKAGE!!! It is a total waste of money. Their breakfast, while decent, is nothing amazing, and the prices are so low that unless you order 3 entrees and 2 drinks off the menu you will never come close to spending the $20 per person that is allotted to you with this rate. For instance, if the room would normally cost you $179.99 per night, with this package it costs you $219.99 if you have 2 people in the room. So there is no discount or deal and as I said, it is very difficult to rack up a big enough breakfast bill to get your money's worth--because they don't reimburse you for any monies you do not use.

ETA on 1/24/2011: Please note that this hotel has changed ownership and is now a Courtyard Marriott. Despite some research I can't seem to find any updated information or reviews on the hotel, whether or not they still offer the concierge option etc. However, I can attest to the fact that the location is great and as the rooms were quite comfortable I doubt they have made any negative changes to those.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Live from Las Vegas!

Greetings from Sin City!

I'm on day 2 of a great little group trip to Vegas, and other than being, well, somewhat hungover, things are great. Let me tell you, it pays to know people in this city and shout out to my friend Becky for putting me in contact with an old friend of hers who works at Rain at The Palms :)

I wanted to write a quick note because I have to admit that I made...well, I guess a rookie mistake. Last night. We piled into a cab at our hotel (The Mirage, of course!) and I clearly asked to be taken to The Palms. The cabbie mentioned that the Strip was really backed up, so I said to just take us whichever way would be least expensive. So he went out the back exit and took some roads and drove through some parking lots...I mean, I could see the casinos around us but I had no clue where he was going. We approached a big building from behind and we were all too busy talking to pay attention...so when the cabbie said that we'd arrived Jenna paid him and we piled out.

I immediately knew that something was wrong, and then I noticed that the doors had the word "Rio" printed on them! I turned to flag down the cabbie again--but no can do, he was gone!

I have no idea why he dropped us off at the Rio. I mean, Rio and Palms don't even sound alike! What I do know is that even a few blocks (but most especially Las Vegas blocks) walking in four inch heels does not do much for one's comfort :-/

Just goes to show you that even a five-time Vegas veteran makes mistakes!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

How I Fell in Love with South Carolina

Summer 2005: One of my first (amazing) trips to Myrtle Beach!
When I was younger, South Carolina was never one of those places I had a burning desire to see. I think at one point my parents talked about a trip to Myrtle Beach—maybe when I was in middle school. But that vacation never came to fruition, which is why I was 22 before I ever saw more of South Carolina than the immediate 95 south corridor.

My first actual visit to South Carolina was a trip to Myrtle Beach with my sister. She was checking out Coastal Carolina University and I was just there to be company. It was a chilly weekend in mid-April 2005, and after just two nights we were both hooked—despite the fact that it was too cold to enjoy the beach.

Beautiful Falls Park in downtown Greenville, SC
Thanks to my sister’s relocation to “the Beach” for school, 2005 and 2006 were comprised of numerous visits to the Myrtle Beach area, and when my parents moved to Greenville it wasn’t long before I decided to relocate as well. My relocation led to more trips to Myrtle Beach as well as weekends in Charleston, but it wasn’t until I was forced to leave Greenville for work that I realized how much I’d taken for granted while living there. I vowed that if I was able to move back, I would do everything in my power to explore as much of South Carolina as possible.

As is evidenced by my blog Connecticut Yankees in South Carolina, I did get to move back—and I was able to bring my then-boyfriend, now-husband Steve with me. We’ve now been here just over a year and we have done just what I swore to do: explored much of South Carolina, especially Greenville, and fallen in love.

One of the amazing houses on the Battery in Charleston
I won’t claim that Greenville has the attractions of Charleston or even Myrtle Beach or Hilton Head. Living here is what drew me to South Carolina and what kept me here, and of course I believe it’s an amazing place to visit. At nearly 28, Myrtle Beach no longer holds the attractions it once did, so let’s say you came to visit South Carolina. Where would I suggest?

Playing the "Mouse game" in downtown Greenville
Well, if you want a beach community with a nightlife, Myrtle Beach it is. But if you want a beach community in a quiet, beautiful setting, we have Hilton Head, Edisto, and Folly Beaches. I have to claim ignorance about Columbia, but Charleston can certainly give you your fill of history. Go there and walk the Battery, visit the open market, take a pub or martini tour with the Lesesne Tour Company. Shop on King Street, take a nearby plantation tour or even go see the Confederate submarine Hunley.

And if you want to see the new South—a city that almost died with the local textile industry but was instead brought more to life than it ever was before by an influx of new blood and new ideas—come to Greenville. Catch a baseball game with the Greenville Drive, a Red Sox farm team that plays in a field built to resemble the infamous Fenway Park. Come to Greenville and walk the Liberty Bridge, our very own unique suspension bridge. Come to Greenville and visit the many local shops and restaurants along our beautiful Main Street. Stay at the historic Westin Poinsett, built in the 1920s, and stop by one or more of our museums, including a Confederate Museum, Upstate History Museum, or even the Bob Jones University Museum & Gallery, which has an extensive art collection. We have a surprisingly enjoyable "hidden mice" game downtown called Mice on Main that's even fun for us big kids ;o)

Fluor Field - our "mini Fenway" in Greenville
Really, the wonderful thing about South Carolina is that our state has a great blend of old and new. Even the old places like Charleston have learned to adapt; and the “new” places like Greenville have learned to hold on to their roots just tightly enough. And even better, in three hours you can drive from a beautiful coastal city, one of the oldest in the South, to a great little city at the base of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.

South Carolina is easy to fall in love with and truly not a place anyone should miss visiting. I can only hope that in the future people won’t just stick to the coastline, as if it weren’t for Greenville I never would have known just how great this entire state is ;o)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Disney Dining Plan

Last year, it just so happened that Disney was offering their dining plan for free right when we wanted to travel. Of course we couldn't say "no" (it being free and all), and we therefore had four nights at the Caribbean Beach resort with the dining plan and premium tickets (4-day park hoppers with water park access) for just about $1200.

Just for reference, four nights on the regular dining plan (I think they call it "deluxe" now, though, as they offer a completely quick service dining plan these days) gets you four snacks, four quick service meals, and four full service meals--per person.

Therefore, we utilized our dining plan as follows:

2 quick service breakfasts at the Caribbean Beach Food Court
Other quick service meals at the Liberty Inn Restaurant (shared one meal), Yorkshire County Fish Shop (shared one meal), Pizzafari
Full service breakfast at The Wave at the Contemporary
Full service lunch at Les Chefs de France
Full-service dinners at Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater and O'Hana

Now, some thoughts on the food.

The day we went to MGM I was starving when we arrived, and for some reason all I wanted was a pretzel. We stopped at Anaheim Produce on Sunset Boulevard--no pretzels. We walked down toward Tower of Terror, but there were really no other food carts and I only wanted to use a snack from the DP. We finally gave up and walked back to Anaheim Produce--still no pretzels, and they couldn't tell me when they would get more. I gave in and got the veggies and ranch dip. They were rubbery and not very good but whatever, it was something in my stomach without having to use a whole quick service meal from our dining plan.

At dinner that evening, I was pleased to learn that Sci Fi allows you to order one of their milkshakes as a drink with the dining plan...you really can't beat their cookies and cream shakes! I had a pretty decent Reuben sandwich and Steve had a pasta dish that was pretty good. Personally, I prefer the meatloaf and fried chicken at Prime Time (plus the s'mores for dessert!), but Steve chose the Sci Fi because he's a big sci fi geek.

Our next day was spent at Epcot and we started with lunch at Les Chefs de France. Overall, I was pleased but not amazed. I don't understand why at the Sci Fi, I could get a milkshake for my drink (their milkshakes cost, what, $5+ if you're not on the dining plan?), but I couldn't get an espresso or cappuccino at Les Chefs as my dining plan drink! I had to get the regular (read: crappy) Disney coffee. At least the french onion soup and croque monsieur I had were delicious...but my suggestion is to pass on the creme brulee. You would think that, in the French restaurant, in the France pavilion, they would make a proper creme brulee...not so much. Steve spent a year in France as an exchange student, so he (and myself, now) know what a proper creme brulee is. The one served at Les Chefs was just...not good. It was supposed to be a vanilla creme brulee, but had no vanilla taste to it...it just tasted like regular old custard. Also, it was obviously broiled or something of the sort, and didn't have nearly enough sugar on top. When you use enough sugar and a blowtorch, the top of a creme brulee is a thin layer of sugary delicious crust. Les Chefs de France's version was weirdly spotty on top and burnt in places...no crust at all. Even if I didn't know what a real creme brulee was supposed to look and taste like, I wouldn't have enjoyed this.

For our full service breakfast, I had the Eggs Benedict and although the sauce was a bit different from what I'm used to (it wasn't your usual hollandaise), they were still very good. I also tried my boyfriend's breakfast (spinach & feta cheese scrambled eggs) and they were good as well. If you're not big on buffets and plan on spending the day at MK, I definitely suggest hopping the bus to the MK, walking over to Contemporary, and eating here!

We had chosen a big breakfast for our Magic Kingdom day because our dinner at O'Hana that night was scheduled at a very late time (despite calling nearly 3 months in advance, the only dinner reservation we could get for our anniversary--which we really wanted to have at O'Hana--was at 9:45 at night!!!). As always O'Hana was delicious, though, and worth the late meal :o)

On our very last day we ate at my favorite Animal Kingdom restaurant, Pizzafari. I was relieved that they still had one of my favorite Disney meals ever...the Hot Italian Deli sandwich! Turkey, ham, Swiss, provolone, pesto sauce, tomatoes, and Caesar salad on muffaletta bread...yum yum yum! Unfortunately the breadsticks weren't as good as I remembered, though.

I like how having the dining plan allowed us to eat so many full-service meals and still save money, but I'm not sure it's a necessity if you, like us, don't need to eat as much food as they provide. I also have to admit that I think the dining plan's popularity has seriously cut down on the quality of a lot of the food at Disney. The best example of this is the desserts at the quick service food restaurants. As recent as 2008, many quick service restaurants still offered their own desserts, different from those at other quick service restaurants at Disney. Sure, some of them were repeats, but it wasn't the same exact thing at every single place. Every time we used a counter service meal, they forced the dessert on us. Seriously, there was no saying no. This must turn into a huge waste of food, because the desserts are awful and after trying each of them once, I simply couldn't force myself to eat them anymore. But when I tried to tell the cast members that I wouldn't eat it, they seemed shocked and said things like "but you have to order a dessert! your meal comes with it". So I would choose one of the two awful options and end up throwing it in the trash.

(The choice of desserts, by the way, was an obviously pre-made apple dumpling thing that was served hot in some places, cold in others, and a pre-packaged chocolate "cake" that I wouldn't serve to my worst enemy.
If you're going to force me to take something I don't really want, at least make it something I would actually EAT.)

I guess it remains to be seen if we will choose to book with the dining plan for our next Disney trip...

Monday, December 13, 2010

How Many Bars of Christmas? (A Pub Crawl Story)

Last year about this time, Steve and I headed downtown on a cold Friday night to grab a couple beers at Blue Ridge Brewing Company. While we were there, a very rowdy crowd of people wearing garish t-shirts stumbled in. Their shirts proclaimed that they were part of the "12 Bars of Christmas" pub crawl, and all we could say was, "how did we not know about this?"

At On the Roxx
I immediately Google searched the pub crawl and happened upon their Facebook page...and so it was that a year later, we came to be not just idle passers-by but actual 12 Bars of Christmas participants. We purchased our shirts and donned our Christmas colors this past Saturday, arriving at bar #1--Liberty Tap Room--just before 6 PM for the start of the crawl.

I don't think I need to detail every stop that we made. I will say that although the beer prices on the specials list were good, it was a bit disappointing that there weren't some better liquor specials, especially considering the number of people participating in the crawl. Also, it sucked that the third bar we were supposed to stop at--a place called Crossroads--apparently closed recently without notifying the pub crawl organizers. C'est la vie, and that brings us from 12 bars to 11 for the night.

It was at Connolly's, an Irish-pub/hole-in-the-wall type bar, that our pub crawl ran into another (and much smaller, mind you!) pub crawl. This one was some sort of Santa Claus crawl, but either there weren't many people participating or not many of the participants chose to dress up. Still, we did see some great (for lack of a better word) costumes, including Ralphie from A Christmas Story, Cousin Eddie from Christmas Vacation, and my personal favorite--Buddy the Elf from Elf! (best Christmas movie ever, don't bother arguing with me)

I'm in love, can't you tell by the look on my face?
We made it to Liberty Tap Room, On the Roxx, Connolly's, Wild Wing Cafe, Barley's, and Rey's, but about the time we were supposed to hit up Hoops & Hops some sorta something set in...and I lost Steve. After numerous confusing phone calls, he finally realized that he was supposed to be at Hoops & Hops and arrived in time to guzzle the beer I'd bought him before we had to head across the street to stop #8--Corner Pocket. We had yet to visit Corner Pocket but we truthfully weren't impressed. I know they were having to deal with a hell of a lot of people that night, but they had known about this beforehand and didn't have enough bartenders or enough good bartenders (seriously, I don't know if I've ever been ignored that long at a bar in Vegas!). One quick drink and we decided to hit up the next stop, Sharkey's, in hopes of having a bit more luck.

Oh hey, decent beer! (at Barley's)
Our friends Sara, Mike and Damien who were participating in the crawl with us were able to find a table at Sharkey's (!!!). They were going to order food, but apparently the kitchen was closed? Not sure what was up with that, as it was only about ten PM? I could have sworn I've ordered food there that late. They were doing karaoke (!!!) but--and I can't believe I'm saying this--I was far too drunk to participate. I had to hold Steve back from putting my name in, and it was about this time that I suggested moving on to City Tavern.

Except that City Tavern is a small bar, and we could tell just by a glance that there was no point going in. At this point we just walked over to the last bar on the list--The Gathering Spot (or, more affectionately, the G-Spot)--and therefore the 12 bars became 10.

My "I didn't even drink this crap in college" face
I honestly have no idea how we even made it to G-Spot or managed to have a beer there. I have no idea how we can easily make our way all the way around the world at EPCOT (11 countries, drinking everything from margaritas to wine to daiquiris to beer), but we could barely handle the mere 10 bars we made it to Saturday night.

Are we just getting old? Sigh.

We made it! Well...sorta.










In the end, we had an absolute blast and we will participate in the crawl again next year, if only because it was fun to have reason to be bar-hopping while wearing hideous t-shirts.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Greenville's Tree Lighting

Last Saturday we put on our warm clothes and headed downtown for Greenville's Christmas tree lighting. The Greenville chorale was performing Christmas carols, and there was even a parade starting not long after the lighting! Unfortunately, we didn't check the weather. Oops. Because it was misting when we left the house, and it continued to do so (as well as be just awfully cold) the entire time we were downtown.

I mean, the idea sounded great: let's go downtown, grab a drink, listen to some Christmas music, watch a tree-lighting and parade. I even donned my hideous Santa Claus Christmas sweater for the occasion!

We stopped in Soby's first, as it was located just across from where the tree sits in front of the court house. We each had one drink, then we took a deep breath and dove back outside. I popped open my little umbrella and we positioned ourselves directly across Main Street from the tree.

And waited.

And waited.

Despite being told that the lighting was to be at 5, the chorale didn't even start until maybe 5:15. Even though the parade wasn't scheduled until six, I told Steve we would wait until 5:30 to hopefully see the tree get lit, bu then we could go home.

It's official, by the way: our blood has thinned. I doubt it was much colder than 40 degrees that evening and we couldn't even stand that. Sure, the rain didn't help, but we were raised on Connecticut winters! Go figure.

I have to admit, I was counting down the minutes to 5:30, and when it hit I heaved a sigh and gave in to the awful weather. Of course, as we were walking away, someone started speaking. We couldn't hear much of what was said, but we decided to stick it out for just a few more minutes...and after some blah blah blahs and some hoopla about sponsors, there was a 10 second countdown (likely unnecessary) and BAM! the tree was lit (finally). I took a couple quick pictures and then we rushed back to the car, and then home for some hot spiced wine and snacks.

Had the weather been nice[r], yes, I would have forced Steve to stay for the parade ;o) But despite wanting to experience all Greenville has to offer, I just didn't think catching an awful cold from the wet chilly air would be worth it. Maybe next year!

On that note, I do have one small "complaint"--they had an unnecessary number of generators running right in front of the courthouse. Four of them, to be exact. And they were huge. I know they were to keep the spotlights on, but come on. We could barely even hear the chorale's performance, these things were so loud! (And we tried moving a couple times--but it was either be too far away and not be able to hear the singing, or be close and not be able to hear it over the damn generators. Go figure.) Beyond that, the spotlights took away from the ambiance of the tree lighting. You've heard it here, city of Greenville--next year, go green with the tree lighting and I guarantee it will be a much better experience for us viewers!

Hotel Review: THEhotel at Mandalay Bay

source
THEhotel at Mandalay Bay is totally different from most of the other hotels on the strip. The decor is very simple, the hotel is quiet, but you have access to all of Mandalay Bay's facilities--including the wave pool/lazy river area. Unfortunately, the main pool with the beach and everything was closed for the season, as I visited in November. We enjoyed great weather but did not get to experience the supposedly "amazing" pool that the critics tout.

We stayed in a suite and truthfully, I was disappointed with the size. The beds were comfortable and the bathroom was huge but the living room area was TINY. Still, it was nice having the extra half bath and more room than a normal hotel room, but I'm not sure if it was worth the price. Also, we ran into a lot of problems with the DVD player, there was a huge scratch on the TV, and the lighting in the bedroom was practically non-existent.

Overall, although this hotel was nice, I wouldn't stay there again. There were too many little things that bugged me, and to top it all off, this hotel is at the farthest end of the Strip from everything but the airport. Plan on walking forever/taking $12 one-way taxi rides everywhere if you want to spend a lot of time on the main part of The Strip.

Monday, December 6, 2010

An Epic Thanksgiving Weekend: Game Day Saturday

Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend was Melissa's and Adrian's last day in Greenville. They left late that afternoon to go back to Jacksonville, but not before we took them downtown one last time for some shopping, food, and general meanderings :o)

We began the day at the Mast General Store, a great place for South Carolina merchandise and all those things you never knew you needed. We then wandered up and down Main Street and showed Adrian the site of our wedding ceremony (as he missed it due to being deployed at the time). He even braved rolling down the hill at Falls Park after seeing a bunch of kiddos doing it!

Finally, we grabbed a late lunch at Barley's Tap Room. Steve and I had been to Barley's before, but for drinks only--and as Adrian was craving pizza and I'd heard good things about Barley's pizzas, we figured it was the perfect place to stop. Ahhh, if only. After trying both the Caribbean Jerk Chicken pizza and the Greek pizza, it appears that mine and Steve's search for the good stuff remains unfinished (don't get me wrong, we love Mellow Mushroom, but I'm talking plain ol' tasty cheese pizza, not crazy specialty pizzas). The menu and prices at Barley's were really no better than those at Mellow Mushroom, and the pizza itself was nowhere near as tasty.

I did, however, have a "Sunny Day" beer sampler. $12 for six 6-oz glasses of quality beer? Yes please! And the only one that I didn't care for (and therefore passed on to Steve, who liked it just fine) was the Victory Braumeister Harvest Plus. Honestly...it tasted like grass. Yuck.

We parted ways after "lunch" and Steve and I went home to get ready for the big Clemson vs. USC game! This included making some awful-for-you Buffalo Chicken Dip (as seen in this entry) and breaking out the beer. We were going to try having a big tailgating party, but it being Thanksgiving weekend many people were busy or out of town...so we just hung out with our friends Nick and Annie and enjoyed a rousing defeat of Clemson by the Gamecocks (yay!) while munching on greasy dip and tipping back some seasonal brews. It was actually a somewhat early night for us, but as our crazy Thanksgiving weekend was coming to a close it was just what we needed :o)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Once Upon a Guidebook

At the very beginning of 2010, I was doing nothing but counting down the days until our big New Orleans trip the first weekend of February. And for some reason still unbeknownst to me...I decided that I needed a guidebook.

Before this, I'd visited countless places without ever consulting a guidebook. In fact, I scoffed at the very idea. But now that I look back and realize how much I missed in places I may never see again...I think that I was being a bit hoity-toity about the guidebook thing.

Now, even though it was already 2010, and we were going to New Orleans in 2010...I ended up purchasing the 2009 guidebook. It was already January, the 2010 version had yet to be released, and I needed time to receive and read the darn thing! Thus, I ended up with Frommer's New Orleans 2009. And the moment that guidebook hit my hands, I read it. Voraciously. Cover to cover. I read, I notated, I even added color-coded post-it tabs. I was that tourist. And yes, I brought the book with me to NOLA (although I didn't go so far as to carry it around).

The end result? We saw and did a hell of a lot more than we would have otherwise. In general my trip-planning used to lean toward a few Google searches for restaurants, nightlife and must-sees wherever I was visiting. I never went anywhere without doing at least some planning, but I assumed that guidebooks were a waste of money. However, this particular guidebook was not, and my experience with it has led me to already purchase guidebooks for a few places we will be visiting in the upcoming year--Charleston, San Francisco, Prague and Budapest to name a few. I actually got them all at a local used book store, but thankfully they're in good condition and only a year or two old.

Although I certainly can't say that one needs a guidebook for every place one may visit, I definitely suggest trying it out. At least once in a while. And I cannot stress enough how helpful and interesting the Frommer's New Orleans guides are, specifically. Without said guide, I very likely would have missed out on some of the best things I experienced in NOLA: Napoleon House, snowballs, Preservation Hall, and The Old Absinthe House to name a few.

I will continue to write little guidebook reviews whenever they apply, so if you're a guidebook groupie or a guidebook newbie, check back for updates!