Overseas Travel Essentials Part 1

So it’s been a while since my last post. I’ve been booking trips left and right – Spring Break, Disney, Cruises and on top of that – My own trip!

This is the year thluggageat we head to Europe for Disney Cruise through the Mediteranean and end up in Paris with a trip to Disneyland Paris of course! For me, half the fun is the planning and preparation. Since we’re going to be moving around, I wanted to find the best sized suitcase. There is no way a carry on would do – we need something to drag on and off of trains. After researching pricing on ebags.com and amazon, I found great deals on 24″ Jeep Spinner bags at Tuesday Morning. In the past we’ve found great luggage deals at Ross and TJ Maxx as well.
world adapter

To power all of our essentials including my ipad, where I will document and post all the fun games from, we need an adapter that works in several countries – Spain, Italy and France. I found a great option on Amazon – the Digipower ACP-WTA World Travel Adapter with Built-in USB Charger.

And last but not least, for the long flights, some good lumbar support that doesn’t take up room and Amazon again comes to the rescue – the Design Go Go inflatable pillow.  Now to save up the other essential – spending money!  Happy Travels!pillow

Hawaii 2.0 – True Relaxation From Waikiki To Aulani

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In the words of Depeche Mode, “I just can’t get enough”.  So to quench our thirst for aloha we  returned for our Anniversary trip to wonderful Oahu.  This time we decided to get our fill of Waikiki at the start of our holiday and then wind down during the second course at the always relaxing Aulani.  With the plethora of properties in Waikiki, you can be overwhelmed.  If you are looking for bargain, there are plenty to be had.  If you’re looking for the most amazing 16+ Infinity edge pool with a killer view, floating bean bag chairs, poolside service and “cheap” (60 bucks for the day) cabana type chairs, several food options, Baskin and Robbins, shopping and easy walking distance to everything Waikiki, then look no further – Sheraton Waikiki is it.

It’s been recently renovated and the rooms are fine.  Nice and large, basic, comfortable.  But the property as a whole is great.  The infinity pool ha been voted “Best Pool in Waikiki”.  Plus, join their Starwood Preferred Guest program and receive an adorable Gift Bag that you take to their Starwood Amenities Shop and fill up.  You’d be amazed at how much fun that is.

While in Waikiki, take advantage of the happy hour at the Top of Waikiki, a revolving restaurant and bar.  They have an early happy hour and a late happy hour. $5 drinks and unique view of the sunset.

Now for phase 2 of the trip – Aulani.  40 minutes to the west of Waikiki lies Ko’Olina.  Many of you read my first post about our trip there last year and if you didn’t, well then, you’ve got some homework!  So I’ll hit the highlights of the updates they’ve done to the property and some of our new discoveries.aulani 2

The updated Ka Maka pool area is the main focus of the updates.  There is a beautiful Infinity pool for the family with an adorable cove area.  Also for the keiki (kids) there is a splash pad zone as well.  In the much needed dining improvement category, they have added the Ulu cafe – it’s a counter service restaurant that opens early and closes around 9 pm, so you’ve got some alternatives now!

Since we were at the resort longer this time, I did purchase the refillable mug (aprox $19).  There were several stations available in the Ulu cafe, outside of Ama’ Ama and near the center of the pool area near the Lava Shack.  I feel like I got my money’s worth in diet coke, lemonade and hot chocolate.  Steve discovered that the Ulu Cafe serves 100% Kona coffee, so he had an alternative to Ama’ Ama for breakfast and his Kona addiction.

IMG_20131102_124633This time around, along with immersing ourselves in the pools, napping away in the afternoon breeze, getting incredible massages at the Laniwai Spa and going on all of the water slides and lazy river, I decided to give the Rainbow Reef a try.  It’s a great way for new snorkelers to get their feet wet and get used to the sport.  The Rainbow Reef area has day long and full stay passes.  I would recommend the one day pass, as it’s a small reef.

We had adjusted enough to the time change to enjoy the resort’s Starlight Hui show.  The production combines Disney showmanship with Hawaiian culture, with lots of pre-show activities for the kids and a post-show dance party for the family with some familiar friends.  It’s a “don’t miss” while you’re at the resort.

Our trip was nothing less than relaxing and with tears in my eyes (again!) we left Oahu – “A hui hou kakou Until we meet again.”

A World of Treats! 2013 Epcot Food & Wine Festival

food and wine collageThe Food & Wine Fest is the adult Disney World – wait, we ARE at Disney World! Yes, the Food & Wine Festival is an Adult treat at Epcot that shouldn’t be missed.  It’s Epcot x 30 (the number of kiosks they add to the world showcase).  Now, the kids will have a great time too, just not the wine part…Here are my tips to enjoying the Festival which will be going on until November 11th.

cardFirst – purchase the wristlet gift cards.  They make it very easy to purchase on the go. Check at the stores when you first enter Epcot so that you don’t have to double back

.Second grab a passport – it’s fun to carry around and each kiosk will stamp it for you as you eat and drink your way around Epcot.

You’ll want to pace yourself – do a lunch version where you head one way and a dinner and enter the showcase the opposite way to see everything.  Or break it up in to a few days if you’ve got a hopper.

We enjoyed everything really, but the selections we visited several times were the China Kiosk for the Mongolian Beef in a Steamed Bun, ummm yeah, no picture because we ate that one before remembering to take a pic….The Grapefruit Beer at the Beer Garden near Germany and the Kielbasa & Potato Pierogi with Carmalized Onions in Poland are great!

The Refreshment port has a limited edition Orange Dole Whip and a version with Creme de Cacao too!  And the list goes on and on…If you don’t make it there this year, put it on your calendar to attend next year – it’s worth the trip! And if you’re concerned about gaining a few, plan to attend at the tail end and run the Food and Wine half marathon and family 5K events.  It’s another combo of my favorite things – Eating & Running!

Bon Appetit & Bon Voyage!

Whales, Moose and Glaciers – Oh My!

053Alaska wasn’t really on my personal travel radar until one eventful afternoon while discussing a client’s trip with my mom. “I would like to see the Glaciers before they melt!”, says she. So before you could say the words ‘Inside passage’, we were booked on a Mom/Daughter adventure.

We flew into Anchorage, stayed the night and then took the train down to Seward to board our Holland America Ship, the Zaandam. It was a great way to start the trip.  We stayed at the Anchorage Hilton which was in a perfect spot for exploring the farmer’s market across the street.  To start the trip off right, we went for happy hour at Simon and Seafort’s which has beautiful views of the waterfront.  We went during the time of year when it doesn’t get dark until at least midnight, so we forced ourselves to sleep before catching our early train.

The train station is an easy cab ride from any hotel within the downtown area (we saw several others in the area including Captain Cook’s which is another popular pre-cruise hotel).  To take advantage of this once in a lifetime experience, we booked the Alaskan Railroad’s Goldstar service. Their motto is “The Best Way to See Alaska is on the Railroad” and I believe it to be true.  If you’re a couple or small group (as opposed to a larger family group which can add up fast..) then I HIGHLY recommend taking this class of service. The regular train class is fine and they do have a dome in some of the cars that passengers can rotate through, so you will still have a good experience.  On our trek we saw amazing views of glaciers, rivers, eagles and eaglets and a moose!

Upon arriving in Seward, we took advantage of the free Seward shuttle which was the first of several school buses doing summer double duty as shuttle that we saw during this trip. Seward was nothing to write home about, but if it’s a stop on your itinerary, a good place to embark on outdoor adventures.

20130815_151928Despite the rainy afternoon, the HAL employees at the embarkation building were a ray of sunshine that set the standard for the great service we were going to receive all week on the Zaandam.  Our inside cabin, 3344, was in the perfect location on the Promenade deck. The self-service laundry was nearby ($2 to wash and $1 to dry) as well as elevators and the guest services area.  Highlights of the ship – the smaller size, library stocked with games and books, great photographers and consistently good service throughout all areas of the ship.  The activities have stepped up on HAL with their new “On Location” program where they bring your destination on-board to make the experience robust.  Our cruise director Michael and his staff were friendly and made everyone a part of the experience.  Trivia with Reggie, Chocolate Trivia with Jen (Thanks for the Martini prize!) and the Alaska lectures by Lance made our trip fun and educational.

Now for the destination commentary.  Our itinerary included cruising Glacier Bay – one of the BEST places to cruise, Haines Bay (an 80 min ferry ride from Skagway), Juneau and Ketchikan.  We also cruised through the inside passage to return to Vancouver.  Glacier bay was just amazing.  We stopped at Marjorie Glacier for an hour where we saw the glacier calve several times.  It’s one of those  moments that you don’t appreciate until you experience it. Like the time my sister Cynthia dragged us to the space shuttle launch and we were awed at the power and emotion we witnessed…but I digress.

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Juneau was my favorite.  It’s a larger port area with fun options like eating King Crab legs at the legendary Tracy’s Crab Shack and grabbing a beer at the historic Red Dog Saloon.  However, your MUST DO (yes I yelled that) in Juneau is booking an adventure with Orca Enterprises.  (Yelling again) MUST DO!  I had read great things about Capt. Larry and Orca, and our experience did not fall short. We literally had a whale of a time!  Of course, nature is unscripted, but if there is something to be seen, Capt. Larry will make sure you see it. Not only are their prices competitive, the experience was envied by other people on our cruise who saw our boat while on another provider.  Email me if you want more on this experience, I could talk for hours.  Click HERE to see all of the pics and videos.  All I’m going to say is, if you’re in Juneau and you don’t book with Orca Enterprises to see whales or go on a Mendenhall Glacier tour, or whatever, then don’t tell me that you were there, because I will chastise you.  Yes, chastise:-).

Ketchikan, “Alaska’s First City”, had a nice “Northern Exposure” kind of feel.  The usual shops and seafood, but the area we chose to explore was the Creek Street area, the previously shady side of the creek.  Lots of history and now has cute shops and Dolly’s House  Brothel museum. Hey, unscrupulous or not, ,it was a part of the rugged “last frontier”….

Our leisurely cruising day through the Inside Passage was a great way to relax, see some Orca’s and take a mixology class.  Pom Drop Martini anyone?  Docking early on Sunday morning in Vancouver was perfect for exploring Granville Island and it’s Public Market and shops.  It’s about a $15 cab ride from the dock and buses are available as well, though require more walking.  Absolutely loved this destination.  Any food, flower, fruit, soup, nut, salmon product and did I mention yummy burgers, can be found here.  My favorites: Chocolate – ChocolaTas (friendly guys and DEElicious choclates) and the Market Grill (yummy burger and potato wedge fries).  Follow that up with a mini NYC style cheesecake from Stuart’s Bakery and you’ve got a day of eating worth exercising off.

A great service that we discovered that made our running around possible was CDS Luggage storage.  They will either store your bags at Canada Place for aprox $8 a bag or for $40 they will transport your luggage to the airport for you!  It was GREAT!  We were able to run around Vancouver, get on the very cheap skytrain to the airport and pick up our bags which they had on a cart for us very quickly and efficiently.

While we hadn’t planned on taking this adventure this summer, we’re really glad we did.  Previously Alaska was a destination for a certain age group, but my eyes have been opened. In my opinion,  it’s  a great destination for families with kids ages 10+, couples that enjoy outdoor activities like hiking and older couples looking to explore the final frontier. And cruising was the perfect way to leisurely see it all.

Celebrity Solstice – Relaxation At It’s Best

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Crisp and Sophisticated, the Celebrity Solstice is a beautiful ship that summarizes the Celebrity Line.  I recently toured the Solstice while it was mid-voyage on an extremely different Pacific Coastal cruise where the ship stopped in places like Santa Barbara and Monterrey.  One of the most unique features of the Solstice is the Lawn club – freshly manicured lawn, activities and the glass blowing theater.

The ship has an understated elegance throughout.  The pool areas, spas and dining rooms are simple yet upscale, with lots of areas that welcome you for a relaxing week.  Every lounge chair on the ship is padded and the flowing curtains, cabanas and luxurious spa areas made me want to throw on a bathing suit, grab a book and settle in.

One of the great areas on the ship for lounging and especially during Alsaka cruising for the great views, is the Sky Lounge.  Another feature of the ship is the vast array of specialty dining offerings.  Normally that isn’t something that we indulge in, but there were a few that I would definitely take advantage of.  The pricing starts at $5 per person and is definitely worth it.  Our favorites were Silk Harvest (Asian) and the Tuscan Grille (Italian).  The dining room had an amazing wine ladder at the focal point.  Each night, they go through 800 bottles!

The theme of the ship was definitely Relax and Indulge. Paired with that amazing Pacific Coastal itinerary (ok or ANY Itinerary!), who could do anything else? Sign me up!

Norwegian Jewel – Funky & Fun

 

Recently I had the chance to tour the Norwegian Jewel cruise ship.  Young and spirited were the words that stuck in my mind.  I loved the artwork around the ship – very pop art inspired. Think Britto and Warhol.

NCL prides itself on Freestyle cruising and this ship definitely supports that.  Dining options range from benihana style restaurants to Italian family, Garden Cafe buffet, regular formal dining rooms and comfort food in the Blue Lagoon – 24 hour menu – added bonus to the usual room service limited menus on most cruise ships.

Tile LoungersFor relaxation, the spa area was bright and open with lots of comfortable seating and  heated tile loungers in the co-ed area, which is great for couples to enjoy together.

The kids area looked a little limited, but clean, fresh and bright.  The family activities on board though are plentiful, so a nice way to spend some quality family interaction time.

Take a look at my full Flickr gallery to get a feel for the ship.  If you’re contemplating an NCL cruise, this ship looks like a solid choice.  For the next 2 years it has several interesting itineraries – Western Caribbean from New Orleans & Houston, Pacific Coastal and Alaska.

Aloha Aulani!

Aulani Lazy River

Aulani Lazy River

“You’ve never been to Hawaii?!?”, my friends would shriek in disbelief…..Steve had, but I hadn’t.  So last fall we started the celebration of our Ten Year Anniversary by making a trip to Oahu and the beautiful Disney Aulani resort.  We were welcomed by the warm hotel staff and immediately felt relaxed by the breezy, traditional hawaiian lobby.

I’ve heard so many people ask is it “too” Disney?  And the answer is – only the good parts.  And when I say that, I mean the amazing service, the well-designed hotel rooms, family friendly property with indulgences for adults. What isn’t?  It is not steeped in characters – oh they’re there, but you need to go find them.  They like to say “Hawaii with a touch of magic” – Disney magic that is.Aulani Main Lobby

The resort is located in the Ko’Olina marina area of Oahu, west of the airport.  It’s about 30 minutes from the airport and 40 minutes from Waikiki.  To get to other areas of the island like the North Shore, it’s about 45 minutes to an hour depending on traffic.  Ko’Olina is a beautiful area of Oahu and Aulani is a neighbor to 2 other Marriott resorts and private condos.  The area has 4 lagoons and a wonderful walking/running path. One loop equals 2.3 miles, so it was perfect for my marathon training schedule. I could not complain running that path!

Pools are always the highlight of a resort and Aulani’s Waikolohe valley is amazing. With it’s winding lazy river that features the landscapes of hawaii – rainforests and rock formations – and the zero entry pool, it’s a total destination in itself. Kids will definitely enjoy the 2 slides (although the completely dark slide was too scary for my liking!) and the Menehune Bridge interactive play area.  At sunset, go to the infinity edge jacuzzis for sensational views.aulani pool

A necessary ingredient in a relaxing vacation is a spa.  And Aulani has two – the Painted Sky spa just for teens and Laniwai for adults.  Laniwai was simply extraodinary.  The men’s and women’s private areas were well-appointed with products, showers, lockers and quiet rooms.  The co-ed quiet room had tasty snacks and comfy lounge chairs.  But the cherry on top was the co-ed outdoor spa garden with hot soak pools, cold plunge pools a jacuzzi and 4 different massage showers.  The spa is a great way to spend the day as a couple.  Both of our massage therapists were top-notch.  We each had a personal spa attendent who took care of all of our needs throughout the day.  And who doesn’t get hungry relaxing away the hours in a spa? So we ordered our lunch in the spa garden and continued the hard work of relaxing away the afternoon.

Off the Hook Bar

Speaking of eating…Aulani is in the process of updating it’s dining options.  They have a great start though with ‘Ama ‘Ama, the more “formal”, if there is such thing in Hawaii, option where Steve would start his day with a pot of french-pressed Kona and his bread “gift” as they call the basket of treats.  Lunch and dinner is offered as well.  For character breakfasts and dinner buffets along with sandwiches and pizzas for lunch there is the casual Makahiki.  The bars all have lighter snack menus and there are several quick service options around the pool including a shave ice shack.  Be forewarned that in the evening you really only have Makahiki or ‘Ama ‘Ama, so we went out a few nights or you can walk over to the Marriott’s for a change of pace.

Included in the price your trip (along with many other amenities) is the Aunty’s Beach House kid’s club.  It is a great facility with an endless amount of activities, from art projects to interactive science projects, dress up clothes and story-time. There is a very secure check-in area with well-trained personnel at the helm.

I could go on and on about Aulani – the lagoon, the activities, the snorkeling…But I’ll save that for another blog after our next visit in October:-)